The Scottish Government, together with Cosla, has announced plans to offset proposed cuts in council tax benefit at a cost of £40m in a new one year deal.
At present, councils administer council tax benefit, with rates and eligibility set nationally. Westminster will abolish the existing benefit in April 2013 as part of their welfare reforms, devolving a successor scheme to UK regions and nations, as well as cutting the budget of this replacement by 10%.
The Scottish Government and Cosla will plug this shortfall in 2013-14, providing £23m and £17m respectively.
Over half a million vulnerable people in Scotland are in receipt of council tax benefit, including the unemployed, pensioners, carers and people unable to work through disability. Cutting this vital support is yet another attack by Westminster on people who can least afford it, and the Scottish Government’s intervention is welcome, and necessary.
The UK Government’s welfare changes are going to have a devastating effect on low-income households across Scotland and the rest of the UK. From the ‘Granny tax’ to slashing welfare for disabled people to ending child tax credits for 73,300 Scottish families, Cameron’s government are simply cutting where they know they can get away with it.
So it isn’t news that the Scottish Government are going to announce spending where they can to mitigate the effects of Westminster cuts. I don’t think any voter in Scotland would be surprised to find out that the SNP wants to be a bulwark against slash and burn Tory policies that are going to ravage our society.
I don’t say this to negate the SNP’s announcement, in any way; my point is yet another note of disappointment with Scottish Labour instead, in refusing to see and act on the issues where their permanent stance of oppositionism achieves nothing.
Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jackie Baillie took a position of “try harder” with “Everybody knows the Tories are cutting too hard and too fast, but we can’t pretend this announcement plugs the gap.”
But then she frustratingly adds: “This timing of this is deeply peculiar. If the SNP were serious about supporting local councils, they would not have waited until two weeks before the council elections – flagrantly breaching purdah – to make this announcement”.
I think purdah, the convention of not announcing policy or spending during an election period, is as outdated as the colonial and sexist overtones of the word itself. Between rolling news, Twitter and a cynical electorate I don’t think government announcements have a tremendous sway over voting intentions, with an electorate that surely knows they’re trying to be bought or bribed instead of seduced.
The impact of this announcement by the Scottish Government will be tremendous on the lives and livelihoods of people who need council tax benefit to get by, and will be exactly zero on the local election results on May 3rd.
For Scottish Labour’s main comment to be that this vital measure breaches an almost-obsolete civil service standard is ridiculous.
This week the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee took evidence that the UK Government’s plans could result in 100,000 extra children living in poverty in Scotland. There needs to be no other statistic which shows why Scottish Government needs to act fast against Westminster cuts. This week, Johann Lamont criticised Salmond in FMQs for not announcing the withdrawal of investment by Doosan: “If he will suppress serious issues like this iconic project before the local elections, what is he capable of hiding before the referendum?”
So which announcements do Labour want in the pre-election period? Just the bad ones and not the good ones? They do know how political communication and spin… oh wait.
I want a Scottish Labour Party that opposes every ConDem cut, and cajoles the SNP through criticism and through constructive opposition to ensure Scotland becomes a country and a society where power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, and not the few. And yes, I quote Clause 4 quite deliberately. Too many Labour Party politicians have forgotten it.
When it comes to protecting the most vulnerable, sod the party politics. Sod the timing. Labour should welcome the spending, and fight the local elections on pledges and promises, not on being picky about purdah.