At Glasgow City Council Full Council today one of the issues debated- and finding a rare moment of relative harmony between bitter Labour and SNP factions – was that of the Bedroom Tax; with the Labour Party and the SNP agreeing to an amendment asking Nicola Sturgeon to consider using Scottish Government powers to offset the worst effects of it.
All admirable sentiments, and worthwhile doing – after all it is the role of the Scottish Government to act in the best interests of the Scottish people – but can the Scottish Government always be expected to legislate to mitigate the worst effects of policy decisions taken at Westminster?
Evidently I am absolutely in favour of the Scottish Government intervening to protect the most vulnerable in Scottish society, and in fact I have some suggestions based on a huge amount of research I have been taking on the Bedroom Tax in my employed capacity. There are actions that the Scottish Government can take, and I am sure that all SNP MSPs and councillors will be pressing them to explore any and all suggested options.
In the first instance, Govan Law Centre has made suggestions about the reclassification of housing debt as a civil debt and treated as such in the same manner as any other civil debt; like council tax arrears, or utilities debt meaning that courts will not be forced to evict for non-payment as a first option. There are a number of problems with this suggestion; indeed as there are with many others, not least the fact that the most vulnerable in society will still be accumulating unmanageable debts, and that Housing Associations, and Councils as Social Landlords will be subject to huge gaps in funding and revenue stream. It is simply unacceptable to pass the problem on to Housing Associations and Councils without trying too to mitigate their funding gaps too.
That said, it is a mitigation which requires due consideration. Perhaps there are ways in which to make it workable with agreement between the Scottish Government, Councils and Housing Associations. It is only one of a few suggested options.
So whilst I fundamentally agree and urge the Scottish Government to do all it can, and further, I am not averse to utilising some existing but unused powers to do so, I have my concerns about the expectation that the Scottish Government is the line of last defence when the UK Government takes decisions which we deem unpopular, socially unjust or morally reprehensible.
That the Welfare Reform Act fits all of the above descriptions, and more, does not offset the fact that the Westminster Government is a democratically elected beast. We can quibble about the Tories going in to coalition with the Liberal Democrats not being the settled will of the United Kingdom voters until the cows come home, but, in my opinion, that is wholly disingenuous. Allow me the right to despise the Liberal Democrats the choice to enter a coalition which contravenes so many values which Liberal Democrats should hold dear whilst respecting their right to do so.
I support a reform of the First Past the Post system, and by dint, support a form of proportional representation. By their very definition, PR elections create the need for parties to negotiate coalitions. This means compromise; and yes, if chosen, some parties will sell their souls to do so. The Liberal Democrats did in the first Scottish Parliament where they abandoned their principles on free tuition fees – sound familiar? – To enter coalition with the Labour Party. However, many of those same voices clamouring for the same electoral change that I desire are prepared to criticise a coalition formed to govern because they dislike the hue of the parties who entered it. That, to me, is hypocrisy at best. We either support coalition government as a compromise which is more inclusive of societal views, or we don’t. Perhaps I over simplify, but there it is. This is a blog post, not a thesis.
The UK government has taken on the mantle of welfare reform which began under the previous Labour administration and is taking the decision to implement changes which, again in my opinion, undermine enshrined ECHR Article 8 on right to family life. Clearly by implementing the Bedroom Tax, the state is interfering with this right by preventing respite for carers, overnight access for parents with shared custody rights etc. But The United Kingdom electorate gave them the power to do so.
I have been to a number of the University of Glasgow Independence debates, and I obviously pay attention to social media and messaging which is coming from the “Better Together” camp and its partners in the Labour Party. A now constant refrain seems to be that asserting the right to independence is a betrayal of solidarity with fellow Brits in Salford, or Brixton, or Bradford who are also suffering from austerity measures. Indeed, as I sit here typing at the last of the University of Glasgow independence debates, I am listening to Willie Bain attempt to articulate the same point – very confusedly, as it happens.
It is beyond me that a constitutional settlement means that we cannot share solidarity with fellow human beings across the United Kingdom as we do those fellow world citizens across the globe. A point was made by a member of the audience last night that solidarity respects no borders. Choosing independence is asserting the right to self-determination; it is not an abandonment of humanity.
Another argument seems to be predicated on the basis that by choosing independence we consign England and Wales to eternal Conservative domination. This is as ridiculous as certain factions of the Yes campaign who believe that voting Yes means no more Tories. It could be argued that a small c conservative party would have a small renaissance in an independent country, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, as the state, and the Left, needs to have checks and balance.
These shouldn’t be arguments which are made by either side. They are lazy and crass and entirely without empirical evidence. Blair’s landslide Labour Governments would have been elected regardless of the Scottish block voting. It England wants to vote Labour, it can and will. If England wants to vote Conservative, it can and will and we do not have the right to usurp their will. Staying in a union to subvert the voting will of the English people is entirely nonsensical and presumptuous and fundamentally undemocratic.
That the Labour party is simultaneously using the issue of solidarity with fellow Brits as a reason to vote no in the referendum whilst urging the Scottish Government to act in mitigation of the choices of the United Kingdom Government to offset a degree of the worst effects for the Scottish people only, smacks of double standards. That the powers retained by the United Kingdom include all legislative powers over Welfare should not be forgotten, and whilst the Calman Commission was an opportunity for the pro-Union parties to make suggestions about this, they failed to make any substantive points which would change the impact of Welfare Reform. That they also failed to advocate a second question on the ballot paper with powers over welfare is again indicative of their inability to practice what they preach.
The “Better Together” Campaign has made no concrete suggestions which would entrust power of welfare to the Scottish Parliament, yet they want and expect the Scottish Government to mitigate any decisions made under that retained power when they disagree with them. Surely the UK under their premise, which retains the power, should make UK wide welfare decisions, or they shouldn’t. The only way they shouldn’t or couldn’t is if welfare is devolved. And whilst the pro-Union parties hid from any concrete proposals for a second question on the Independence Referendum ballot paper, there is only one option on the table whereby Scottish voters have the opportunity to help build a welfare system that they believe in and shares their values of fairness. And that isn’t the status quo.
So, yes, the Scottish Government should take any and all actions it can to help the Scottish people it serves, but we should remember, by choosing to remain in the UK, we choose to retain UK wide welfare reform, and long-term, it is not feasible, practical or affordable for a parliament which survives on a set, and shrinking, block grant to continue to play the role of mitigator. And consequently ,Scottish tax payers taking on the burden of reduced public expenditure on other vital public services to correct the folly of the coalition.