We spend a lot of time and effort responding to consultations, writing letters and meeting MSPs – so occasionally we need to take stock and ask ourselves why we are doing this and what we have achieved.
Politicians are the people who have the power to make and change laws, but they don’t do it just for the asking. Most politicians have pretty set outlooks and programmes, even if they have simply swallowed them whole from their party manifesto; and though they may be convinced that they are acting for the common good, that tends to coincide neatly with the party line. But outlooks and policies do change, and if politicians want to keep their job they have to respond, and be seen to respond, to the people who elect them.
Politicians are aware that most letters they receive represent the views of a much greater number of people; even more so when that letter comes from a group that engages with many others directly affected by their policies. But if they are to be convinced that this is the way the wider wind is blowing, then they will need more evidence of a change in public mood. That’s where all the other campaign activities come in. By raising awareness of current problems and political solutions, we can help change that public mood and build political pressure.
When we established the SUWN six years ago, it was a response to depressingly negative attitudes to the unemployed, led by the UK government and popular media. While the UK Government remains as callous as ever, there has been a noticeable upturn in public understanding and empathy. This is partly a consequence of increased exposure to the realities of benefit cuts and sanctions, but also of the actions of campaigning organisations such as ourselves. The Tories haven’t shifted, but developments in Scotland are more encouraging, and there have also been big shifts in the UK Labour Party.
The Scottish Government’s arrangement preventing their new training schemes to be made mandatory, and thus potential contributors to DWP sanctions, provides an example of a concrete and positive policy development that is a response to both campaigning pressures and more formal consultation processes.
At the moment the Scottish Government’s Social Security Bill is being put under scrutiny. We submitted a response to the initial consultation and also to the draft bill. Our views are based on our experiences with all the people we have worked with and helped. We don’t have the detailed political and legal knowledge, nor the resources, to go through the legislation with a fine tooth comb, but we can help publicise the findings of those who have: people such as Professor Paul Spicker, whose response we referred to in our own recent submission; and Justice Scotland, who have exposed the harsh rules proposed for people providing inaccurate information, which could end up criminalising people for making a mistake. (We had raised our concerns about this section, but had not appreciated that as written it was actually harsher than the current UK system.) We have even had constructive discussion with the Labour Party, who have raised important issues about enshrining the government’s much heralded statements, such as no use of private sector assessors, into law and ensuring mechanisms for continued scrutiny by parliament and users. (We say ‘even’ because if they had not campaigned against Independence we would not be in this mess, and if they had not gone against the promises of their own Vow and argued against the full transfer of benefits we would be able to make much more fundamental changes.) Clearly there is a lot of work still to be done to make the bill match up to the Scottish Government’s stated ambitions for it, and we will be following, publicising and criticising developments.
The main area in which the Scottish Government will take over the reins is disability benefit, what is now DLA and PIP. They have agreed that this should continue to be run by the DWP until their new system is ready to take over in two or three years’ time. Whether the changeover could have been done differently is now only a matter for academic conjecture. We did try asking if at least the mobility bit could be taken over sooner, but were told that that was not possible. However, that doesn’t mean the Scottish Government can just abandon all those people who have lost out from the move from DLA to PIP, with its absurdly high bar to getting mobility payments. We asked about more help via the Scottish Welfare Fund but have just been told that there are no plans to raise the amount of money given to this.
Of course the attack on our welfare system comes from Westminster, and we fully acknowledge the contribution that the Scottish Government makes in mitigating some of the worst impacts of Tory austerity. We also acknowledge their plans for small extra payments to carers and small grants to families; but they can and must do more. The legislation allows them to top up benefits or add new ones; however, they have also resisted widely-supported calls for an additional £5 on child benefit. So long as finances remain constrained to existing levels, any gain in one area will be at the expense of another, so real substantial improvements will require a refocusing of priorities and a commitment to more – and more progressive – taxation. Although the Scottish Government’s tax powers are limited, it can make changes to income tax and it could introduce a Land Value Tax.
As campaigners we take every opportunity to look at the bigger picture and stress the need for a radical approach to a properly funded system based on progressive taxation. This doesn’t mean Scottish Labour’s scattergun approach of £1 on all income tax, but a proper progressive system that takes most from those who have most – and we are glad to see the Scottish Greens providing a constant reminder of this.
It has been heartening to see the SNP publicly acknowledging the need for a more radical programme. This is clearly a response to the public mood – and the disillusionment caused by their over-cautious approach, as demonstrated in the general election results. Many of their proposals are only at the level of discussion at this stage, but we would echo Patrick Harvey’s point of the need to push the SNP beyond their comfort zone. As more progressive ideas become normalised, we will push the Greens beyond their comfort zone too.
And finally (and apologies for such a long post) this afternoon, we have submitted the following petition to the Scottish Government Public Petitions Committee. We will let everyone know once it’s been passed as complying with petition rules and gone live:
CALLING ON THE SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT TO URGE THE SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT TO MAKE MORE MONEY AVAILABLE TO MITIGATE THE IMPACT OF TORY WELFARE CUTS THROUGH REASSESSING SPENDING PRIORITIES AND BRINGING IN MORE PROGRESSIVE TAXATION.
We have seen the huge difference made by existing mitigation policies such as the payment of Bedroom Tax and the help provided by the Scottish Welfare Fund. The situation is much worse south of the border. But that is not enough. Thousands of people are still struggling, and unless funding is increased any improvement in one area becomes a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul. The Scottish Government have dismissed widely-supported calls for an extra £5 on Child Benefit, and they have turned down our call for additional support through the Scottish Welfare Fund for people who have lost out in the transfer from DLA to PIP as they wait for the new Scottish disability benefit to be brought in. Even without this, demands on the Scottish Welfare Fund are set to increase considerably as Universal Credit is rolled out to more and more areas. In addition, there is already insufficient money for everyone hit by the Benefit Cap to get help via Discretionary Housing Payments, and this will get much worse when Housing Benefit limits are extended to social housing in April. These are all crucial areas and the focus of vital campaigns, and underlying all is the need for more money.
Our government has a political and moral duty to help the poorest in our society, and it can do this by taking more taxes from those with the biggest incomes and land-holdings. As if the human case were not enough, spending more on social security also makes sound financial sense as failure to provide help at this stage has major financial as well as human consequences.