The timing wasn’t great. We were invited to present our petition to the Scottish Government Petitions Committee the day after the 1st stage budget debate. The petition calls for the Scottish Government to spend more money mitigating UK welfare cuts, and to raise this through more progressive taxation. But nothing is set in stone yet, and the issues go well beyond this parliament, so we were determined to use the opportunity to make the case as strongly as we could.
The process is impressively thorough – which may account for why it took so long to reach this stage. The clerks provided a useful briefing paper for the committee members and everything has been fully recorded and written up. Like all parliamentary business, it was filmed, so you can watch me (Sarah) in my best frock and John McArdle looking rather hot because they insisted he kept his jumper on to cover his Black Triangle T-shirt. (No logos allowed, it seems, even if they are for the organisation you are representing.) The committee is made up of five MSPs. Johann Lamont, the former Scottish Labour leader is convenor, with Angus MacDonald from the SNP as her deputy. The other members are Michelle Ballantyre and Brian Whittle from the Conservatives, and Rona Mackay from the SNP. (I had efficiently made a note of their parties but it got buried under other documents.)
I had about five minutes to set out our arguments before the committee asked us questions. At the end they agreed to get a response from the Scottish Government and also flag the petition up to the Social Security Committee. And we have emailed them a bundle of supporting evidence. Now we wait and see what happens. But so long as welfare help is needed we will pursue this every way we can.
You can watch the whole session here.
And read the official write-up here.
My initial speech is reproduced in full below, and here is the supporting evidence: 18-02-08 EVIDENCE FOR PETITIONS COMMITTEE.
OUR PETITION is a response to an immediate and severe need. Put simply, if our Parliament can’t protect Scotland’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens, then of what use is it?
Here today you have representatives from the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network and Black Triangle. We have also discussed this petition with people in Westgap in Glasgow, Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty, and Inclusion Scotland. We are all of us only too aware, from the people we work with and help, of the devastation that so-called ‘Welfare Reform’ is causing.
As a nation, we have become accustomed to newspaper stories of benefit decisions that have left families in fear and destitution. These aren’t the result of glitches or bad apples. They are examples – and not always the worst examples – of what happens when a system that was established to provide a measure of social security is transformed into a form of social control. Some indication of the scale of suffering this is causing is given by the rising demand for food-banks – a form of charity that should have died out with the establishment of the Welfare State.
What the UK government has called ‘Welfare Reform’, is often described simply as welfare cuts. The cuts are huge – and that is primarily what we are here to talk about – but we are also seeing a very deliberate qualitative change: a return to the Victorian belief that individuals are to blame for their own misfortune.
We have been pleased to see the Scottish Government publically rejecting this approach. There is much talk about ‘dignity’, but this is of no help if folk are still left to struggle for survival.
Last week, the European Committee of Social Rights produced yet another report pulling up the UK Government for the meanness of their benefit system. In the post-war years, benefit rates rose in line with earnings or prices, whichever was greater. Then, in 1980, they were tied to prices, and while incomes and living standards rose, benefits were left far behind. And now we have had almost two decades of cuts and freezes. People on benefits are excluded from more and more activities that others take for-granted: school trips, everyday socialising with friends, a good varied diet, decent heating, a home computer. And that’s when the system is working smoothly.
As the papers prepared for this committee note, the Social Security Committee has commissioned research that gives figures for the benefits lost to people in Scotland since 2010 as a result of Welfare cuts. By 2020-21 these will add up to over £2 Billion a year. You can also see the losses resulting from different benefit cuts, both to individuals and altogether. Some are very large, and some households are suffering from several of these cuts simultaneously. In addition, vast amounts of distress and on-going complications result from what we can only describe as a criminal level of negligence in the workings of the various DWP bureaucracies. Benefit delays are the cause of many requests for extra help from the Scottish Welfare fund or from food-banks.
People are astonishingly resilient, and generally that’s a good thing. But it is frightening to see how people’s expectations adjust to surviving in a world where options are always constricting. And this has its own consequences, feeding into an epidemic of mental health problems, physical health problems and isolation.
This petition is deliberately not prescriptive about how best to mitigate this misery. What we are calling for is an acknowledgement of the need to put more money into the system to help those affected, and for this to be done in a holistic way. Every cut translates into personal and social disasters, and each has generated a call for the Scottish Government to mitigate it. These need to be looked at together or it will be too easy for all these different desperate needs to be set in competition with each other.
We would, though, be happy to answer questions about some of the areas where more spending could make a real difference, and we’ve got a lot of evidence on that: more help with discretionary housing payments, extra money for child benefit, more for the Scottish Welfare Fund, more for advice, more help for sick and disabled people, more help for people who’ve been sanctioned.
It is a pity that this session is taking place so far into the debates on the Scottish budget, because the other side of the coin is the need to raise more money. Now that the draft budget has opened the door to more progressive taxation, and people have got used to the idea, let’s make it really progressive and raise enough money to make a significant difference.
We also noted the potential for replacing Council Tax with a Land Value Tax. That would need a session of its own, but we would refer you to the work already done on this by Andy Wightman for the Scottish Greens. Andy’s report was written in 2010 and anticipated that the system could be up and running in five years.
We appreciate that there is an understandable reluctance by the Scottish Government to spend money on things that should be being looked after by Westminster. It is galling when there is so much more to do. But when it comes to welfare it is very very necessary: even a matter of life and death. What more important role does parliament have than to protect a country’s most vulnerable citizens, and help create and preserve sustainable communities?
For those who believe Scotland’s future lies in devolution, then that devolved parliament must be put to full use. For those who believe that devolution is not enough, then it is important to use all the powers we have in order to demonstrate the need for more. And for those who can’t see beyond the bottom line –well, when it comes to benefits, the phrase a stitch in time couldn’t be more true. Help now can prevent family and social breakdown, which brings much greater financial costs, as well as personal tragedies. And it can put money into deprived areas where it can have the greatest positive impact on the economy.
The approach currently being followed by the Scottish government may seem to be cautious and pragmatic, but unless it does more to help those at the sharp end of Welfare reform, we will be left with poor people and poor economics.