On 21st February, 15 months since we submitted it, the Scottish Social Security Committee agreed to close our petition ‘calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to make more money available to mitigate the impact of UK Government welfare cuts through reassessing spending priorities and bringing in more progressive taxation’. When we first wrote it, we had hoped to influence the Scottish budget for 2018-19. Now another year’s budget has as good as passed, with us unable to make any impression.
At one point it looked as though the Scottish Government might raise the amount of money available for the Scottish Welfare Fund, which was one of our requests. This fund has remained at the same value since 2013/14, and the Social Security Committee recommended to the Government that it be increased. But their call fell on deaf ears.
As the Green’s Social Security Spokesperson, Alison Johnstone put it at the Social Security Committee meeting, ‘we are closing the petition after we have been unsuccessful. The Parliament has not been able to convince the Government… We have urged the Scottish Government, as the petitioner has requested, to make more money available and it has said no or, certainly, not at the moment.’ And Mark Griffin for Labour also commented that the Committee had ‘effectively agreed with the petitioner’.
However, last year there was, overall, an underspend from the fund, allowing the Scottish Government to argue that no more money is needed. Actual figures vary very much from council to council, but the trend for Scottish Welfare Fund applications is generally upwards (see graph below), and a total underspend at a time when the number of households resorting to foodbanks has continued to go up dramatically should raise questions about the delivery of the fund, not about the need for it. I suspect that there are a lot of people who need help but don’t know about the fund, or don’t think they will get anything as they have had help before. And, as we pointed out in our petition, an enlarged Scottish Welfare fund could be used as a vehicle for helping a range of people who are not currently eligible but have been exceptionally badly affected by benefit cuts, including cuts to disability benefits.
On top of this, our petition didn’t just ask for more money for the Scottish Welfare Fund. We also backed the widely-supported campaign for an extra £5 on child benefit, and called for more money for Discretionary Housing Payments to meet the needs of people affected by the Benefit Cap. We supplied a document full of evidence for why all these were needed, and we made the case for funding it all through more progressive taxation. So it is particularly galling to realise, from comments made by committee members, that most have not engaged with any of this.
Michelle Ballantyne, one of the two Conservatives, dismissed our petition as ‘not particularly evidence based and quite emotive’. But then she also said that ‘there is no such thing as bedroom tax.’ What was more frustrating was the general implication, especially from Pauline McNeill (Labour) the Deputy Convenor of the committee, that we were asking for mitigation of all welfare cuts, which we had never done as the amount of money involved would ensure such a request was instantly dismissed. Much of the committee’s discussion was taken up by Keith Brown (SNP)’s valid, but tangential, concern that there should be no reduction in the mitigation of the bedroom tax. He admitted that he was new to the committee and hadn’t heard the petition, but he had clearly not read it either.
And so we find ourselves asking, what was the point of all this? How has it contributed to our wider campaign? Putting together our demands and evidence has helped us to clarify issues and make a clear, evidenced argument to back our demands – for anyone who takes the time to look at it. And going through the process of presenting the petition has demonstrated the failures of the existing system, making the case for more fundamental political change that can shake up the current complacency.
The SUWN has not only been very active in the Indy movement, but has also, in the past, called for a tactical SNP vote as most likely to bring progressive change. Ofcourse the SNP has always tended to try and appeal to people across a wide political and social spectrum, but, like New Labour before them, they seem to be increasingly following a mainstream business agenda, and taking the support of the mass of working-class Yes voters for granted. They may think they are being cautious, but this reluctance to depart from dominant neoliberal economics is being proved everywhere to be a very dangerous position. We know that many Indy supporters are unhappy with any criticism of the SNP this side of Independence, but we prefer the inspiring injunction, made popular by Alisdair Gray, to ‘work as if you live in the early days of a better nation’. We call on our Scottish Government to raise their aspirations and leave behind the dog days of neoliberalism.