We were both surprised and pleased, not only to be invited to speak at last week’s conference on poverty organised by the Holyrood Magazine, but also to find that the feeling that the Scottish Government could be doing more was widely shared – and we weren’t even the only people raising the issue of more progressive taxation. Of course, everyone acknowledged that the root of the problem lay in Westminster, but the focus of the event was on what could still be done here in Scotland. (The Greens had made their budget deal with the Scottish Government the day before, and while the concessions they have secured are good, we are still waiting for them to choose the vital issue of welfare as one of their red lines.)
Sarah’s presentation to the conference is below:
SCOTTISH SOCIAL SECURITY – TOO LITTLE TOO LATE?
First, a bit about the SUWN. We set up in 2011 in response to the demonising of the unemployed. We aim to combine the practical grassroots work of solidarity and mutual help, with campaigning for change. We hold regular stalls outside the buroo handing out Know Your Rights leaflet and asking everyone who comes out if they have problems. We campaign against cuts and the increasingly punitive and oppressive system coming from Westminster, and for progressive reforms. And we also highlight the need and possibilities for more fundamental change – for a new approach to the economy and to work, including a Universal Basic Income.
Progressive change only happens in response to movement from below. That movement must be built on solid foundations. It gains support by showing relevance – by combining practical help with analysis of the bigger picture. It’s hard work, but there is no short cut.
We’re a small organisation and don’t claim detailed knowledge of the technicalities of Scottish Social Security reform, but I want to talk about our experience of trying to persuade the Scottish Government to make the system a bit better for those hardest hit by austerity.
We are well aware from talking to people south of the border that the Scottish Government has made the situation here not quite so bad as it is down south. But there is lots more that can be done.
I have no truck with people who say that it’s not Scotland’s job to mitigate UK welfare cuts. We hear this all the time: notably from Jeanne Freedman, but also in numerous comments on our Facebook posts. We know they can’t do everything, but it is absolutely their job to do the most they can in the circumstances. If our parliament can’t protect Scotland’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens, then of what use is it?
Which is why, two budgets ago, we presented a petition to the Petitions Committee calling on the Scottish Parliament to make more money available to mitigate the impact of UK Government welfare cuts through reassessing spending priorities and bringing in more progressive taxation.
We are well aware of the danger that calling for more spending in one vital area can lead to cuts in another – which is why we pared our call for more spending with a call to raise more money from those who can afford it. We were also careful to acknowledge the limits of what is possible under devolution and the need to target spending were most needed.
The petition process is thorough, with time to follow up with detailed evidence as well as present to the committee. But although we argued that
- the need was urgent – indeed for some a matter of life and death
- that there were practical and affordable ways of making a real difference
- and that if these weren’t done the consequences would be measured in both human misery and much greater financial costs in picking up the pieces of devastated households and a broken society
Not quite nothing. The Social Security Committee mentioned our petition a few times – sometimes, it seemed, just to kick it further into the long grass, but they did use it to support a call for an increase in the Scottish Welfare Fund – which itself got kicked back by the Scottish government, who claimed it wasn’t need because some excessively cautious councils had not advertised the fund and so under-spent.
Now, of course, 2 years on, we are finally getting a small increase in the Scottish Welfare fund – though not enough to catch up with inflation let alone cover the extra costs resulting from Universal Credit and all the other attacks on benefits. And we are also seeing a small increase in the money for Discretionary Housing Payments, which we campaigned for too.
We are going to claim a small part in making this happen, but these increases don’t begin to reflect real need. It is a case of too little too late – and my fear is that this is characteristic of a government, which, while seeing itself as careful and prudent, actually manages to be uncaring towards those suffering now, and also careless of long term social and economic consequences.
I remember this time a year ago, at the last budget, saying I never again wanted to hear the phrase ‘dignity, fairness and respect’. There is no ‘dignity’ when society doesn’t allow people enough to put food on the table, let alone pay for ‘luxuries’ like a holiday, and where people are being weighed down with the worries of inescapable debt.
We will reserve judgement on whether the Scottish Social Security system will treat people in a more civilised manner. The DWP has set the bar pretty low, so that shouldn’t be difficult, but it is worrying how little has been done to address the immediate plight of people waiting and waiting for that more dignified service to get organised.
The Scottish Government is fully aware of the total size of the benefit cuts , which amounts to billions each year – and they are also aware of the accompanying change in attitude towards the unemployed who are blamed for their own misfortune. But I don’t think they fully appreciate the impact on people’s lives and on wider society.
The devastation caused to families will still be being felt decades on, as children brought up in homes riven with stress and lacking basic amenities, struggle to establish their own lives. Poor areas are doubly hit. People living there are hit directly, and there is also much less money in the local economy. This legacy will last, like the legacy of Thatcherism.
This deliberately punitive system impacts huge numbers of workers too. It is a deliberate method of social control. When unemployment is such hell, then you can’t risk your job by protesting against bad conditions. And Universal Credit is forcing people into the gig economy. There is no option to refuse part time work and short contracts, even though the system is so badly designed you may lose out financially.
One of the impacts of all this, and of the political failure to address financial, physical and mental stresses in so many people’s lives, is a growing sense of loss of hope and of expectations, and a distrust of government – which has been exploited by the populist far right, though not so much here in Scotland.
The stakes are huge, and the options for action are limited by devolution, but, as we argued in our petition, there is still scope for the Scottish Government to do more, and I will end by outlining some practical solutions.
First, it is possible for the Scottish Government to raise more money. They have made income tax a tiny bit more progressive, but they could go a lot further. The difference with rest of the UK has been accepted. Now they need to argue the case for more substantial redistribution.
We have long been promised a replacement for Council Tax. Council Tax is recognised as very unprogressive and is itself a source of severe poverty and distress, but it is currently being raised across the board. Instead we could have a Land Value Tax, as proposed by Andy Wightman for the Scottish Greens. This is a wealth tax on wealth that cannot be moved out of the country. It also limits land speculation and land banking.
And the Scottish Government could make some positive cuts. They could stop subsidising first time buyers, which only pushes up house prices for all. And they could stop giving grants to arms manufacturers such as Leonardos.
The money raised and saved could then be invested in some carefully targeted spending.
First, the SUWN backed the widely-supported campaign for targeting child poverty with an increase in Child Benefit. This is a Universal Benefit, but targeted at families, and has been calculated to have a big impact on child poverty. Universal benefits don’t suffer from lack of take up, or from stigma. (Yes, richer people get them too, but you can more than balance this with more progressive taxation). The extra child payments that are being given are very welcome of course, but this is another example of government caution, preventing them from doing enough to be really effective.
Then the Scottish Government could mitigate the benefit cap. This is a cap on the maximum amount of benefits any one household can receive. Benefits are calculated to reflect need, so a cap doesn’t make sense. If a family has high benefits, it is because they are calculated to need them. In fact, after all the other cuts, they probably don’t even meet household needs before being capped. The Benefit cap is leaving some people unable to pay their rent and facing eviction. Many people have been given discretionary housing payments to help, but not all, and this isn’t automatic.
Similarly, the two child policy ignores actual needs and should be mitigated. The SNP have done a good job arguing against the policy, but for those currently suffering, practical help is also needed.
And they must stop forcing councils to make cuts in services and community facilities. The budget deal with the Greens has helped (again), but there are still pressures . (And was the initial figure announced just a bargaining position, made with the knowledge that they would up it in response to the Greens’ demands?)
We need real increases in the Scottish Welfare Fund to meet growing needs. This is a discretionary fund so should have the potential to respond to the different crises caused by the wait for Universal Credit payments, the loss of mobility payments, PIP refusals, and the many other things that can go wrong when families are stretched beyond the limit. As I’ve said, the current increase doesn’t even match inflation.
A government that claims to dare about dignity and the living wage, should also increase the Carers’ Allowance to a proper full time wage, as this is full time work. The small increase that has been made is another example of excessive caution.
And despite criticising punitive sanctions, the Scottish Government seems content to say that they are not allowed to mitigate these. But, if they were minded, they could test this in court using the argument that they were addressing exceptional circumstances – as Paul Spicker has suggested.
It would also make a huge difference to have more money for Welfare Advice for UK benefits, and not just for the new Scottish benefits. People need help to get the benefits that they are due, and getting in that money helps them and everyone around them. Currently a lot of people are missing out, even on the hard-won bedroom tax mitigation. The need for help is compounded by a criminal level of negligence by the DWP. The difference made by the help that has been provided is palpable, but we need much more, so that no one is turned away and advisors have time to address issues properly. This could include providing advice support for families and friends of people claiming benefits, so they can check that they are giving reliable help.
And there’s a lot of other areas where a bit of intervention could make a huge difference – such as ensuring that everyone applying for PIP or ESA can get supportive evidence from their GP, and that assessment centres are accessible and can’t force people to walk long distances in a sneaky additional test of their fitness, as happens in Dundee. (If you don’t show readably visible distress going down that corridor, then you have disproved your need for mobility help.)
Of course, one of the big disappointments has been how long it is taking for the Scottish PIP replacement to get up and running. I don’t know the reasons why it is so complicated, and it is too late to argue that they should have been able to arrange some intermediate improvements to the existing system meanwhile – such as changing the threshold for full mobility payments back from not being able to walk 20 metres to not being able to walk 50 metres. Clearly there are lessons here for the future, but there is also a lesson for the here and now. There are people suffering as a result of this delay, which has pushed them into the PIP system, and often caused loss of mobility payments, on top of a lot of worry. Future ‘dignity, fairness and respect’ is no good for these people, who need help now, before its too late.
I think there is a theme here: too little too late. Good intentions, smothered by excessive and misplaced caution.
As we pointed out when presenting our petition to the committee: help now can prevent family and social breakdown, which brings much greater financial costs, as well as personal tragedies. And more help for those with least, puts 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 if it does nothing more to help those at the sharp end of Welfare reform, then it can be accused of being both callous and poor economics.