Mark Griffin MSP, Scottish Labour’s Social Security spokesperson, says having secured significant new powers to improve social security for tens of thousands of Scots, it’s high time we used them.
Today the Scottish Parliament Social Security Committee began considering a universal basic income for Scotland. What is in fact a decades old proposal to replace the benefits system and pay everyone a regular basic income irrespective of their age, work, or social class, is back in vogue.
Dusted down as we start to confront the challenges of insecure work, the gig economy and punitive welfare reform, it could strengthen the safety net Labour created and lift people out of poverty. The day after the Tories showed that they will continue to force harm on Scotland’s communities, it is entirely right that two Scottish Labour councils, Glasgow and Fife, have begun weighing up the benefits and risks of what could be a revolutionary reboot of our social security system.
The proposal also seeks to address the increasing unknowns flowing from technological change. While we get used to self-service tills and banking apps, technology is stripping away jobs and adding to the list of reasons why whole communities are increasingly being left with no real prospect of a right to meaningful work.
Besides the radical rethink of both our social security and tax systems, and the necessary funding, the trials are going to need something in short supply: political willpower from, and cooperation between, the UK and Scottish Governments.
When the ink dried on the Scotland Act last year, Holyrood was entrusted with new powers not only to make good on the Vow, but to make decisions in Scotland for people in Scotland. On tax and social security, as well as Scotrail and the question of fracking, the powers meant – political will permitting – we could make different decisions than the Tories.
A basic income won’t be rolled out tomorrow of course. What the Smith Commissioners agreed was that while Holyrood gained responsibilities, some pieces of the jigsaw would remain at Westminster so any basic income will require everyone at the table to work together to complete the jigsaw. The same is the case with the powers that have been fully devolved; snapping those pieces together requires political cooperation. However, what is clear is that what we do have in Scotland are powers to create our own social security system to change the lives of disabled people, tackle poverty and reinforce the safety net here in Scotland.
Credit where it is due, Jeane Freeman has set out proposals to pay housing benefit direct to landlords and embed human rights into social security in law, and is consulting with those who have had the tragedy of experiencing the Tories’ welfare reforms. The cruel and inhumane hand the Tories have dealt continues to harm the poor, disabled, unemployed and elderly, and we support those first steps.
Yesterday’s Tory budget did nothing to reverse plans for a tax-credits rape clause, or reverse the yearly £1.1bn cuts to social security payments Scotland’s most vulnerable communities have faced since 2010, or the £1bn more which will follow by the end of the decade. The powers – our pieces of the jigsaw – can deliver the fairness, dignity and respect the SNP government has promised time and time again, as long as they are used in the right way.
Let’s be clear. Labour is signed up to make the powers a success – but much of what we have seen so far from the Scottish Government is simply warm words. Labour fought for new powers to not only to keep our country together, but to make our communities stronger. The fight now, it seems, is to ensure we use those powers to build a truly fairer Scotland. To move past warm words and onto real action.
Scotland must wait until the summer for its first ever Social Security Bill (which will have scant detail about the new benefits, entitlements or eligibility) and until that legislation is scrutinised, improved and passed, no agency will set out to use the powers. That means no topping-up reserved benefits and certainly no changes to disability benefits or social fund payments. That means the Tories can keep on pulling the levers on the social security system until the end of the decade.
Or, to put it another way, no top-up to Carer’s Allowance, no increase in Child Benefit, and the Best Start Grant could still be a while off. The SNP’s failure to get on with the job means 140,000 people will have to suffer a PIP reassessment delivered by the private sector. And while the Tories can rush through regulations to stop thousands of Scots getting disability payments, Holyrood is standing back.
Carers, the disabled and struggling families are being left to ask when they will see the benefit of the new powers, not just read about them.
As they have done with our new tax powers, the SNP have left the social security powers on the shelf gathering dust. Not only did last month’s austerity budget serve up the next round of cuts to the very services that the poorest communities rely on the most, it allocated just £80m to get on with implementing everything the Scotland Act has to offer – including social security.
While they willingly leave powers in the Tories hands, the SNP have instead obsessed over one thing: independence. Attempts in recent weeks to re-weaponise the bedroom tax have sought to tear open constitutional wounds and made headlines, but also struck fear into the hearts of thousands of families who cannot afford a hike in their rent bills.
We have a commitment to pay Universal Credit directly to mothers, but no regulations; we have a Child Poverty Bill with a promise to eradicate the desperate cycle of poverty that blights our communities, but no money to get on with the job. We have powers to deliver dignity and respect, but we don’t appear to have a government to ready to get on with it.
We also have a cross-party commitment to boost Carer’s Allowance to the same rate as JSA. It’s a small increase, but to a hard-pressed carer it’s worth £600 a year. Not a single MSP would stand in the way of the plan. Yet when my colleagues and I ask when it will start to hit bank accounts, SNP ministers can’t and won’t say. To ask when tens of thousands of carers are going to get the increase they deserve is being described as ‘distressing’, ‘disgraceful’ and a ‘distortion’. In response, I would ask: where is the dignity and respect in keeping carers in the dark?
When I asked the First Minister last week to use the powers to top-up Child Benefit, to protect hard working families from the financial brunt of Brexit and lift around 30,000 children out of poverty, she simply ignored the question.
Labour’s commitment to increase Child Benefit by £240 per year, supporting the calls of civic Scotland, would be a game-changing use of the powers in the face of austerity and welfare reform. But when it comes to the crunch, the SNP lack the willingness to turn well-rehearsed warm words into action.
Basic income trials in Scotland are exciting but there are undoubtedly big challenges ahead in getting them off the ground. The revolutionary reboot could tell us how social security might change in the decades to come. The challenges, however, are not likely to be in the idea, but in the timidity of a Scottish Government in standby mode.
There is no denying the political will borne out of the referendum was palpable, but when it comes to social security, the SNP are posted missing and those warm words have begun to fizzle out.
Two and a half years ago, we fought to secure the powers to create our own social security system. To make our communities and country stronger. To change the lives of disabled people, tackle poverty and reinforce the safety net here in Scotland.
Today not only are we continuing to fight to keep our country together but we are also fighting to move past the warm words the SNP are so famous for, and onto real action to build a truly fairer Scotland.