In Jim O’Neill’s last missive before Christmas he reminds us that aside from Brexit there is a list of serious political problems to be solved, and ministers in both London and Edinburgh are seriously failing the people they are meant to serve.
While the UK Government has obsessed about Brexit, tying up vast swathes of Parliamentary time, and the Scottish Government has focused Brexit and independence, we seem to have forgotten the many other ills assailing our society. So I want to give the few who read my ramblings a pre-Christmas run through of the most concerning, in the hope that the New Year will bring a redoubled determination to do something about them.
It was a sign of the media obsession with Brexit that Jeremy Corbyn was roundly condemned at a recent Prime Minister’s Questions for daring to ask about Universal Credit instead. UC is turning out to be the single worst man-made cause of poverty in the history of Britain.
We hear reports of social housing providers and local authorities who are losing millions in rent charges, and with the massive increase in private rentals, many many people are facing the loss of their homes. We hear of new applicants being faced with no money over Christmas and New Year as the Department for Work and Pensions struggles to implement their claim. We hear of many who have neither computer skills or access to computers, especially in more rural parts, who can’t even make an application.
And Jeremy Corbyn was attacked for asking about all these things? Get a grip and get your eyes away from Brexit and on to the massive scandal of Universal Credit. And at a time of increasing poverty, and with a reserve of over £300m, Derek McKay cannot see the value in adding £5 to child benefit to combat the growing crisis of child poverty in Scotland, an issue that has been on the increase ever since the SNP took power?
Other Scottish Government inaction is also contributing to a sense of rabbit and headlights afflicting it. Since John Swinney became Finance Minister in the first SNP government, a minority government supported by the Tories, they have been promising to end Council Tax. Now, eleven years later, they have gone quiet on this with only the Greens and Labour seeking to move this agenda forward. This means, for instance, that the wealthiest have become even wealthier, since, despite their homes increasing in value, their Council Tax has not increased. So someone with a house worth £3m pays the same as someone with a house worth £150,000. This cannot be fair.
Labour suggested an interim step a number of years ago – extend the number of bands upwards. This would have the result of making the wealthiest pay a fairer amount for their council services as well as cutting the amount paid by the poorest. Such an approach, if made by the SNP government, would have the support of MSPs across the chamber (except the Tories) and could be quickly implemented.
Another council issue causing real hardship among the many in Scotland is the continued austerity budgets causing a real shortfall in the funds of local authorities. It has been mentioned time and again by Audit Scotland that while the Scottish Government have had cuts imposed by Westminster of up to 4%, they have passed on cuts of up to 10% to Councils. The cumulative effect of this has been loss of jobs and services vital to communities. And Mr McKay’s latest budget will entrench this even more, even putting under severe strain the statutory services local authorities ave tried to maintain. When will the SNP realise that councils should be the partners of central government and not their enemies?
This is most obvious in education, where the provision of the service is a joint responsibility, delivered by councils under rules set down by Holyrood. What we now see is an exasperated workforce, in some cases providing pencils and jotters at their own cost in the classroom and whose pay has been under restraint for years, beginning to become sickened by their lot and either leaving the profession or preparing for strike action in the new year. It was such a situation in the 1970s and 80s that led to the last great wave of teachers’ strikes, which finally led to a real boost to teachers’ pay and a contract that finally limited their workload. But Mr Swinney seems to accept no responsibility for this particular train hurtling off the cliff.
Every health board in Scotland is in both financial and staffing crisis, whether by under-funding, although with 50% of the total Scottish Budget this would be surprising, or through incompetence of management. If it is the latter, and we have seen so many cases in Tayside, Lothian and elsewhere to suggest it is, why has no Health Secretary intervened to replace people or to investigate the decision making process? And now we have the undemocratic sight of a Health Secretary running away from public scrutiny, a system that has been in place since Labour’s Andy Kerr. Yet we see no comprehensive plans to deal with this crisis from Ms Freeman, a relatively recent convert to the SNP.
Finally a word about transport, and particularly rail transport. In recent days we have seen chaos as Scotrail move on to a new timetable, caused, among other things, by a failure to train staff in the operation of new rolling stock. Surely that was predictable and is yet another example of failures by Dutch government owned Abellio to run our trains effectively. It is time to withdraw the contract from these failures and create a People’s Railway owned by the people of Scotland, as recommended by the Co-operative and Labour parties. I hope that the SNP government’s resistance to this idea is not for political reasons. If so they stand accused, yet again, of failing the people of Scotland.
With this list of problems facing them I wish that Nicola Sturgeon’s ministers have a restful Christmas and come back with minds refreshed and new ideas to solve the crises facing them.
Merry Christmas to all. Io Saturnalia!