I’ve argued before that the SNP’s commitment to progressive policies tends to be found wanting when tested against its populist instincts. There was more evidence to support my thesis last week in the Scottish Parliament in a rather heated debate over the Scottish Government’s Welfare Funds Bill.
Opinion divided on the issue of dignity and choice for people who have to turn to the state for help in a crisis. Under the interim scheme, which replaced the old Social Fund, the default option for most applicants has become to be paid in goods, vouchers or some other form of in-kind payment.
The third sector, supported by Scottish Labour, argued that at the very least, people should have the option of cash and that their needs and choices should be considered.
This provoked a storm of indignation from SNP backbenches (including from their new compatriot a Mr Alex Salmond) who suggested that vouchers were far “more cost-effective”. Never mind the needs of applicants, did Scottish Labour not “recognise the constraints on local government”, or the alternative that really astounded me, that we should simply “hope that common sense and compassion” would influence the decision on payments.
It’s only a year or so since even the Tories rejected a proposal from one of their own backbenchers in the House of Commons for a welfare card payment system that would prohibit users from purchasing cigarettes, alcohol or Sky Television (interesting trilogy of social evils – clearly someone didn’t get the memo from Rupert).
Now we have the SNP foisting vouchers on Scots who fall into difficulty as they clearly cannot be trusted to make decisions for themselves.
When you ask someone of their experience of welfare in this country – in fact when the Scottish Parliament asked people about their direct experience of the interim Welfare Fund – they often use words like “shame”, “embarrassment” and “stigma”.
Is this really the route we want to follow? Surely we want to support people in their time of need and help them become more resilient not less independent?
The Poverty Truth Commission is just one of many campaigning organisations in Scotland who recognise that poverty cannot be overcome unless those who experience it are at the heart of the process. The principles are neatly summed up in their motto “nothing about us without us is for us”.
When our welfare system is under attack – as it is from the current Conservative Government – then in some ways our first duty is just to hold on, to defend what we’ve got, to stop the vulnerable being further undermined and blamed for their misfortune.
But if we simply try to replicate the current welfare system, then we are doomed to replicate its weaknesses. If we are not progressive, we are likely to recreate the sense of shame, embarrassment or stigma that so many who experience welfare talk of.
Our aim must surely be to eradicate poverty, not to reinforce negative attitudes towards ‘the poor’.
The Welfare Funds Bill, now an Act, is the first of many new welfare powers coming to Scotland. It is one of the foundation stones of a new approach to welfare in Scotland.
We have the potential to build a new system, a rights-based system that empowers individuals and which attempts to eradicate poverty not trap people in negative stereotypes. Let’s get this right. Let’s be genuinely progressive.