I thank all my colleagues across the chamber who signed the motion to allow it to be debated, and I pay tribute to the work of, and say thank you to, HIV Scotland, the National AIDS Trust, the Scottish Association for Mental Health, the disability benefits consortium and Pat Onions, who is the inspiration behind the motion.
Last week, my colleague at Westminster Angus Robertson asked the Prime Minister about the suicide of Mr Michael O’Sullivan, who was a 60-year-old disabled father of two. His death followed his work capability assessment. Mr Robertson asked the Prime Minister to publish some 60 investigations by the Department for Work and Pensions, which could expose many more tragic cases of that kind. So far, the Prime Minister has refused to do so. Meanwhile, the coroner has warned that there is a risk of further deaths.
We must keep sight of the fact that welfare reform is costing lives and bringing misery and debt to families, and all in the name of putting the United Kingdom into surplus. Even the Prime Minister’s own back benchers are questioning his approach. Although the chancellor has suddenly decided that the House of Lords is profoundly undemocratic—that is what you say when the vote is not in your favour—even the notables, geriatrics and Tory donors are rejecting Mr Osborne’s plans and calling for a rethink.
Last week, the Tory MP for South Cambridgeshire, Heidi Allen, suggested in her maiden speech that ministers were losing sight of the difficulties of working people in their “single-minded determination” to achieve a surplus. She said that reform is not a “spreadsheet”, and she feared that the way her Government is going about the whole process is all wrong.
The Conservative Johnny Mercer urged the chancellor to do “something—anything” to ease the “harshest effects” of the cuts on vulnerable people. He said:
“my duty ... and indeed our duty is to shout for our most vulnerable”.—[Official Report, House of Commons, 20 October 2015; Vol 600, c 882.]
On Sunday, we were told that three unnamed Cabinet members have expressed their concerns about George Osborne’s planned cuts to working tax credits. We can see the mess that that has created this week.
Ruth Davidson has also expressed her anxieties. She has said:
“we can’t have people suffering on the way ... the government needs to look again at it.”
When there is that kind of rebellion in the governing party at Westminster, it most certainly needs to look again at its proposals.
The Scottish National Party Government is shouting out for the most vulnerable, but Westminster is not listening. Going by Prime Minister’s questions today, I think that it is still not listening.
There can be no trade-off between people’s lives and the national debt. Are we all going to sit around and say, “Oh, well, collateral damage”? I abhor that term. Are people who happen to have a disability, whether that is mental or physical, or who struggle to find employment that they can manage to be punished? Are folk who have been forced into debt and down to the food bank meant to feel that they are the undeserving poor? Honestly, does anyone actually want the so-called welfare reforms? We hear all sorts of dodgy claims by the Westminster Government that cutting benefits is the only way forward. After yesterday’s Welfare Reform Committee meeting, I remain completely unconvinced.
I do not claim to be an economist, but I understand that the more money a national Government pulls out of an economy, the less is available for people to spend. That being so, how can we grow and develop the economy? I am sure that I will be accused of oversimplification, but it seems abundantly clear to me that, if we pull money away from people, we take it out of local spending, so people will have less to spend and the Treasury will receive less in tax. More brutally and more honestly, the Government is literally taking bread out of the mouths of babes, the most disadvantaged, those with the added strain of long-term health problems and those whose quality of life is already compromised.
In my constituency of Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse, 3,400 families in work, with 5,800 children, will feel the loss of tax credits where it hurts most—in the lives and wellbeing of those children.
So much for making work pay. Here are families desperately struggling to make ends meet, often in low-paid jobs or on zero-hours contracts, and they are being told that the Government sees fits to take more money out of their pockets to the tune of around £1,000 a year on average. For many families, the figure is twice that.
The people who suffer most are the least able to get heard. The bankers, the public school politicians and the affluent aristocracy are readily and regularly given a voice. Those at the bottom of the pecking order get little but abuse.
Pat Onions is a constituent of Lanarkshire. Her ceasefire campaign calls for an emergency halt to sanctions, timing out and distressing repeated assessments for sick and disabled people. The evidence shows that, despite the Government’s claims, sick and disabled people in the work-related activity group are not finding employment. So what is the Government’s reaction? It is to punish them some more, harass them and blame them for the predicament in which they find themselves. They are attacked as benefit scroungers, lazy, not trying or being too picky.
Work that has been done to make reasonable adjustments in the workplace for those with disabilities is a great achievement, but it is not enough. Some people have conditions that mean that, even with reasonable adjustments, they cannot compete as effectively as fit people in the ruthlessly competitive open job market. We need to discuss the extra costs that more major changes will bring to an employer, but no one discusses sheltered working arrangements, quotas or subsidies to help.
I have already met many constituents who are suffering a major drop in their income under the changes to disability living allowance. Many have lost that benefit and others will find it extremely difficult to attain personal independence payments.
As a result of the UK Government’s 2010 decision to reduce the DLA budget by 20 per cent, very few of those people will get PIP. If PIP is not halted, those people will lose all their vital support. It makes no sense to implement that change, which the Scottish Government is on record as having repeatedly opposed. Fixing the damage would cost as much in health and social care terms as the roll-out.
In Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse there are 840 people of working age who receive the lower rate of DLA and who will not qualify for PIP. The impact on those individuals, their carers, who will no longer qualify for carers allowance, their families and their communities could be catastrophic.
We have our Parliament with its limited powers, but the issue is that Westminster just does not seem to listen. The introduction of English votes for English laws diminishes our power massively. It turns our MPs into second-class elected representatives and it smacks very much of a revenge attack. It is, however, just one example of the means by which Westminster will continue to determine our future in Scotland. We must counter that, for the sake of all those silenced voices suffering the cruelty of Conservative policies, despite the fact that that Government has only one MP in Scotland—and he is not in Hamilton, Larkhall and Stonehouse.
Along with Pat Onions and all the others, I say call a halt to welfare reform and call a halt now.