I listened carefully to Jackie Baillie’s speech and was delighted to find that I agreed with something in it. I lodged a motion on the launch of the Scotland’s outlook campaign today and I ask everybody to support and sign it. I also ask people to go on the website, watch the video and answer the questions; when they do, the facts about what many people in Scotland are living with will horrify them. To have 870,000 people living in poverty in a rich country such as Scotland should shame us all.
I agreed with almost everything that Ken Macintosh said but had a wry smile when he talked about the Tories’ tough-love approach to welfare, given that Rachel Reeves, the shadow minister whom my colleague Jamie Hepburn discussed, said:
“We would be tougher [than the Conservatives] ... under our compulsory jobs guarantee if you refuse that job you forgo your benefits, and that is really important.”
That is what Ken Macintosh was talking about.
We have to be careful about how we deal with such matters because there is not always an easy way to put somebody into employment, yet the Labour Party suggests that we do exactly what I just read out. Let us not pretend that, when 2015 comes, there will be a change of Government down in Westminster and everything will change.
Like many other members, I have stories to tell of the resilience and community spirit throughout communities in my constituency in dealing with the welfare reforms, specifically the bedroom tax.
In autumn last year, I invited the Scottish Affairs Select Committee to visit Castlemilk to hear first hand from the people who are on the front line of dealing with the effects that the bedroom tax is having on the most vulnerable in our communities.
We heard from Clair Malpas, regeneration officer at Cassiltoun Housing Association, about the impact that welfare reforms are having on housing associations and their ability to plan for the future.
From Angus McIntosh, solicitor at Castlemilk Law Centre, we heard about how impossible it is for the aim of the bedroom tax—if we accept the UK Government’s claim that the aim is to get people to downsize—ever to be achieved. In Glasgow alone, between 12,000 and 13,000 people are affected by the bedroom tax but there are nothing like 12,000 or 13,000 houses for them to move to. For example, Cassiltoun Housing Association has 1,000 tenants, 230 plus of whom are affected by the bedroom tax, but has only 83 one-bedroom houses.
We then heard from Billy McFadyen, director of the local credit union, about the rise in illegal moneylenders in Castlemilk and the toll that that inevitably takes on the local community.
We also heard harrowing testimony from Jean Devlin, from the anti-bedroom tax coalition, about people coming to its public meetings and speaking about the toll that the bedroom tax has taken on their mental health. In one meeting, the coalition heard from a woman who had attempted to take her own life because of the impact that the bedroom tax was having.
Alex Johnstone would call it bedroom tax hysteria.
We also heard of a 14-year-old boy who had had his own room but is now having to share with his five-year-old brother. He wanted to sign Castlemilk’s 3,000-plus-signature petition against the bedroom tax.
Jean Devlin hit the nail on the head when she said:
“People do not want to leave their home, and I think that you need to bear in mind that these are people’s homes. They’re not just units. The UK Government tend to think that this is just like Lego bricks and they can play about with them, but people live in their homes, people invest in their homes, they take pride in their homes.”
The Westminster Government has been told of the countless examples of destitution and despair that have come from its welfare reforms. It has been told of the impact that they are having on disabled people and their carers in particular. It has been told of the impact that they are having on children and young people. It has been told of the dramatic increase in the number of people using food banks and of the appalling state of affairs in energy, resource and income-rich Scotland, where people are having to hand food back to food banks because they cannot afford to heat it.
The Westminster Government is constantly being told about the devastating impact that the current welfare reforms have had, and are having, but it refuses to listen. On the contrary, it continues to implement universal credit and personal independence payments even though the people who warned it what a disaster the bedroom tax would be—and were right—are now telling it how much greater a disaster universal credit and PIPs will be.
Seventy per cent of tenants at Cassiltoun Housing Association do not have access to a transactional bank account, which they will need for the direct payments, and 60 per cent do not have access to the internet, which they will need to apply for universal credit online. In those communities, the infrastructure to introduce such sweeping reforms simply does not exist, but that appears to make little difference to such an ideologically driven Westminster Government.
Westminster used to call the welfare state “social security”. There was a belief that the state had a responsibility to protect those who, for any number of reasons, needed assistance. There was also an appreciation that people paid in and took out and that, for most, that would balance out over the course of their lives. When it did not balance out for some people, that was what society was all about.
That belief has been replaced with the rhetoric of scroungers and skivers who are out to diddle the system, despite the fact that more money goes unclaimed in benefits than is claimed fraudulently. Nevertheless, we continue to have to put up with Westminster parties putting in place policies that are based on MPs’ belief that everyone is on the take—ironic or what?
The most disappointing aspect of the situation is that the Labour Party—the apparent party of the working class—is completely complicit in the race to the right and the demonisation of the least well off. I have already quoted Rachel Reeves, and we have heard Jackie Baillie saying that it is not that we cannot develop our own welfare system but that we should not develop our own welfare system. I wonder how she feels about the fact that, according to reports in today’s media, even Jim Murphy is suggesting that welfare should be devolved. I bet she never thought that she would be seen as being to the right of Jim Murphy.
I, and most people in Scotland, do not agree with Jackie Baillie. It is imperative that we have the powers to abolish the bedroom tax, halt any further roll-out of universal credits and ensure that benefits, tax credits and the minimum wage increase in line with inflation. However, we also need the powers to grow our economy in order to ensure that fewer people require the safety net of welfare in the first place.
As Oxfam knows, and as was mentioned by my colleague, Jamie Hepburn, these cuts have gone too far, with the holes in the so-called safety net getting bigger, allowing more people to fall through. In 198 days, the people of Scotland will have the opportunity to vote to take the power to make decisions over welfare into our own hands and to ensure that we tighten up those holes in the safety net. The only way in which we can do that is to vote yes.