The welfare debate in Westminster today provides an opportunity to see very clearly what kind of future we face, writes Ewan Crawford
I AM going through a terrible identity crisis brought on by what passes for political argument about Westminster’s planned changes to the welfare system.
Hopefully today’s debate on the Coalition’s intention to impose a real-terms cut to many benefits will make things clearer for me.
The big question I can’t quite decide the answer to is whether in Tory-speak I am a “Striver or a Scrounger” (surely a great title for one of those daytime TV shows the Conservatives think are watched only by work-shy slobs the rest of “us” are paying for).
The difficulty I have is that yes, I work and pay taxes which I think makes me a striver (good) but I would also appear to be a benefit recipient (bad).
As a parent I receive (or scrounge?) tax relief on childcare vouchers, and our family is paid child benefit. I am also in receipt of tax relief on pension contributions, so I am little alarmed at my, hitherto unknown to me, scrounging tendencies.
It may be that because I don’t watch Jeremy Kyle (apparently a key test) that I am excluded from the scrounger community but is it getting difficult to tell.
At times it seems as if the entire Conservative (and, don’t forget, Lib Dem) strategy for success in the next UK general election is to paint Labour as being on the side of the Kyle-watchers while the coalition is firmly behind the rest of the population struggling to prosper in these hard times.
This involves distorting the reality of the tax and benefit system to give the impression that money only goes to those who have chosen not to work.
In fact, even disregarding the pension and childcare benefits I referred to, in a report timed to co-incide with today’s debate, the Child Poverty Action Group, says: “It is important to remember that the vast majority who claim benefits and tax credits have worked, are in work, or will work again in the near future.”
The idea of a huge army of generations of people who have never worked and have no intention of working is false.
Since the start of the recession the number of working families receiving tax credits has increased by more than the number on out of work benefit claims.
As the Child Poverty Action Group shows, this is partly because of the squeeze on incomes earned by those on the middle and lower end of the scale.
Yesterday’s edition of The Scotsman reported both the big rise in the number of part-time workers and a fall in the number of hours worked by full-time staff in Scotland, resulting in many more claims for in-work benefits.
In addition, over the past 30 years those who are unemployed have seen a substantial reduction in benefits compared with average earnings.
Despite these facts the Conservatives have been buoyed by what seems to be a public misunderstanding of where most benefits go and by survey evidence which suggests a hardening of attitudes to benefit claimants.
The sociologist, Ben Baumberg, has demonstrated, however, that as with most survey evidence, responses often depend on the way the question is framed.
The TUC, for example, has produced very different results in terms of public attitudes to George Osborne’s plan to increase benefits by only 1 per cent, compared with polls carried out by the Conservatives.
It is this potential to frame the debate as an attack on working families that has resulted in the Labour Party’s decsion to oppose the 1 per cent uprating, much, it has been reported, to the glee of the Chancellor.
However, the rhetoric employed during the years of New Labour government at Westminster and now by the Labour leadership in Scotland with its repeated attacks on universalism, can only play into the hands of those hostile to state intervention.
It was a previous Conservative Social Security Secretary, Peter Lilley, who first said he was going to close down the “something for nothing” culture, followed by Tony Blair, as prime minister announced an end to the old “something for nothing welfare state” a phrase which has been re-heated by Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont.
It simply isn’t possible for Labour to use this language and then express surprise at the divide and rule tactics of its Westminster opponents.
The Scottish Government has now set up an expert group on how a fairer welfare system can be introduced in an independent Scotland.
Within the confines of devolution, Holyrood has already provided funds to protect people from the Coalition’s decision to cut council tax benefit.
But clearly without any control of the tax and benefits system there is little any Holyrood administration can do to off-set the worst aspects of the cuts.
This does not mean that welfare will be the defining issue of the independence campaign. The economy, and the means therefore to pay for a decent social safety net, will be paramount – although it should be pointed out that the former UK government economist, Jonathan Portes, has said there “is nothing remotely unsustainable” about the current benefit system.
But these attacks on welfare, which will mean yet more inequality and more children living in poverty, will surely open many people’s minds in Scotland to the possibility of something better.
In one of his more impressive speeches during the later stages of his premiership Gordon Brown once urged voters to “take a second look at us and a long, hard look at the Conservatives”.
Today Westminster is likely to endorse a measure that will mean real hardship for people currently facing difficult times and for others who one day may need help. For many Scots that will, I hope, prompt a long, hard look at the Westminster system and a fresh look at the opportunities of independence.