NOT for the first time, Alex Salmond has declared something to be a cut-and-dried affront to Scotland that must be rectified, only for an inquiry to reveal that things are not so clearly sliced and rather more grey than he has depicted.
Speaking at the College of Europe in Bruges, Mr Salmond was explaining just how committed and enthusiastic Scotland would be about assisting European progress as an independent member of the EU. This progress, he said, would be assisted by a Scottish request that the EU should reform laws that prevent the Scottish Government and councils from demanding that companies which benefit from public contracts should pay their employees the living wage.
Inquiries of the EU as to which law Mr Salmond wants changed have been met with mystification. His office has been unable to produce the relevant statutory paragraphs. Indeed, EU sources have indicated that if Mr Salmond wants to go ahead with such a stipulation, there is no EU legal impediment. The problem might come if a company decided to challenge the requirement.
The grey area, it seems, lies in defining what “benefit from a public contract” actually means. A company that wins a job to build a number of public sector houses may be an obvious beneficiary. But if it then employs a lot of sub-contractors, are they also, in legal terms, benefiting from a public contract? Or are they gaining from a private contract with the main builder? And is a contract awarded by a housing association public or private?
These are the sort of things that it is easy for a politician to decree should happen, but which are a lot more difficult to turn into legally watertight practice. And very often complete clarification only comes after someone has challenged a decision and the courts have ruled whether it is legal or not.
This is not the first time Mr Salmond’s stance has not been on the firmest of ground. Only with independence could the so-called bedroom tax be abolished, and only with independence could full assistance with childcare costs become available. Er, no, it later turned out, his government has the necessary powers to do in effect both of these things if it wanted, which it didn’t.
Setting a hare running that later turns out to be a tortoise does Mr Salmond, his government and the independence cause no favours. If his certainty on these matters turns out to be a matter of doubt, why should the undecided voters he seeks to attract believe him on other things, such as his assurances that an independent Scotland would be eagerly and swiftly welcomed into the EU?
All he is doing is creating uncertainty, and there is already no shortage of that around the consequences of independence. Mr Salmond would be well-advised to do some solid research and to check the facts before his next pronouncement.
Poor bearing a grave burden
DEATH’S costs are rising, it seems – and by a lot more than inflation. The Church of Scotland has found that the costs falling on the bereaved of meeting funeral bills have risen on average by more than half across Scotland over the past five years. In some areas, costs have risen threefold.
The charges that the Kirk examined cover just the cost of burial or cremation. The average burial fee is estimated at £1,500, which sounds a lot for digging and then filling in what is simply a hole in the ground.
Cremation, at a third of the price, is much cheaper and thus more people are opting for it.
The Kirk worries that at what is a distressing time for families, this is putting them under even more strain. It is particularly concerned about the impact on poorer families, especially those in receipt of welfare payments, which have been cut by the government.
The wide variation in the increases found across Scotland suggests that the price changes have not been caused by some national factor, such as rising wages or new regulatory demands.
Suspicion is therefore falling on local councils, which own cemeteries and crematoria.
Strapped for revenue and with council tax levels frozen, are they seeking to raise more income by raising charges?
Whatever the cause, the Kirk is right to highlight the fact that the poorest are being hit hardest. And because of a natural desire to honour the departed with a good send off, many people will not economise and may go into debt to pay the bills.
As the poorest are already bearing the brunt of austerity, this looks like an unjustified burden they are being asked to bear.