Instead we should be challenging the privileges and entitlement culture, and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, writes Gerry Hassan
This week’s Scottish Government Budget for 2014-15 and 2015-16 saw battlelines drawn on how best to mitigate the worst effects of the bedroom tax.
Now, in a week when the UN special rapporteur Raquel Rolnik weighed in against the measure, it has to be recognised that this is not the main challenge facing welfare in Scotland.
In terms of the UK government’s recent welfare policies, the new guidelines in relation to the Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) with their harsh regime of sanctions and withdrawing all JSA from a person for, in the first place, one week (with the ultimate sanction withdrawal for 156 weeks), have received next to no attention compared to the bedroom tax. Political posturing and heated public discussions are all about this current, controversial policy. What is left silent by SNP, Labour and Lib Dem politicians is a wider, more informed set of contributions about what we do about hardship and social justice, including for those in poverty and those who are the very well off.
This can become such a charade that members of the public notice they are being hoodwinked. As an audience participant observed of the politicians’ discussion during last week’s Newsnight Scotland special on welfare, “Everyone has been excellent at telling us what they wouldn’t do. We won’t have the bedroom tax, we will go backwards.” What they wanted was “some brave new ideas. What would you do differently?”
Scotland is a land where many people are struggling to buy the most basic essentials of life, while others at the top have never had it so good. Oxfam Scotland’s recent Our Economy report found that the gap between the richest and poorest 10 per cent of households was 1:273. The Scottish Government’s council tax freeze, according to research by Unison, has given those in the most expensive Band H properties a discount of £441 per year, while only aiding those in the lowest band properties by £147 per year: effectively a distribution to those who already have the most.
Recently, for a forthcoming Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, I asked a group of experts and professionals, all but one Scottish based, what they felt should be the main priorities to address social justice – irrespective of whether Scotland became independent or not.
First, they suggested that the idea of power has to be addressed – who has it, why and what the consequences of this are. Related to this is the limited nature of democracy which has seen the centralisation of public bodies and decision making. There is a direct link between this and the increasing concentration of wealth and income in fewer hands; the narrow realm of what it is possible to talk and act on in Scotland’s truncated democracy aids the rule of the rich and powerful.
Second, public finances need to be sorted – national taxes, local taxes and a land value tax introduced. As an interim measure, the council tax top bands could be raised to bring in additional resources from the richest group of householders: we could even call it a Scottish solidarity tax.
Third, a whole life education approach is required which involves early years intervention but doesn’t see it as the sole solution. The prioritisation of tackling childhood illiteracy is another, along with doing something to ameliorate the educational apartheid which so affects parts of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Perthshire, as well as elsewhere.
Fourth, this cannot just be about government, but it cannot be done without government’s active lifting and championing. One idea is to assess all government policies against an equality test which looks at their implications for reducing the gap between rich and poor.
Public services continually fail the poorest in our society. This is even more true of the essentials covered by privatised utilities. There has to be a concerted approach to drive down the costs of services for low income households with cheaper credit and fairer energy tariffs.
Fifth, if this cannot be done without government, it cannot just be about government. It has to involve business and the voluntary sector, along with beginning to articulate a different version of the economy from that of Anglo-American short-term speculative capitalism.
Then there are the complex lessons of the New Labour era, which during the good times, made significant advances in reducing children’s and pensioner poverty. But what New Labour never did was make the case for tackling poverty, redistribution, and asking the super-rich to make more of a contribution. Instead, it tried to make changes by stealth so as not to scare the forces of conservative England which meant they weren’t sustainable when the economic weather became more stormy.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the bedroom tax mantra is that it encourages a mental block to thinking seriously and ambitiously about how poverty, hardship and social justice are addressed.
“Welfare reform” is portrayed in many quarters as something all right-thinking, caring and compassionate people are against. All we need to do is oppose the Tory-led policies of Iain Duncan Smith and others, and reconfirm the sanctity of Beveridge and the founding principles of the welfare state.
The truth is that the British welfare state lost its way decades ago. Addressing that isn’t simple because it involves dealing with the dilution of the contributory principle, how solidarity can be refounded in a fragmented society, and the issue of public support and trust in a climate which has for years seen the demonisation of those most in need of welfare support.
Scottish and British society has changed fundamentally since Beveridge, but we are also a long way from the Blair era fantasyland of “we are all middle class now”, in a week when the British Social Attitudes Survey found that 60 per cent of British people now consider themselves working class: a fascinating reversal of fortunes after decade after decade of predicting the demise of the working class.
Scottish opinion needs to find not just anger and indignation at a new age of “Tory cuts”, but a sense of wanting and believing that it is possible to bring about change to divided Scotland: to challenge the privileges and entitlement culture of the very well-off, and confront those we have written off and forgotten for too long as “the missing Scotland”.
That necessitates a bit more understanding and ambition than just swiping bits out of each other on the bedroom tax, and for the rest of us to demand more of our politicians and political debate. This is serious, and thousands upon thousands of Scots are hurting, vulnerable and anxious about their future. We must demand that our politics and debate on welfare rises to the occasion.