NOBODY can accuse David Mundell, the sole Tory MP in Scotland, of hogging the political limelight. But this week, he raised an interesting question that demands a more serious answer than it has so far received.
Mundell said that if the bedroom tax (or spare room subsidy as he alone preferred to call it) was “such a priority” for the SNP, then it was within the powers of the Scottish Government to entirely neutralise its effects in Scotland for what he described as the “remarkably little cost” of £40-50 million.
Given the amount of opprobrium that, rightly, has been heaped upon the bedroom tax, this was indeed a startling claim from a member of the coalition government. But what really caught my attention was the feeble – some might say guilty – response from the Scottish Government. The housing minister, Margaret Burgess, did not deny what Mundell alleged. Instead, she complained that he had “failed to state what other area of spending should be cut”. Imagine the yelps of indignation if he had tried! She was then credited with the words: “It is also unclear how – without having the powers over welfare – the Scottish Parliament could do as Mr Mundell claims.”
But how can it be “unclear”? This has been going on for two years. There is very widespread condemnation of the bedroom tax as a wretched piece of social engineering that is inflicting pain on families whose make-up does not conform to oppressive bureaucratic criteria. It is the stick which is most frequently used, rightly, to beat the coalition government on welfare issues.
So how, in all of these circumstances, can the Scottish Government, with its army of civil servants and lawyers, be “unclear” about whether it could, with the stroke of a pen, neutralise this affront within Scotland? Have ministers ever asked? Why does it take a Tory to tell them what they could do, if they wanted to and if it really was a priority?
Of course, Mundell is not the first to advance this proposition. The Scottish TUC and various organisations, such as the Govan Law Centre, which deal with the sharp end of these matters, have been saying the same thing for at least a year. And they are right. Under existing legislation, there is nothing to stop the Scottish Government establishing a prevention of homelessness fund to help tenants faced with removal as a result of housing benefit loss.
The powers which are set out in statute, including the Scotland Act, clearly allow for such a fund to be administered at their discretion by local authorities as part of their general welfare function. Indeed, there is a precedent – the Homeowner Housing Support Fund, to prevent evictions due to mortgage indebtedness.
From any humane political perspective, it would have been a feather in the Scottish Government’s cap if it had used its devolved powers to achieve that outcome. That really would have been one up for devolution and the Scottish Parliament. And as Mundell suggests, £40-50m is not an impossible sum to fund within a £35 billion budget – if the political will had existed.
So Ms Burgess, come out from behind your “unclear” shield and give a straight answer. Is what David Mundell asserted and I have described possible or not possible under devolved powers? And if we agree it is, then surely this is a matter of political priorities, which the existing powers of the Scottish Government are capable of addressing?
It is very odd for a government to have a vested interest in demonstrating what it cannot do, rather than what it can do. Yet that is now the Scottish reality. The other classic example in recent weeks has been the massive U-turn on childcare once it became clear that nobody, apart from their own hard-core support, believed the Nationalists’ claim that improvements were dependent on independence.
As with the bedroom tax, the cynicism of this “we can do nothing” approach had real human victims. Today’s vulnerable two year-olds would have been in primary school still waiting for the post-independence revolution if the white paper fairytale had been adhered to. Even now, Scotland will continue to lag behind England in terms of pre-school education and childcare.
How has this come about? Quite simply because it has not been enough of a priority for the Scottish Government; the money has gone elsewhere and gradually the lead that we enjoyed a decade ago in all aspects of pre-school provision has been eroded and overtaken. It would be interesting to know what the relevant funding that flowed to Scotland through the Barnett Formula was spent on instead.
In this recent instance, Barnett consequentials – from which Scotland benefits largely and regularly – are being spent in the same policy area that created them via Westminster. Until now, however, I do not think we have paid nearly enough attention to how additional money that comes to Holyrood through the Barnett Formula has been subsumed into the big pot and where it then goes.
Sometimes, we might be better just addressing the same priority that has generated the extra funding in the rest of the UK, rather than in simply clawing in the money without any subsequent accountability about how or why it has been used. Doing things differently does not always result in doing them better – and childcare in Scotland has been a victim of the available funds being transferred elsewhere.
It is almost seven years since the SNP made the manifesto pledge on 600 hours of childcare for three and four year olds that it is now promising to deliver in the run-up to the referendum. Seven years is a long time in the lives of children to wait for the delivery of a commitment.
The common theme is that the Nationalists are more interested in using issues to support their constitutional preoccupation than in using the powers they already have in order to address these issues. And each time they get caught out, the less trustworthy they appear over other assertions about what the existing set-up prevents them from doing or what independence alone would open the door to.
They assumed that the bedroom tax as a Westminster bogey-man would be of more use to them than the bedroom tax neutralised using powers that Holyrood possesses. And they calculated that better childcare linked to independence would do them more good than better childcare now.
Wrong, I think, on both counts.