Covid crisis could cause lasting inequality unless Scottish Parliament has the necessary vision and ambition – Richard Leonard

MSPs must take steps to shift the balance of power between employers and workers, landlords and tenants, and men and women, and stop the coronavirus outbreak from making inequality even worse, writes Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard
We should realise the aspiration that miners’ union leader Mick McGahey had for the Scottish Parliament, says Richard Leonard (Picture: Allan Milligan)We should realise the aspiration that miners’ union leader Mick McGahey had for the Scottish Parliament, says Richard Leonard (Picture: Allan Milligan)
We should realise the aspiration that miners’ union leader Mick McGahey had for the Scottish Parliament, says Richard Leonard (Picture: Allan Milligan)

This terrible public health crisis has made us re-evaluate the preciousness of our lives, the importance of family, the value of community and the essential roles undertaken by our most under-paid and least-valued workers. So, it is all the more important that we do not allow the same crisis to exacerbate inequalities and increase the burden of poverty on Scotland’s poorest citizens.

That is why Scottish Labour is going to Parliament this week seeking to amend and so improve the Government’s latest emergency legislation. The Bill contains some useful measures to protect and support key groups like unpaid carers.

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But we know that, as the impact of the virus persists and as unemployment rises, those in debt will go into deeper debt and those with small savings will join them as their limited funds run out.

In the first round of emergency legislation, introduced at the start of last month, ministers extended statutory moratoriums – a legal means of preventing those in debt from being pursued by their creditors – from six weeks to six months.

We welcomed and supported this move, but it is time to go further. Our proposal now is to freeze charges, interest and fees on such debts, to ensure that the moratorium extension does not simply lead to debts spiralling out of control.

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A valuable report from the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) last week calculated that up to 45 per cent of the net cost of the furlough scheme will be spent on both debt repayments and rent costs alone.

The SNP Government has set up a “landlords’ fund”, but it is Scotland’s tenants who face the prospect of eviction if the crisis leaves them unable to pay rent. We will therefore seek to amend the law in Parliament to set up a tenant hardship fund, which can provide emergency financial assistance to renters, including those in the private rented sector. We will also back the changes to protect student tenants.

Forcing non-essential staff back to work

Boris Johnson’s call for workers who cannot work from home to go out to work was irresponsible to the point of being dangerous. The return to work that we need, when the time is right, must be thought through, based on a safety-first approach, and organised on a sector-by-sector basis.

So we will also seek to bring in new regulations designed to prevent in the next phase a repeat of the conflict witnessed in the early days of the lockdown. The aim of all of us must be to prevent employers forcing non-essential staff back to work.

We will put forward amendments too that, if passed, will establish a new support system for workplace trade union health and safety representatives.

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The social care sector and the dedicated staff who work in it have rightly seen their status in our society start to get proper recognition. Much more needs to be done. This week we will propose a safety net for care staff facing financial hardship as a result of the pandemic. And we will seek to establish a framework for national negotiations over terms and conditions.

We will support the Government’s emergency intervention orders in residential care homes up to and including new emergency powers to purchase distressed care home service providers, where there is a threat to life or the health and well-being of service users.

Under this proposal, local authorities and health boards will be given the job of running these homes, but they must be given the additional resources they need in order to do that.

Moreover, whilst that may be the answer in this current crisis, we need a proactive strategy which is not based on a case-by-case, company-by-company rescue operation but which plans for a sustainable long-term future.

Immediate danger of lasting damage

We are also backing calls from a broad base of civil society organisations for an emergency package of financial support for families in need. With rising energy bills, cheaper supermarket products selling out quickly, and the cost of an extra meal each day to be found, low-income families are feeling the pinch.

An additional regular payment, which could be administered through a number of different mechanisms, would help ensure the educational attainment gap is not further exacerbated by another rise in child poverty.

These proposals are all designed to address the immediate danger of a lasting exacerbation of inequalities. That IPPR study found that households with an income of £279 a week may be adding an average £12 a week to their existing debts, but that those taking home £1,493 a week – who are more likely to be continuing their work from home – could be saving an extra £189 a week during this period.

There is a shift in priorities that we simply need to make, if we are to avoid reading annual headlines about ballooning private wealth in Scotland alongside growing multi-deprivation. Too many of our most deprived communities are forced to rely on food banks and tax credits to make up for punitive welfare sanctions and poverty pay. The vast range of amendments tabled by all parties to this week’s emergency bill demonstrate that while we must still seek new powers for the Scottish Parliament, there are still huge opportunities to use the untapped powers we already have.

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Indeed, I believe that during this crisis and looking beyond it, our Parliament can realise the aspiration expressed by the Scottish miners’ leader Mick McGahey that it should involve “the people of a country in the operation of power at every possible level”.

Once the immediate threat passes, we cannot go back to politics as usual any more than we can go back to business as usual. We must instead hold on to the progress we have made and further shift the balance of power from employer to worker, from landlord to tenant, and from men to women.

I am under no illusion that it will be anything other than harder to do so if this crisis has already exacerbated inequalities, which is why our task tomorrow in Parliament is not just vigilance and scrutiny, but vision and ambition.

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