Inflation is at a 30-year high, hitting 5.5 per cent in January, and the Bank of England forecast suggests it still has some way to go, prompting fears of another interest rate rise and mortgage hikes.
But Finance Secretary Kate Forbes appears calm in the face of the impending storm. She even delivered her recent Budget speech while battling morning sickness, a feat that those of us who still remember that wretched feeling of nausea and light-headedness can only admire.
Forbes may be made of strong stuff, but according to anti-poverty campaigners, her budget was a failure. The Poverty Alliance – a national network of NGOs, community organisations, trade unions and academics – tweeted earlier this week that Forbes had not “lived up to her responsibility to protect people from poverty”.
And in a surprise move yesterday, the SNP’s policy convenor, Toni Giugliano, backed the Alliance, tweeting: “This quote from @PovertyAlliance really needs to make Scot Gov stop and think. Do better.”
Do better indeed, Ms Forbes. I am no fan of Guigliano’s, but on this occasion he is right. The Scottish government recently received £290 million from the Chancellor Rishi Sunak to address the cost-of-living crisis. The cash was the UK government’s response to the eye-watering increase in energy prices that will see household bills rise by nearly £700 from 1 April.
All but the very richest in society will have to tighten their belts to cope with this unprecedented increase, but for many Scottish households, the choice will not be by how many degrees should they turn down their thermostat, but between heating their home or eating. That is the reality of poverty.
Forbes could have taken Sunak’s windfall and done something revolutionary with it – protect the poor. The Scottish government has thousands of well-paid, well-qualified civil servants whose job description is to develop policy. Indeed, the new Permanent Secretary, John-Paul Marks – or JP as he prefers to be known – is one of the UK’s leading policy experts in the design of benefits.
Forbes could have pulled a policy team together under JP’s watchful eye, instructed them to work with external experts such as the Poverty Alliance as well as energy firms, and told them to come up with a plan that gave proper protection to the most vulnerable Scots.
I have worked alongside policy officials who have been given short deadlines to draft complex policy. They will work 18 hours a day if need be to meet their minister’s demands. I have no doubt at all that if Forbes had asked for a bespoke Scottish scheme, the civil service would have produced one that worked.
Scottish Labour even offered her one – free of charge. Their plan was to give £400 to everyone in receipt of council tax reduction, pension credit, child’s winter heating assistance or the carer’s allowance supplement, and came in at £238 million, leaving Forbes with £52 million to invest in other measures, such as the Fuel Insecurity Fund.
Instead, she took the easy way out and copied the Tory chancellor, announcing a £150 cut in council tax for all households living in band A-D properties, as well as for everyone in receipt of council tax reduction. Nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of Scots will benefit from Sunak and Forbes’ generosity, which may well earn them a reward at the council elections in May, but that does nothing to tackle inequality.
A cursory glance at homes for sale in Edinburgh’s Morningside, one of the most expensive areas in the country, reveals a main door flat for offers over £279,000. It is in council tax band C, which means the new owner of this very desirable residence will get the same £150 rebate as a family of four living on minimum wage in a social-rented flat in Wester Hailes, on the edge of city.
The Scottish government’s decision to ape their Tory counterparts tellingly reveals the SNP’s conservative approach to public finance.
Forbes and her boss Nicola Sturgeon, and Alex Salmond before her, did not get into government to change Scottish society. Their priority has never been to redistribute wealth or to use the considerable powers of the 1999 devolution settlement to do things differently to Westminster. Their main – some would argue, their sole – priority is to use the machinery of government to persuade Scots to leave the UK.
That is why their policy initiatives are, in the main, aimed at middle Scotland, with everything from the council tax freeze (only lifted this year) to free prescriptions and no university tuition fees designed to appease those households most likely to be nervous about the cost of independence.
But we live in unprecedented times. A generation of Scots, too young to remember the dark days of the 1970s when inflation peaked at over 20 per cent, or the 80s and early 90s when the base interest rate was above 10 per cent, are about to experience a financial tsunami of high energy bills, rising food prices and an increase in their rent or mortgage payments, as well as council tax rises.
Forbes had an opportunity to show some real leadership when she set her budget. Using a little imagination and the considerable brain power of the Scottish civil service, she could have come up with a bespoke scheme that would have offered a lifeline to the most vulnerable households.
Instead, she took her lead from the Tory Chancellor. Hardly the actions of an independent politician.