Lesley Riddoch: Black Monday for many on benefits

Protesters in Edinburgh make their displeasure over Westminster's welfare cuts felt outside Holyrood. Picture: PA
Protesters in Edinburgh make their displeasure over Westminster's welfare cuts felt outside Holyrood. Picture: PA
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Right now would be a good time for the SNP to come up with an integrated welfare policy, writes Lesley Riddoch

So “ratbag” Iain Duncan Smith has decided to leave his £2 million mansion and sleep rough this Easter Monday to express solidarity with those facing the bedroom tax.

Stung to the quick by Scottish hostility, the erstwhile “compassionate Conservative” said: “We are all in this together. And anyway I can buy another big hoose when things calm doon.”

Yes indeed – it is 1 April. But not even the coincidence of April Fools’ Day and Easter Monday has prompted a second’s hesitation or remorse from the man dismantling the welfare state.

Today, single parents, the adult disabled, children not deemed “severely” disabled, carers, the terminally ill, soldiers in single accommodation, foster parents with more than one foster child and victims of domestic violence all face losing part of their income, while millionaires prepare to gain through tax cuts.

You couldn’t make it up. Indeed welfare minister Lord Freud recently told Scottish council leaders the “spare room subsidy” might not even save money because those forced to move might claim higher rates of housing benefit and disabled people may need public cash to adapt new homes.

But despite all these practical problems, welfare “reform” is steamrolling ahead – just as the un-workable poll tax did in 1988.

Admittedly the figurehead of that campaign has bowed out of this one and Scotland hasn’t been “trialled” first. But the unbelievable stories of personal misery, the overall unfairness, the escalating costs and mounting public anger all echo the campaign that finally unseated a prime minister and produced near-universal backing north of the Border for a Scottish Parliament.

Will Border warfare now recommence over the bedroom tax? Will Scots hurl taunts and demonstrate each time a UK minister is brave or mad enough to defend Westminster welfare policy in Scotland? Will the bedroom tax automatically help the Yes campaign? Or has opposition to welfare changes been overstated in Scotland?

Cynics argue the Scottish public (secretly) believe the benefits bill is too large and weekend anti-cuts protests too small to worry David Cameron – compared to the quarter of a million who once marched against war in Iraq.

And the usual Scottish squabbling has broken out over the best way to mitigate the impact of the bedroom tax on tenants.

The SNP has adopted a “no evictions” stance in all councils they control but won’t underwrite extra costs incurred by councils as a result of the Westminster policy.

Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown and 41 other Labour MPs were absent for the final February vote and Ed Miliband has not pledged to reverse the bedroom tax in a future Labour government.

North Lanarkshire Council’s Labour leader Jim McCabe explained his hesitation in a Sunday newspaper article, pointing out that bedroom tax arrears may soon be overtaken by other arrears.

The housing element of the new universal credit, for example, will be paid directly to claimants, not social landlords, and is being phased in from today. The Tories say low-waged workers and private sector tenants already budget income and expenditure – the unemployed must learn to do the same.

But any fragment of “empowerment” thus achieved is likely to be washed away by a torrent of impracticality. Rent arrears have already doubled in six “direct payment” pilot areas. Claimants are also facing simultaneous cuts to every benefit, rising fuel prices during the coldest March on record and an austerity-shrivelled economy.

Even disciplined aristocrats like Lord (eight spare bedrooms) Freud might feel tempted to spend available rent cash on more pressing food, heat and child-related needs. Still, the Westminster propaganda campaign rolls on.

So far only 1 per cent of “bedroom blockers” (Danny Alexander’s new term) have moved house. Does that suggest claimants are flush with benefits cash or prove most people prefer to manage poverty in their existing home environment? Indeed did the government bargain on precisely this “limited tenant mobility” when it estimated £500 million savings through the bedroom tax?

We also hear that 900,000 people on incapacity benefit have apparently dropped claims rather than undergo tough new medical tests – some citing “disabilities” like acne, blisters and sprains. My guess is that the “acne disabled” will prove as hard to locate as the “feral families” supposedly collecting millions on benefits. And yet mud sticks.

As a result, two contradictory views about welfare are held by many Scots. The first is that Tory claims of mass fraud and scrounging are exaggerated. The second is that welfare spending is too high and (so far) the Tories “reforms” are the only game in town.

This latter suspicion is one the Scottish Government must tackle immediately. If Scots vote yes in 2014, a new welfare system must kick in almost immediately. If Scots vote no – and reports of an imminent cross-party unionist offer are credible – reform of welfare reform is still possible. Of course, the inclusion of such a fiercely-contested area might prove the leaked devo-something wish-list is pie-in-the-sky. But clearly anything is possible in the aftermath of 18 September, 2014. Equally clearly the wheels may come off the ConDem welfare reform cart before then.

So how radical is the Scottish Government’s alternative welfare system likely to be?

Nicola Sturgeon’s expert panel on a “fairer welfare system” outside the union is due to report in May. But the main benefit of having an independent Scotland would be the capacity to develop one holistic, integrated tax, welfare and spending policy.

So it’s concerning to read that “radical” options from the 2011 UK Mirrless Review will underpin the SNP’s new tax policy for an independent Scotland.

Is scrapping fuel duty and the council tax radical enough? What about a switch to land tax? Indeed what about a whole-hearted shift to a Nordic-style system in which the welfare state redistributes wealth across each individual’s lifetime (offering high quality services to all when needed) and doesn’t just dole out benefits and low quality services to the poor?

Such a big, bold welfare change might frighten the horses – or motivate them. The vision of a funded, tax-coherent, Nordic-style welfare state might encourage more Yes votes. It would at least provide a tough opening stance for post-2014 negotiations should Scots vote no.

Either option is possible – if the SNP grasps the welfare thistle now.