Lesley Riddoch: Real benefits from devolved powers

THE Scottish Government will create a humane social security set up and we are happy to fund it, writes Lesley Riddoch

The Scottish Government bought out the bedroom tax liability of all Scots in February 2014. Picture: Getty
The Scottish Government bought out the bedroom tax liability of all Scots in February 2014. Picture: Getty

Frances McCormack was 53. According to a friend she was, “a strong woman, very strong minded. She never gave any kind of inkling [of trouble]. She was my rock.”

Yet in August last year, this strong woman took her own life. Last month a coroners’ court heard why. In 2013 her youngest son Jack had also committed suicide and since then, the DWP had been deducting bedroom tax for Jack’s unoccupied “spare room”. Like thousands of others, Frances was struggling to cope. The day she was found dead in her home, an eviction notice had been served.

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How you react to that story might determine your response to news that the Scottish Government will establish a more liberal and humane benefits regime when 15 per cent of welfare payments are devolved to its control sometime next year.

If you are among the 25 per cent toying with casting a Tory vote at the forthcoming Scottish elections, you may feel Frances’s story is unfortunate but anecdotal, observe that the vast majority of bedroom tax claimants don’t kill themselves and suggest that a wrinkle is found in even the most convincing sob stories.

And you would be right. The assistant coroner suggested Frances may have been trying to gain leverage with a “staged arrangement” which went tragically awry and observed that her suicide note blamed David Cameron and his ­welfare “reforms” for her desperate act, but made no mention of her impending eviction. Maybe I don’t move in the right circles, but actually I know no human being who would react in such a way. I’d guess most Scots would find the idea of a mother trying to prompt a DWP rethink by half-killing herself just as harrowing as the actual outcome.

Indeed, for the majority who voted SNP at the general election, the only comfort in the horrible tale of Frances McCormack is that it couldn’t have happened here since the Scottish Government “bought out” the bedroom tax liability of all Scots in February 2014 with the backing of every party in the Scottish Parliament – except the Tories. That decision has been vindicated with every subsequent report about the impacts of Iain Duncan Smith’s most controversial welfare “reform”. Just before Christmas 2014, the Scrooge-like Work and Pensions Secretary slipped out a report from his own department which revealed only one in nine folk clobbered by the bedroom tax had been able to move to smaller properties, 80 per cent were penniless at the end of each month and only 23 per cent had benefited from the Hardship Fund. The report also confirmed that the Bedroom Tax “had an impact on some claimants’ health and emotional well-being”.

In the distant and salaried world of the Whitehall bureaucrat, Frances was just “some claimant”. In the real world lived by most Scottish voters, her case is simply a horror story which confirms there is no such thing as society in the eyes of Iain Duncan Smith. Yet, astonishingly, just before a Holyrood election, Scottish Tories are willing to “stand by their man” and condemn a more civilised approach to poverty, illness and disability north of the Border.

When social justice secretary Alex Neil spoke of removing the “stigma” of accessing benefits in the new Scottish welfare system this weekend, John Lamont, the Scottish Tory welfare spokesman, warned that his more generous approach could lead to a “benefits stampede”.

“The UK government has worked hard to get people off benefits and back into work, which has improved our economy, but the SNP are set to undo all the good progress.”

Lamont’s colleague Alex Johnstone MSP said: “If Alex Neil is trying to give the impression that he is going to spend more money on social security than in the rest of the UK, then every penny of that will have to be raised through taxation on the people of Scotland.”

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Correct. I’m not sure where Messrs Johnstone and Lamont have been for the last two years, but every survey of public opinion since 2013 shows Scots want control of welfare powers. And cumulative disgust about the steady stream of victims like Frances McCormack has produced the current strange situation where surveys find voters don’t intend to vote Labour or Lib Dem but do support their tax-raising plans. Today the question isn’t whether Scotland gets higher taxes than rUK – but when. Now – with the relatively inflexible levers of the Calman powers – or next year when they are replaced by the more flexible and progressive tax powers of the Scotland Act.

True, there must be more debate over the size of tax rises and spending priorities, and the SNP must facilitate the widest possible discussion. But most Scots are already over the Rubicon. If it takes higher taxes to steer Scotland beyond a world of inequality and hopelessness, so be it. Despite the relentless negativity of the press, voters have just enough trust in the Scottish Government to think extra tax income won’t be squandered and just enough exposure to the dark side of Tory Britain to know more of the same will leave us completely hollowed out as a society – no matter how many low-paid jobs are held aloft as justification.

So change is on the way. Disability Living Allowance, Carer’s Allowance, maternity grants and funeral payments will be devolved to Edinburgh – along with the power to create new benefits. There’s every reason to want a different approach so Scottish benefits promote long-term wellbeing, social mobility and fairness, not just a quick buck for the Exchequer while foodbanks and mental health charities are stretched to breaking point.

The Scottish Government want to end the scandal whereby tens of thousands of Scots save the country millions by sacrificing their own careers to care for members of their family. So they’ll raise the Carer’s Allowance to the same rate as Jobseeker’s Allowance and scrap an absurd rule that stops families receiving allowances while their seriously ill or disabled children are in hospital. Hallelujah.

It’s about time someone took David ­Cameron to task for the needless brutality of his welfare policies. The words of Jeremy Corbyn flow off him like water off a duck’s back, but maybe the actions of a welfare-friendly, tax-raising neighbour will remind English voters that there is always an alternative.