18 Jun 2013

The Bedroom Tax: SNP - Earn The Right To Be Free

I see SNP supporters and others are enthusiastically sharing an article from Inside Housing reporting Alex Salmond's pledge to abolish the Bedroom Tax in an independent Scotland, Good news. But big deal?

Because the very earliest this can be done is 2016, and more realistically it will be 2017-18 before any law changes are enacted. So over four years from now. Does anyone really think any but a tiny minority hit here and now by the Bedroom Tax will survive by then? So a near meaningless pledge. And a real cheap one, given the numbers by then involved

So tokenism. As token as the pledge from all SNP Councils (and some Labour ones) not to evict any council tenant for bedroom tax arrears in year one of the tax, And note, this pledge only apples if a tenant “co-operates”, however that is defined by a Council official. But, co-operation or not, it takes about a year to evict someone anyway.

And more fundamentally, many of the Councils committed to this pledge have near no social housing to evict anyone from. SNP Argyll and Bute for example has not a single council house – all transferred to local Housing Associations years ago, and all Housing Associations are completely exempt from local council non-eviction pledges.

So SNP folks and others, you are being sold mince here. Scottish mince – but mince.

What the Scottish Government can and must do, beyond the extra £5m already allocated to advice welfare advice services centres, is as follows:

(1) Increase significantly the Discretionary Housing Payment (DHP) funds to Councils over and above the £10 million allocated by the Westminster Government to help those worst affected by the Bedroom Tax. The Scottish Government can legally top this fund up by up to one and a half times, so immediately the fund could rise to £25 million – near on half the amount Scots are set to lose as a result of the Bedroom Tax 

(2) Increase by a similar or greater amount central grant funding to social landlords to enable met to more realistically carry, and in some case write off debt incurred by their Bedroom Tax affected tenants, Many of these tenants simply can't pay, and widely available statistics are now showing they are not paying in significant numbers 

(3) Give serious consideration to The Govan Law Center proposed amendment to the Housing Scotland Act which would offer enhanced increased legal protection from eviction to tenants in rent arrears incurred as a result of the Bedroom Tax. And SNP whips could make a start by telling its committee members who control the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions Committee, which meets on Tuesday 25h June to consider the GLC amendment, to allow the main petitioner, Mike Dailly, Director of the Center to speak to his own petition. Hardly a radical idea. Kind of a self-evidently sensible one. And totally cost free.

But the first two elements of this three part package, they would cost. Around £50 million would be my estimate, much the same sum as calculated by Shelter Scotland and the Scottish TUC. Not a trivial sum. But a findable sum for sure. Less that 0.1% of the Scottish Government's total block grant. A block grant SNP and previous Labour administrations have succeed in underspending by this amount and more in near every year since devolution.

So do this Alex, and poor people – real poor people, amongst the poorest in Scotland - might warm to your pledge to abolish the Bedroom Tax altogether come independence: The final step in a process you will have already started with them. And can start tomorrow.

In the words of one of my recent songs, “Earn the Right to be Free”!

9 comments:

Peter A Bell Tuesday, June 18, 2013  

Citizen Smart is correct to point out that the SNP's pledge to abolish the so-called bedroom tax is all but meaningless in practical terms. But this is to misunderstand the purpose of the pledge. In political terms it is massively significant because of the contrast with British Labour's refusal to make a similar pledge and, indeed, the very clear signals that they intend to retain virtually all of the socially corrosive policies of their Tory allies should they get their turn at power in 2015.

The focus on evictions is also misguided and a distraction from what should be a campaign aimed at the UK government and not local councils or Holyrood. Quite simply, there aren't going to be any evictions because of the bedroom tax. Councils have already put procedures in place which ensure that eviction is somewhere beyond a last resort. This combined with the near-certainty of direct action to prevent evictions means that there is no real threat to anyone. Legislating to remove or limit the power to evict is not only fraught with complications, it amounts to using a sledge-hammer to crack a very tiny nut.

For the Scottish government, local authorities and the various agencies involved the crucial task is to avoid the accumulation of debt by tenants while maintaining the revenue stream that rents provide for councils. The Scottish government has already committed to finding the funds for this. But simply throwing money at the problem won't make it go away.

There is a fine line between ameliorating the impact of the UK government's vicious assault on the vulnerable and facilitating the heartless, mindless ideology that drives these policies. Supposing the Scottish government could fully fund the cost to tenants of these "reforms" we have to ask whether it would be right to do so. Partly because this would necessarily involve taking resources from other areas which might well be just as deserving. But also because this would set a dangerous precedent.

Any money the Scottish government spends on countering the depredations of the austerity fetishists is effectively a transfer of funds from Scotland's budget to the British exchequer. Once the Scottish government takes this route it opens the door to even more drastic measures by UK governments in the expectation that the Scottish government will divert funds to cover the effects or take the flak if they don't.

If Salmond, Swinney et al are being cautious about their response to the bedroom tax it is for very good reason. And the rest of us should remember who the real enemy is here.

Alan Smart Tuesday, June 18, 2013  

Thanks for in effect stating the SNPs official, if completely undebated by its membership, position Peter. I will respond in some detail later but i am working most of Today, tuesday so will leave it to others to respond fi

Alan Smart Tuesday, June 18, 2013  

Respond first, i meant to say. But i would ask everyone, whatever their outlook to keep to Peter's resonded and measured approach. In doing so we might all get somewhere with this important but far from simple matter.

Fergie Tuesday, June 18, 2013  

I agree with what Peter says - the Scottish government should not, out of a block grant, be covering for shameful, destructive policies from Westminster. Aside from anything else, it then adds to the sense many people seem to have that, "it's OK in the union because the SNP/Scottish government will always make it OK".

It won't and can't and people should not be led to expect that for a whole load of reasons beyond just party political.

However the bedroom tax, and other welfare reforms are so vicious, and so damaging to so many of the most vulnerable people in society that even believing all that, it's not enough to do nothing.

Is there no way the Scottish government can create a far bigger issue about it? For example I believe it had it within its power to veto the entire welfare reform bill at one stage? Has that time gone? What would the result have been for Scotland? Can the Scottish government not force the issue of welfare and demand? For example, could it demand that the amount spent on welfare in Scotland is immediately devolved and the Scottish government will decide how to spend it? That could allow for some immediate changes to the system.

I just feel the Scottish government, if it is to mitigate the disaster of welfare reforms (and it has to) should be making as much confrontation with Westminster about it as possible. And I say that as someone who isn't usually into confrontation at all. Over this, there needs to be a real fight, not a whimper as the Scottish government bails out Westminster and all its Westminster opponents then say, "see, everything is OK".

Getareel Tuesday, June 18, 2013  

This seems to me a catch22 situation and the only longterm solution is obviously independence.I actually don't see how the Scottish government can actually do more than they can at the moment for the reasons Peter mentions. Although would like to see more opinions on this.

Alan Smart Wednesday, June 19, 2013  

Gatareel, Peter and Fergie - I have quite specifically outlined above what the Scottish Government CAN do, which is quite a lot. Indeed, do what I have outlined , and the SG could come close to in effect "abolishing" the Bedroom Tax in Scotland in all but name, the final Act coming in 2016-18 when an independent Scotland abolishes the primary legislation.

The Question is whether it wants to do that. Or, as you Peter and Fergie have raised is whether it ought to - whether this is appropriate or a priority in the context of a tight budget. Related to this is whether it creates some sort of precedence for the SG covering other Westminster imposed cuts, in theory a near infinite commitment. I do understand all this, respect that outlook, but think it is in this instance a mistaken one.

Firstly, whilst I am not blase about public money, the sums involved are not great. This is because of the selective nature of the Bedroom Tax which targets a specific subsection of poor people, I think in a way to isolate them and stigmatize in the eyes of the general population. A political act by the con/dem Government. But this targeting means relatively few are affected in terms of the general population, hence the cost of ameliorative action by the SG are relatively modest. But the sums involved at Governmental level are small, from the point of view of those affected - the very poorest - the sums are massive, and for many will mean the difference between keeping their home or losing their home.

So this is I think a unique situation - one where the SG can and should help the most vulnerable, people suffering directly from a particularly vicious, discriminatory and unfair piece of Westminster policy.

Alan Smart Wednesday, June 19, 2013  

But whilst the numbers it would be directly helping would be relatively small, I believe in doing so the SG would be acting for the wider Scottish electorate , who instinctively understand what the Bedroom Tax is about, and would wish to see their Government The Scottish Government - step in and help the most vulnerable - See Off the Bedroom Tax in Scotland .

And for £50m a year, 0.1% of total SG expenditure, or to put it another way £10 per head of population.

Peter and other have talked about dangerous precedents, but I would contend the Bedroom Tax is a unique situation, threatening something so basic - one's right to a home - that this should be set aside. Of course the SG cant come to the rescue of every group affected by Westminster austerity cuts, but it can selectively - indeed already has on numerous occassions.

It is also may I say somewhat ironic to see nationalists in effect arguing and SNP SG should be bound by the the devolution until the day we all vote for independence. But this is a position the SG itself - even McConnells SG has not stuck too on several other occasions. Indeed it is a position that misunderstands what the devolved settlement is and what the 1998 Scotland Act says. That Act "reserves" matters to Westminster, and of course it reserved Social Security, including Housing benefit. But beyond these "reserved" matters, the SG can do anything else. And that anything else includes topping up Discressionary Housing Payment (DHP) funding by up to 150%, Increasing grand aid to Social Landlords, and amending the Housing Scotland Act.

So this may I say is a matter of political will, political priority, and dare I say political imagination?

And political calculation: Because I have heard it said in SNP circles - though not by that many - "let the poor suffer - it might make the more inclined to vote yes in 2014"

Now this is kind of an unspoken bit in Peter longish post. If I am being unfair here I apologise.

But I would most certainly take the opposite view to "let the poor suffer' , or anyone suffer. I would take a "let people see what their Government - the Scottish Government can do even with both its hands tied near behind its backs. What it can, will and has done on the Bedroom Tax even within the restraints of devolution". And they would be asking, how much more could it do with full powers

No I might be a political romantic. But that pitch, a positive enabling pitch is what i think mobilises people. Will bring them into the yes camp, have them thinking they are part of the project, not just passive observers, victims wherever power is exercised from.

The SG can act, should act now. Get out that straightjacket I suspect written for them by cautious and unimaginative civil servants trained in the Westminster tradition. Three simple steps, and the Bedroom Tax in Scotland could be all but abolished, and the whole game opens up.

SITV Tam SITV Wednesday, June 19, 2013  

The only way to defeat this attack on the poor is for all to stand up and be counted, in a mass of cival disobedience, and then to vote yes in 2014, oor wee army will do the rest ;)

Fergie Wednesday, June 19, 2013  

"It is also may I say somewhat ironic to see nationalists in effect arguing and SNP SG should be bound by the the devolution until the day we all vote for independence."

That wasn't my argument at all. My argument is that the Scottish government must help people affected because the tax is so vile.

But rather than do so quietly, in a way which will simply be used by its WESTMINSTER, and Westminster-supporting opponents to argue things are OK really, it should create the maximum possible constitutional fuss about it, and pushing the devolution settlement to absolute breaking point.

I don't know quite how that could be done, as I'm not up enough on the politics. But I did hear that atone stage Holyrood could have vetoed the welfare reform bill rather than sign off on it. The SG should have been far more aggressive earlier on and done that in my opinion, as it was clear then what was coming down the line for the vulnerable and poorest. If that can still be done now, it should be done. Force a real fight with Westminster over this, and force Labour in Scotland to decide which side of that fight it's on.

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