Every issue at the moment, it would seem, warrants the corralling of party political wagons and represents an opportunity to win a tactical advantage in the constitutional debate.
Labour and the SNP, and their various supporters, are currently going at it hammer and tongs over the bedroom tax. For the uninitiated, the ConDem UK Government came up with this cunning wheeze as part of its welfare reform package. Housing benefit as we know it is going and will be subsumed into the new universal credit. Moreover, from April, anyone who has more bedrooms than the UK Government deems appropriate will no longer qualify for help with housing costs.
Thus, foster carers, kinship carers, families with a disabled child or adult, parents who share the care of their children or who need an extra room so they can enjoy overnight contact will all be affected, if they live in local authority or housing association properties and do not have sufficient income to meet their rent. This is social engineering on the grandest of scales and all to shave the welfare bill at its margins in the name of austerity.
Both Labour and the SNP have had good and powerful things to say on this issue. Labour did the job demanded of an effective opposition at Westminster and rallied its troops around this one, right from its first appearance in the welfare reform agenda. And once it reached our borders in terms of implementation, the Scottish Government has laudably drawn attention to it, with help from a range of SNP supporters. Backbench SNP MSP, Linda Fabiani, one of the most knowledgeable and authoritative members at Holyrood on a slew of issues these days, was quite brilliant on last week’s Sunday Politics Show, emphasising how offensive this policy was, not least because of its failure to acknowledge that a house is also a home. And Andrew Wilson in today’s Scotland on Sunday, rightly points out that all Scottish MPs but the lone Tory and the clutch of Lib Dems – Mike Crockart as the only honourable exception – opposed this measure. Both he and Mike Dailly have likened the bedroom tax to the poll tax – a powerful analogy.
But last week in Holyrood’s chamber, our two main Scottish political parties were back to their default positions, squabbling over how Scotland should respond. Rhoda Grant, the Highlands Labour MSP, decided that if the Scottish Government would just build lots of one bedroom houses, we could fix the problem, conveniently forgetting that under her party’s watch, the Scottish Executive between 2003 and 2007 managed to fund the building of just six local authority houses in total, across all of Scotland – when money did seem to grow on trees. Which encouraged Mark McDonald MSP of the SNP group to have a pop. None of it is dignified and not a single word is contributing to finding a way to mitigate against this pernicious policy which will cause appalling financial worry and emotional stress for many and homelessness for some.
When there is an obvious policy battle around which to unite, why do Labour and the SNP prefer to divide? Surely, the tens of thousands of families about to be hit by the bedroom tax – some of them among the most vulnerable in the country – deserve better? Don’t we all deserve a political class prepared to leave difference at the door and get round the table to find the solutions when the need demands it?
And enough of the constitutional options being the solution. Families cannot afford to wait for the outcome of the vote in 2014. To suggest that either a yes vote and independence will allow Scots to reverse such a move and make our own fiscal decisions on benefits or that a no vote will allow for the devolution of welfare policy amounts to a dereliction of duty by both sides. We might not be able to make this policy disappear with the powers we currently have in Scotland, but we can act to mitigate against its worst effects. If only our political parties are willing to lay down their cudgels and focus on the here and now and on what can be done, rather than what might be possible one day.
Mike Dailly and the Govan Law Centre have already suggested one way of doing so, urging the Scottish Parliament to relax eviction law so that anyone who accumulates rent arrears as a result of the bedroom tax is not evicted from their home. That would be a start.
We can and should build more houses, of mixed size and type. Rhoda Grant was partly right – if we had more one bed properties available, then more people all round would be able to access social housing. There are far too many families on waiting lists because they need two or three bedroom properties, but others with higher needs get them because they are the only properties available. Moreover, many pensioners want to downsize but cannot because there is nowhere for them to go. Where local authorities have one bed properties available and put in place incentive schemes to support people to move – offering rent free periods, free decoration, moving and house clearing – it tends to work in creating a more mobile population. Not by forcing people to downsize but by creating choice.
So, change eviction law, build more houses, create more incentives enabling more people to move to smaller housing. All would help, and so would cutting rents.
Last year, 15 of the 26 local authorities in Scotland with social housing stock opted to increase rents at or above 4.4%. For years, high rent rises have been justified by some because at least 60% of rents are met fully or partly through housing benefit. The implication is that the Treasury pays the increase not the tenant but that, of course, will no longer apply. So what local authorities and indeed, housing associations must do is stop applying eye-watering annual rent increases. Moreover, they must have the power to apply differential rent increases so that anyone who will be hit by the bedroom tax can pay less or no rent. If they do not have the powers currently to do so, then Holyrood can and must act. It does after all have complete control over housing policy.
Social landlords might squawk about the need to raise rents to invest in repairs and maintenance, but needs must. Ask their tenants and most of them would rather have a roof over their heads than an uptodate kitchen. In any event, there is nothing to stop the Scottish Government nor local authorities from investing capital allocation in housing refurbishment and repairs as well as in construction.
Moreover, Holyrood must also look at what it can do under social work powers to create new provisions for emergency maintenance payments for families affected by the bedroom tax which do not then impinge on their entitlement to other UK benefits. How might a pot be created for this? Well, how about a revaluation and reform of council tax to create more bands at the top of the property ladder, so that those who can make more of a contribution, do?
None of these solutions are simple: some would take a bit of effort to make them work but nor do they have to be unnecessarily complex. And they should not be dismissed as impossible. Anything is possible if the political will and maturity exists, not least to unite to face down this threat. Acting to mitigate against the impact of this policy shouldn’t prevent our politicians from protesting vociferously but that protest would be more effective if it was voiced in unison. Yes, we need more powers to make our own decisions on welfare. But in the meantime, let’s acknowledge that we are not entirely powerless.
We have some powers: let’s use them.