Tough on children. Tough on the cause of children.

A record number of children were born in Scotland in 2008, the highest in fact since the turn of the century.  Yet, the parents of those 60, 041 babes might just be regretting their decision to start a family in that year.  Just as the parents of the near million children born in the last sixteen years might be gulping a little right now.  But they won’t be nearly as worried as the parents under 21 of at least 5,000 babies born in the last couple of years.

Unwittingly, they have all provided meek austerity fodder for the aspirations of both Labour and Conservative parties in their quest for wins in marginal seats to propel them into government at Westminster next year.

Step forward children of Scotland, for you, who have no votes and little voice are about to pay a high price for the profligacy of us all.

I thought I had heard and seen the worst of what New Labour had to offer when, fresh into government in 1997, it decided to remove the lone parent premium from child benefit.  That doyen of fairness and social justice – who preaches pooling and sharing and solidarity and unity now that it suits him – Gordon Brown was the one who decided to effectively freeze child benefit for lone parents for years.

But just when I thought the lesson had been learned – or at least, one of the lessons Margaret Curran keeps on assuring us Labour will get round to learning one day – up pops Ed Balls to promise that everyone has to pay the price of austerity. Trying to show that he is not just Balls by name, the Shadow Chancellor decided it was time to get down on the kids.  If Labour wins the UK election next year it will cut child benefit in real terms for all families by keeping increases to 1 per cent in the first two years of the next Parliament.  This, he decreed, was evidence that Labour won’t “duck the difficult decisions” saving £400 million from family finances in order to cut the deficit. Apparently, Labour won’t spend money it can’t afford – so it will make sure families find it harder to afford essentials like food, school uniforms and shoes too.

When the government deficit is in the trillions, when even the Scottish block grant amounts to tens of billions, £400 million over two years is chickenfeed.  Chickenfeed that is in government spending, but the universality of the cap means it will disproportionately hurt those families on the lowest incomes more.  Yep, in favour of universality when it suits them, when there is squeezing and saving to be achieved.

Still, Balls proved himself to be the equivalent of George Osborne’s warm up act.

The measures he and indeed, Iain Duncan Smith announced today at Conservative party conference are so abhorrent in terms of their potential for harm to children that you wonder if they employed Cruella de Vil, Snow White’s Wicked Stepmother and Rumpelstiltskin to concoct them.

Osborne saw Balls on his 1% cap on child benefit and raised him – a two year freeze on all working age benefits, including child benefit and working and child tax credit.  “We are going to finish what we have started. What I offer is a serious plan for a grown-up country. An economic plan for hardworking people.”  Clearly, families in work, on poverty pay, with dependent children do not qualify as hardworking. And neither do young people.

Overall, the measures will save £3 billion on the welfare bill.  But never fear, those big companies who avoid paying their fair share of tax?  A clampdown.  Again.  Which will bring in millions or even, hundreds of millions.  So big business goes on making big profits, cocking a snook at the idea of paying its share, while families with children suffer an unprecedented squeeze.

The Tories also announced “an ambitious package to end the fate of 18 to 21 year olds languishing on unemployment benefits“.  Six months to get a job or else.  An apprenticeship, a training scheme or community work, for an allowance, not a wage.  The Prime Minister refused to, or failed to clarify, whether young adults with children would be excluded.  Which means they probably won’t.  No benefits, a paltry allowance, sanctions if you don’t.  Welcome to the Tories’ idea of a grown up country which punishes children for daring to be born.

Some children deserve to be punished more.  Any child which dares to be born to feckless parents who have “fallen into a damaging spiral” – substance misuse or debt or one of the other myriad symptoms of poverty – they will have the dignity of money removed from them and get vouchers instead.  They might as well hang a bell round their neck while they’re at it. On one level, they have a point. It is important to ensure that children’s basic needs are met.  But you don’t do that by further diminishing their parents’ capacity: you help to create control over their lives and their circumstances, investing in their assets, in their capacity, competence and confidence.

And listening to it and trying to digest it all, the question keeps returning – what have innocent children – thousands, hundreds of thousands of children – done to deserve this?  Why are they the ones to pay the price of austerity?  Where is the compassion for our most vulnerable, voiceless citizens?  Where is the acknowledgement that for our economy and society to thrive in the years to come we will need the next generation to have been invested in, to have been given the best possible start in life so that they might go on to have decent life chances.

Every child should enjoy equality of opportunity, no matter their circumstances. The opportunity of a warm, dry home.  Of a childhood free from the stress and strain of financial worries and debt.  Of nourishing meals as a given, not an occasion. Of rights given freely by those with responsibility for their well-being.  Of being valued, cherished, nurtured. Of growing up safe and secure.

Instead, Labour and Tories are engaged in a race to the bottom, to determine which party can be toughest on children and toughest on the cause of children.

And we are powerless to prevent it going ahead.






Gary Wilson: My journey to Yes

When folk say that Scotland is a village, they really do mean it. It’s funny how people you know through contact in a certain sphere, turn up again somewhere completely different and totally unexpected.  When I first met Gary Wilson, I knew he was a Labour member and involved in Better Together. I never dreamed that we’d end up on the same side nor that I’d get to hear his eloquent and powerful explanation for his Journey to Yes:

I began life in this campaign as a Labour party member and as the Better Together co-ordinator for my area, Edinburgh East. I’d like to say I beat off stiff opposition for the “honour” but lots of my Labour colleagues were uneasy about the alliance with the Tories in Better Together. I came forward because I saw it as my duty and no one else could or would.

But it didn’t take long for two concerns to emerge. First, here I was hob-nobbing with the very people I had spent all my life campaigning against. Second, a no vote could lead to the worst possible option for me – another Tory government in charge of all of us in the UK.

And I had been speaking with friends who work with homeless people, disabled people, and lone parents about the impact of welfare reform. It was more than I could stomach
and I began listening instead to my heart. And my heart told me I could not be part of the Better Together campaign. Even though I continue to be a Labour party member in
Edinburgh East.

I also started looking into the arguments against staying in the UK – the case, particularly the economic case, for independence for Scotland is strong, very strong. I also began to notice
the very vicious press attacks designed to scare folk and the success these scare tactics appeared to be having.

And so I journeyed to Yes. And I am not alone.

A lot of my Labour friends have doubts and are uneasy at the position they find themselves in with the party throwing their lot in with the Tories.

As a gay man who had come out many years ago, I was under no illusion of the impact of “coming out” for yes. But I had to do it. And it has been difficult but also the right thing to do.

I recall hearing Ruth Davidson (Scottish Conservative leader) talking to young people about change and how she felt that she now lived in a liberating, exciting, free country ie the UK.

That isn’t my experience. And there’s nothing exciting about the current environment of cuts and pay freezes for public sector workers. It’s not exciting for the one million living in poverty in Scotland. It’s not exciting being attacked for being sick or being disabled.

There has been a 400% rise in the last year in the number of people in Scotland using foodbanks to stave off hunger – I don’t call that liberating, I call that a disgrace. Where’s the freedom for the 1 in 5 living in poverty in the world’s sixth largest economy?

I did not get involved in the Labour party to sanction public service and welfare cuts but to fight them. And now I can by campaigning for independence for Scotland.

It took me a while to get involved with Labour for Independence, but I’m glad I did. We are fighting for what we believe in and there are more of us than the Labour
party likes to pretend.

Labour avoids damaging headlines by hurting the hardest hit

Clearly, the Scottish Labour MPs who trailed the Tories into the lobby to vote for the welfare cap in the House of Commons yesterday didn’t hear the Mental Welfare Commission’s condemnation of the new benefits system, far less take time to read its investigation report.  Following the suicide of a woman who failed her work capability assessment – not a scrounger in the parlance but a woman who had worked most of her adult life until becoming ill with significant mental health issues in her fifties – the Commission examined her particular case in the wider context of the welfare reform progamme, surveying psychiatrists to gauge the impact of these assessments on a wider cohort of individuals with mental health issues.

Its investigation found that “the decision [relating to the woman’s benefits] was made on the basis of an assessment that contained insufficient information about her mental health” and that more generally, “the work capability assessment needs to be more sensitive to mental health issues“. Effectively, how she was treated and communicated with, contributed to her taking her own life.

We can expect more tragic stories like this, following the application of a welfare cap as part of the UK budget – or Charter for Budget Responsibility as it is properly called.  This puts a ceiling on overall expenditure on benefits.  It excludes state pensions, council tax benefit (now devolved) and job seekers’ allowance but includes all the benefits paid to people due to disability or ill-health such as disability living allowance, carers’ allowance and incapacity benefits. It will also affect families with children as it includes child benefit and pensioners will not escape its potential impact either, for it includes winter fuel payments and attendance allowance.  It is not just aimed at those out of work but will cap the amount of benefits paid to those in work as well, especially those with children, encompassing tax credits and also housing benefit (which is relied on by many in work-related poverty to meet housing costs).

The details clearly do not appear to have bothered most of Scotland’s MPs.  Only the SNP’s five and two hardy Labour souls with a conscience – Katy Clark and Michael Connarty – voted against it. Apparently, this is because Labour had to avoid the “political bear trap” set for it by the Tories. Presumably this means that had it abstained or voted against, the Conservatives aided and abetted by the right wing press would have attacked Labour for being soft on benefit scroungers.

Some left-leaning lobby journalists – yes, that’s you Kevin Schofield and Torcuil Crichton – tried to conflate this cap on overall welfare spending with the cap on individual household benefits. All the better to try and embarrass the Nats you see, thanks to a line in an interview by the First Minister which suggested there might be a place for limiting the amount of  benefits any one household could claim. Apparently, this made the SNP hypocrites and this was the real story from yesterday for some Laboury types.

Which just goes to show how far some will travel in their efforts to protect the Labour party. For having voted for it yesterday, presumably this means Labour will continue to apply the cap, if it wins the 2015 General Election.  And while a cap might be superficially popular because no one understands it – because no one beyond the policy wonks has tried to understand and explain it – that won’t last once it starts to bite.

In practical terms, if expenditure on welfare looks set to breach the cap, cuts must be made to prevent that happening. The biggest area of expenditure is on tax credits – the money the government pays to help people work, either through childcare tax credits or because their wages are at such low levels, the state has to augment their income to make work pay. The second biggest is on housing benefit – and we are already seeing the damage being done by the dread bedroom tax. Labour if voted in in 2015 proposes to ditch the spare room subsidy but hasn’t quite got round to telling us what it might do instead, which is now a rather urgent issue, having supported this ceiling.

Next up is the bill for supporting disabled people – many of whom rely on DLA (as it was) to provide care and travel support to enable them to work incidentally – and that too will need to be kept under control. Expect more humiliating work capacity assessments then and potentially, more destitute disabled people.  And more suicides.

This political gimmick has the potential to hurt hundreds of thousands of people across these islands, because little attention has been paid to current demographic trends. First, we are experiencing a baby boom – more people having babies means more statutory maternity pay and child benefit being paid and more demand for child and childcare tax credits.  Which should be a good thing but according to the Tories, Lib Dems and now Labour, now isn’t.

Second, we may be in economic recovery but the data also shows that many are having to work part-time and that wages have been largely frozen, thus meaning potentially more qualifying for working tax credits. Third, we are also an ageing population:  more of us survive well into old age for longer, meaning more will have to be spent on things like winter fuel payments and attendance allowance.

Finally, as this excellent analysis points out, in times of economic instability, forecasting the amount a government needs to spend on welfare and benefits is difficult. Plucking figures out of the air for now will only work if the rest of the economic forecasts are accurate – and we know how good the Tory-Lib Dem government has been at this.

Still, I’m sure this is exactly the kind of homework all those Labour MPs did before they responded to the crack of the party whip. Now all we need is a plan from the Eds not just to avoid adverse headlines but also which will prevent ordinary people – hard working families!  squeezed middle! those hardest hit by the cost of living crisis! – bearing the brunt of unfair and unjustified cuts to their benefits and household incomes.

And just in case they haven’t quite got round to that yet, here’s one Scotland prepared earlier:  independence.