This is a blog about how angry I am with all four of our major Parties.
Let's start with the Coalition Parties. The Bedroom tax, at the sharp end, is an outrageously callous piece of legislation. I don't have any difficulty with supporting the idea that no-one should be subsidised to live in a house larger than they need but only a very small number of people affected actually fall into that category. The key is in the word need.
Surely the absent parent with residential contact to their children "needs" a bedroom for them to sleep in? Or many disabled households "need" to have separate bedrooms so that the able bodied partner (and carer) can get a decent night's sleep? Or even that those with accepted over-occupancy "need" to be able to pay their rent if there is nowhere smaller available for them to stay? Yet all of these people are swept up in a blanket policy; indeed, since they constitute the majority of those affected, it must surely be assumed that they are consciously targeted by it.
Let's not forget that the reason historically that public sector housing benefit has had different rules from private sector benefit is that the whole basis for the entitlement to and allocation of public sector housing has been "need". The bedroom tax doesn't make that need go away.
So for starters I am angry with the Tories and their Lib Dem allies.
But then let's move on to the SNP. Last weekend Nicola gave an interview promising that "after independence" the bedroom tax would be abolished. This was cynical politics of the worst sort. What exactly was the message here? If you are affected by the tax then if you can only find some way of paying your rent for THREE YEARS and, invest your faith in a Yes vote a year in October. then everything will be hunky-dory thereafter. This is a worthless promise because, of course, in three years time, the Bedroom Tax will have had its effect. People will,at best, have moved to smaller accomodation and, at worst, have been evicted and living in God knows what circumstance. For once you don't need to ask the Nationalists to cost their promise because this is a promise with no cost. But there is something much worse in Nicola's crocodile tears, it is the premise that nothing can be done without Independence. Because that is a completely false premise.
And that leads me on to the final Party with whom I am angry; the Official opposition, my own Party.
This Leadership are of course the progenitors of the infamous "Now that the Tories are back" 2011 Manifesto.Unlike the Tories, who are indifferent to the misery their policy will cause, or the SNP who seek to do no more than exploit that misery for their supposed wider advantage, we are meant to be the ones who would, given the chance, be looking to do something to prevent it. Or as the Official opposition at least exposing the hypocrisy of the Nationalist Government in failing to do that.
There are of course one or two well intentioned private initiatives on our side. Govan Law Centre have suggested that it be made illegal to evict for rent arrears those whose failure to pay is only as a consequence of the Bedroom Tax. Another suggestion is to classify the "third" room in some public sector housing as something other than a bedroom. The problem with both of these suggestions is that at best they take £50 Million per annum (the impact of the Bedroom Tax in Scotland) out of the revenues of public sector landlords. That comes at a cost borne by equally innocent victims, the tenants who will suffer in the form of improvements and repairs not undertaken, or indeed the employment of those who might be carrying out these repairs and improvements.
Short term at least the Govan proposal has my support but it is not a long term solution. The long term solution has to be based on replacing that revenue.
And that's not impossible. Housing Benefit is of course reserved to Westminster but Public sector Housing; Local Government and Local Government Finance are all devolved. So what might be done?
Well, first of all, there are Discretionary Housing Payments. These already exist and involve the Local Authority paying the shortfall that might, under the current system, exist between the rent and the ability of the tenant to pay even after Housing Benefit. Even the Tories recognise that the Bedroom Tax will throw up some indefensible cases so they have provided direct funding to Local Authorities to increase their ability to make Discretionary Housing Payments. I have tried to find the figure specifically allocated to Scotland for this but without success. The UK figure is however for general and bedroom tax provision is £50 Million so it's reasonable to assume the Scottish Figure to be around £5 Million.
But that's not the end of it. The Discretionary Housing Payments (Grants) Order 2001 allows that to be topped up by an individual Local Authority to the extent of 250%. So, if they had the money, Local Authorities could immediately find an additional £7.5 Million to set against the £50 Million cost of the Bedroom Tax. Except that they clearly do not have that money. But the Scottish Government could give it to them. (I'll come back to this).
But is that all? Well, look at this!
Those immersed in this area will know that the powers of the Scottish Parliament extend to all matters which are not specifically reserved to Westminster. And that these reservations are contained in Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act 1998. And of course Social Security Benefits (including Housing Benefits) are reserved, aren't they?
Now I appreciate that it might be asking a bit much of MSPs who spent the first week of the horsemeat scandal blissfully unaware that food safety was a devolved issue to be particularly familiar with Schedule 5 of the Scotland Act 1998 but I might expect somebody to have read it.
Anyway, here's what it says at the relevant part as to what is reserved.
Head F – Social Security
F1. Social security schemes
Schemes supported from central or local funds which provide assistance for social security purposes to or in respect of individuals by way of benefits.
Requiring persons to—
establish and administer schemes providing assistance for social security purposes to or in respect of individuals, or
make payments to or in respect of such schemes,
and to keep records and supply information in connection with such schemes.
· The circumstances in which a person is liable to maintain himself or another for the purposes of the enactments relating to social security and the Child Support Acts 1991 and 1995.
· The subject-matter of the Vaccine Damage Payment Scheme.
National Insurance; Social Fund; administration and funding of housing benefit and council tax benefit; recovery of benefits for accident, injury or disease from persons paying damages; deductions from benefits for the purpose of meeting an individual’s debts; sharing information between government departments for the purposes of the enactments relating to social security; making decisions for the purposes of schemes mentioned in the reservation and appeals against such decisions.
The subject-matter of Part II of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968 (social welfare services), section 2 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 (provision of welfare services), section 50 of the Children Act 1975 (payments towards maintenance of children), section 15 of the Enterprise and New Towns (Scotland) Act 1990 (industrial injuries benefit), and sections 22 (promotion of welfare of children in need), 29 and 30 (advice and assistance for young persons formerly looked after by local authorities) of the Children (Scotland) Act 1995.
· “Benefits” includes pensions, allowances, grants, loans and any other form of financial assistance.
· Providing assistance for social security purposes to or in respect of individuals includes (among other things) providing assistance to or in respect of individuals—
who qualify by reason of old age, survivorship, disability, sickness, incapacity, injury, unemployment, maternity or the care of children or others needing care,
who qualify by reason of low income, or
in relation to their housing costs or liabilities for local taxes.
(The highlighted section is my emphasis)
So, I hear you ask what is this odd exception in relation to Part II of the Social Work (Scotland) Act 1968? Well the Title of Part II is "Promotion of Social Welfare by Local Authorities" and here is a link to its entire text which is too substantial just to cut and paste in here.
And in considering that text, notice this. Assuming that it falls within the general heading of "Promotion of Social Welfare by Local Authorities" the Scottish Parliament can amend the provisions of Part II. Indeed, pedants will note that the entire "Free Personal Care" regime has been introduced by just such amendment. Pedants will also note s 12B which, by amendment, allows direct payments for personal care without anyone suggesting that this is not competent despite
· " Providing assistance for social security purposes to or in respect of individuals includes (among other things) providing assistance to or in respect of individuals—
who qualify by reason of old age, survivorship, disability, sickness, incapacity, injury, unemployment, maternity or the care of children or others needing care,"
being reserved to Westminster by virtue of Head F1 of Schedule 5 referred to above.
So, assuming that preventing large numbers of people being rendered homeless and potentially destitute can reasonably be regarded as something which would run contrary to the "promotion of Social Welfare by Local Authorities" there is no reason that the Scottish Parliament could not amend Part II of the 1968 Act to enable local authorities to financially assist those facing that prospect.
But is that even necessary? For let's consider the existing ss 12(1) and 12(2) of that legislation Here's that link again http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1968/49/part/II
And here's the punchline. It it is difficult to assess the cost to a Local Authority of an eviction but given the imperative in terms of the Housing (Scotland) Act 1987 to rehouse the victims, together with the costs to Education Departments of reaccommodating, never mind counselling, affected children and the cost to Social Work Departments of ensuring the welfare of everyone involved, it would not be difficult to argue that any potential "Bedroom Tax" eviction would justify a s.12 payment to prevent it as falling within a category
"where the giving of assistance in either form would avoid the local authority being caused greater expense in the giving of assistance in another form,"
Except again, that would come at a cost.
So what would be that cost?
Now, let's accept that some part of the Bedroom Tax has the effect the Tories desire, by forcing people with the option to downsize to actually do so. The total cost of preventing its worst effects would then probably be not £50 Million but rather somewhere between £30 Million and £40 Million. Let's split the difference and call it £35 Million.
Having met £7.5 Million of that by funding Discretionary Housing Benefit, it would cost another £27.5 Million for the Scottish Government to completely neutralise the Bedroom Tax by funding s.12 payments to cover the remaining shortfall. All, for the avoidance of any doubt, within their current powers.
Of course, £35 Million is a lot of money, certainly a lot more than the Scottish Government has lying spare. So it would need to be found. Where, you ask?
Well, firstly, the cost of providing free prescriptions to the richest 15% of the Scottish population (85% of prescription throughout the UK are free) amounts to £60 Million, Introduce a £4 prescription charge (still less than England) and there's the money found immediately. Or if that wasn't attractive, a 2% increase in Council Tax would produce the £35 Million with something to spare. That wouldn't cost the very poor a penny as they would continue to get 100% Council Tax Benefit. Indeed, ironically, it would force a degree of subsidy from Westminster as they'd retain the obligation to pay that Council Tax benefit.
Now, there is absolutely no prospect of the SNP Government doing any of this, since it would involve taxing or removing perks from the rich to help the poor, and that's not their thing. And it would also cut across their "Up the misery, Independence is the only answer" strategy exhibited, once again, in yesterday's YesScotland press advertisements.
But let's not let them get away with saying nothing can be done because that's not true.
So, in summary, I'm angry with the Tories for their malice; the Lib-Dems for their complicity; the SNP for their cynicism and the Labour Party for its ineptitude as an opposition.
Maybe I should become a Green.