Clause 24 — Universal credit: costs of claimants who rent accommodation

Part of Scotland Bill – in the House of Commons at 2:45 pm on 30th June 2015.

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Photo of Eilidh Whiteford Eilidh Whiteford Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Social Justice and Welfare) 2:45 pm, 30th June 2015

The right hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. It is worth pointing out that, over the past five years, Scotland has spent a lower proportion of its GDP on pensions and benefits than the UK as a whole. The question of what a social security system can afford is dependent on the success of the economy. That is why our amendments are all designed to bring into the ambit of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament those powers that would enable us to grow our economy, run it more effectively and join up the existing devolved powers with the new powers that we propose. Frankly, getting powers over work and powers over benefits covered by universal credit is extremely important. The other really important point is that we protect the most disadvantaged people in our society from the onslaught of Tory cuts. Again and again, the people of Scotland have made it clear that they want an alternative to this austerity regime—and that is what we want to be in a position to deliver.

The Deputy First Minister, John Swinney has pointed out that it is not difficult to foresee that what might appear to be pretty innocuous requirements to consult the Secretary of State and secure his or her agreement could be translated into what is essentially a blocking power. All sorts of excuses could be used to prevent something from happening. As the Deputy First Minister put it, if the Secretary of State has a “reasonable explanation” for why he is acting in such a way, that passes the test as it currently exists in clause 24. In practice, the Bill gives the UK Government the ability to veto decisions made by the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament. This is not a hypothetical scenario. The Deputy First Minister has pointed out how he spent two years trying to make progress on the block grant adjustment, and was stalled and delayed with more analysis at every turn by the UK Government.

For me, no issue illustrates the shortcomings of the Scotland Bill better than the restrictions it would place on the power of the Scottish Parliament to abolish the bedroom tax. As the Secretary of State knows only too well, this has been an issue close to my heart over the last few years, because of its punitive impact on disabled people in Scotland, its gross unfairness and the enormous pressure it puts on councils and other social housing providers. In Scotland, 80% of people affected by the bedroom tax are in homes with a disabled adult, and there is a chronic mismatch between the house size requirements of tenants and the available housing stock.

Back in April 2013, I led one of the SNP’s very few Opposition day debates here in this Chamber during the previous Parliament on that very topic, and the Secretary of State knows that I questioned him on several occasions about the failure of the policy and its deep unpopularity right across the country.

The Scottish Government have mitigated the impact of the bedroom tax by providing discretionary housing payments to everyone affected, but it is important to recognise that we still cannot abolish that legislation, which remains on the statute book. Moreover, the money to mitigate its worst side-effects has had to be found from other devolved policy budgets—and, crucially, the legal liability remains with tenants. It is far from an ideal solution. In order to mitigate the bedroom tax by lifting the cap on discretionary housing payments, the Scottish Government first had to secure the permission of the UK Government, and the protracted and frustrating process they encountered in attempting to secure that permission illustrates, I think perfectly, why we need to lift this veto. It shows how a need for permission can be drawn out for months at a time.