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

Part of Scotland Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 30th June 2015.

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Photo of Ian Blackford Ian Blackford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Pensions) 3:30 pm, 30th June 2015

I thank Sir Edward Leigh for introducing his new clause. I want to pay credit to him: in both his speech this afternoon and his other contributions throughout the debate on the Scotland Bill we have heard many thoughtful and intelligent remarks on the future of Scotland and, from his perspective, the preservation of the Union. On our Benches, we come from a different position, but none the less I respect the position he has taken and the clear thought that has gone into the contributions he has made.

In the election campaign, those of us on the SNP Benches asked the people of Scotland to vote for us in order that we would come to this House to speak up for what we were promised by Gordon Brown: that we would get as close to federalism as possible. Much was said about delivering home rule in the spirit of Keir Hardie, too. It is on that basis that we can argue that, with our share of the popular vote and having won 56 of the 59 seats, we have a clearly expressed mandate from the Scottish people to get what was proclaimed: home rule for Scotland. It is in that context that I commend the amendment before us. It seems to understand the expectations of the Scottish people for the return of power to Holyrood, which has become much stronger in the recent past.

As I mentioned, the hon. Member for Gainsborough comes from a different perspective, in as far as he wants to protect the Union. We wish to see powers in the hands of the Scottish Parliament that allow it to deliver the sustainable economic growth which enables us to deliver on the social priorities that the people of Scotland expect. I say to the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Government that if they will not listen to the

Scottish people and their elected representatives here, they should listen to the wise counsel that in this case comes from their own Benches.

We respect the fact that the Government won the election in the UK—although that does not mean we like it. However, the Government should also respect that we won the election in Scotland. The Secretary of State is of course a lone Government voice, with only 14% of Scots voting for his party—the lowest level of support for a Tory Government in history. It is clear that the Scottish people want the Edinburgh Parliament to have greater control over welfare. I am reminded of the Charles Stewart Parnell quotation often mentioned by my right hon. Friend Alex Salmond:

“no man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has the right to say to his country, ‘Thus far shall thou go and no further.’”

Perhaps, whether on this amendment or on many others, the Government ought to reflect on that quotation.

The issues of fiscal autonomy and freedom to deliver on our aspirations for social security are intertwined. For us, fiscal autonomy is about hope and aspirations, something we heard about just recently. We need the full set of powers to deliver a new Scottish enlightenment that recognises that we need to create the circumstances that will drive up our investment, and deliver growth and productivity. That will result in a rise in real wages, generating the tax receipts that will allow us to deliver investment in social policy, particularly in social security.

That is why we are critical of the taxation powers on offer, which leave the Scottish Parliament in direct control over less than 30% of taxation and, crucially, fall way short on the range of tax powers that could see us incentivise the Scottish economy and deliver growth. This is critical, as the issue of sustainable growth is central to our desire to deliver the investment we need in welfare. Our desire is to invest and deliver a stronger economy, and, through doing so, create the resources that allow us to invest in social protection and, as part of that, to look after today’s and tomorrow’s pensioners.

With those remarks, I welcome the new clause tabled by the hon. Member for Gainsborough and the discussion we are now having. In just over a week, the Chancellor will rise and deliver his emergency Budget. I expect there is in some quarters a sense of anticipation as to what the Budget will deliver, but many SNP Members have a sense of dread, knowing what is coming. The last Government’s failure to grow the economy and deliver tax receipts sees the poor and the disadvantaged of the UK having to pay the price of failure, with an expectation of an additional £12 billion of welfare cuts to come. The ongoing austerity regime will drive an increasing number of people into poverty, and that fact was central to our campaign—showing that there was and indeed is an alternative to austerity, and why we need powers in Scotland to protect our citizens from the most damaging aspects of the UK Government’s welfare programme.

Through the limited powers we have today, to which reference has been made, the Scottish Government are providing £300 million of additional funds between 2013-14 and 2015-16 to mitigate the impact on families in Scotland of Westminster welfare cuts. Not only do we know that the pressure on many working families is going to increase, but we know that the UK Government wish to reassess the definition of “relative poverty” , a sure sign that they recognise that their policies are going to see a dramatic increase in the number of families pushed into poverty as a direct result of their measures.

We know from the analysis done by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, much commented on by the Child Poverty Action Group, that up to 100,000 more children in Scotland risk being pushed into poverty by 2020. For SNP Members, and for many in Scotland and, I expect, throughout the UK, it is unacceptable that anyone should be living in poverty in Scotland and in the UK. That, among other reasons, is why we need powers over welfare in Scotland. A principle important to many on our side, which we firmly believe in, is that society is as strong as its weakest link. That principle is in the mainstream of public opinion in Scotland, but the welfare cuts to come would lead us to the conclusion that it is not shared by all.

Let me turn to the issue of pensions, which was raised by the hon. Member for Gainsborough. One of our particular concerns is the increase in the age when pensioners will access their state pension; it is going up to 66 in 2020, and to 67 between 2034 and 2036, before increasing to 68 thereafter. That may be perfectly acceptable in the parts of the UK where life expectancy has been rising, but the disparity that exists between life expectancy north and south of the border suggests that we need a Scottish solution to our own circumstances. For example, life expectancy for a male child born today in Glasgow is 71.6 years, some seven years below the UK average of 78.2 years. The World Health Organisation has claimed that in the district of Calton in Glasgow, life expectancy for males is 54 years, substantially below the current UK pension age, never mind the increased pension age.

For a woman, the gap in life expectancy is also marked—78 years against a UK average of 82.3. It is little wonder that the state pension represents 11.9% of taxation income in Scotland but 12.1% in the UK. Quite simply, we are not living long enough to enjoy the fruits of the old age pension. If powers over pensions were devolved, our Parliament in Edinburgh could determine how we reflect on our own circumstances to ensure that our citizens can look forward to a comfortable and secure retirement.

The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Gainsborough would have the effect of devolving powers over all pensions, not just the state pension. We welcome that. It would allow us in Scotland to reflect on how we respond to the challenges for both defined contribution and defined benefit schemes. Defined benefit schemes are something of a rare breed these days, and we should reflect on the damage that we have done to the sustainability of such schemes as a consequence of the tax raid on pension schemes initiated when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer by the Member of Parliament for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath.