Welfare Reform

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 23rd April 2013.

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Photo of Mark McDonald Mark McDonald Scottish National Party

I do not want to get hung up on the bedroom tax and spend the entirety of my speech on that topic, but I want to mention it briefly at the beginning; it will also come up in one of the case studies to which I will refer.

I received a report from the charity Crisis entitled “The homelessness monitor: Scotland 2012”, which was published in December 2012. The report was put together by Crisis, Heriot-Watt University and the University of York. It highlights two other changes that are being made in the housing sphere that will impact on homelessness in Scotland beyond the bedroom tax.

The first change mentioned in the report is the

“extension of the ‘Shared Accommodation Rate’ of Local Housing Allowance to 25-34 year-olds living in the private rented sector, which will increase pressure on a limited supply of shared accommodation and possibly force vulnerable people into inappropriate shared settings (even with the concession for those who have lived in hostels for at least three months)”.

The other change is the

“increased conditionality and sanctions associated with the Work Programme, coupled with the transferring of many vulnerable complaints from sickness benefits into Jobseeker’s Allowance, implying the possibility of stringent sanctions applied to vulnerable single homeless people and others with chaotic lifestyles.”

Therefore, it would be wrong to say that only the bedroom tax will have an impact on the homelessness agenda.

An interesting thing about the bedroom tax is that because we have ended priority need in Scotland, 64 per cent of homeless applications come from single people, as opposed to 25 per cent south of the border. However, one-bedroom properties make up 26 per cent of social housing, which means that people who are homeless will be housed in properties in which they will find themselves subjected to the bedroom tax.

We should not single out the bedroom tax for mitigation, because there are other benefits that people might wish us to mitigate. We therefore must make the case for why we can mitigate one but not another. We can do that for council tax benefit because power has been passed in its entirety to this Parliament’s control. However, the bedroom tax remains a reserved imposition on Scotland, rather than something that has been transferred to our control.

Drew Smith was correct when he said to Willie Rennie that if the policy is about saving money it can work only if people do not relocate—in effect, the bedroom tax can work only if it does not work. The stated aim of the policy, according to UK ministers, is to encourage people to relocate to a smaller property, but it will not save money, as Mr Rennie alleges that it will; it will simply be ineffective.

Mr Rennie accused members of being spineless. I know that I am not, because if I lacked a spine I would be getting annual invitations to see Atos, to find out whether it had grown back and I was capable of work. That is the process that disabled people are having to go through, as though a miracle can have somehow occurred in the previous 12 months. I have heard tales of people who are, in effect, in a childlike state because of brain injuries but who are constantly invited back, as if the brain injury will have gone away in the 12 months since they were last assessed. Such bureaucracy will clearly cost money to administer, as well as being utterly degrading for the people who go through it.

I will focus on a couple of cases to do with autism, which is an issue that is close to my heart. I mentioned one of them in last Thursday’s debate. Tracy Mahoney is a Castlehill Housing Association tenant in Sheddocksley, in Aberdeen. She has two sons: Bradley, who is 14 and has additional support needs; and Jason, who is 11 and has autism. They live in a three-bedroom house, which was given to them because the paediatric consultant said that Jason required a bedroom to himself because of his behavioural and sleeping issues. Tracy is now losing £50 a month as a result of the housing benefit underoccupancy rule, although she needs a bedroom for Jason as a result of his autism.

Today in the Daily Record, we read about Sandy Miklinski, a 27-year-old with autism, and his experience of assessments for DLA and for work capability. The people who assessed him admitted to having little understanding of autism and what it entails, but he has been put into work situations that are clearly not suitable for individuals with autism. Welfare reform might be necessary, but what is also necessary is an understanding of the conditions with which people present, so that people can be treated as humanely as possible. Autism is a difficult disability to recognise, because it does not present through physical symptoms, but it is crucial that people understand it before they consider putting a person into a workplace that might prove stressful and counterproductive for them.

Vulnerable people are not asking for much. UK ministers appear to be putting forward the view that the welfare state is a comfort blanket. It is not a comfort blanket; it is a safety net. As Michael McMahon said, the UK Government is widening the holes in the safety net, so that more people fall through it. The poor are hit by welfare cuts at the same time as the rich get tax cuts. I could sum up the UK Government’s logic as, “The rich will work harder if we give them more money and the poor will work harder if we give them less money.” The approach is ridiculous and inhumane and attacks the most vulnerable people in society. The UK Government ought to be ashamed of itself.