Social Security is under unprecedented attack in the UK – both the payments and the principle of the thing.
Sick and disabled people face and uphill struggle through flawed assessments to even qualify for benefits. The onward march of “conditionality” leaves almost all working age claimants subject to a cruel sanctions regimes. The Welfare Reform and Work Act, which received royal assent on March 17th will cause untold child poverty by limiting Child Tax Credit to the first two children.
The only good news on the horizon is the new social security powers in the Scotland Act. The next Scottish Parliament will have powers over:
• Disability and Carers Benefits
• Social Fund Grants
• The Work Programme
• The administration of Universal Credit and the amount of housing payments under the scheme.
• The ability to create new benefits in “devolved areas” and “top up” existing benefits
All of this, in addition to Scottish Welfare Fund and Council Tax Reduction scheme (which, of course, we already had). Thursday’s election will be the first with these new powers on the table. How do the parties plan to use them?
The SNP have devoted the most attention to Welfare Benefits and have proposals to use all of the new powers in some way.
A number of measures are focused on children and seem to be a creative means of mitigating the upcoming Child Tax Credit Cut. Beyond the much-publicised Baby Boxes we also have an expansion of the Sure Start Maternity Grant to provide cash payments to all low income children at birth, the beginning of nursery and at the start of primary school.
There are also increased personal allowances for children in Council Tax Reduction; protection of Disability Living Allowance for children in hospital; Winter Fuel Payments for families with disabled children; double the Carers Allowance for parents of more than one disabled child; and a Jobs Grant for young people aged 16 to 24.
Other policies include: Greater flexibility in the payments of Universal Credit; fairer assessments for disability benefits; and protection of Housing Benefit for young people.
The Scottish Labour Party released their manifesto belatedly and have taken the SNP’s lead on much. Overall their proposals are less generous to low income families. They propose a large increase to the Sure Start Maternity Grant, for example, but would not provide additional grants in the early years.
They do propose a top up benefit for women effected by the increased pension age, which is a nice populist touch.
Increasing Carers Allowance and Ending the Bedroom Tax are two policies that have almost complete cross party support. Credit is due to the grassroots campaigners who have worked to put these demands on the table. Political consensus does not build itself.
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats propose to make little use of the new powers beyond this, other than tinkering with the Work Programme and, in the case of the Lib-Dems, protecting young people from future Housing Benefit cuts.
This reflects the right-wing agenda of Westminster. It is an agenda that has been comprehensively rejected by the Scottish people. The enduring post-referendum support for Yes Parties is fuelled by popular anti austerity feelings. We have not fought for these new powers to elect parties who will not use them.
The only party worse than these two is UKIP who deserve a slow handclap for making only one Social Security pledge, to end the bedroom tax. I suspect this is the only aspect of Social Security Law they have heard of.
Turning to the smaller parties:
Pretty much everyone (UKIP exempted) plans to increase maternity grants and carers allowances and make assessments for disability benefits fairer.
The Greens also pledge a weekly top up to Child Benefit. This was a proposal from Child Poverty Action Group and it’s nice to see it taken up by someone.
RISE would ultimately like to see a Universal Basic Income but acknowledge that this is not possible at present. They would beat every other party on Carers Allowance, proposing a rise to £200 and 10 days holiday pay. They also have an interesting idea for an Economic Justice Fund, which would provide a guaranteed income to anyone fighting a benefits appeal.
As a small party fighting their first election, they lack the resources to plan a cohesive strategy. If they can get an MSP up, they will be judged on how effective they are at persuading other parties to take up their policies. The benchmark will be the SSP’s effectiveness on free school meals and ending warrant sales.
The Women’s Equality Party is one of the few to propose that Universal Credit payments be split between partners. This is a surprising oversight on the part of the other parties. Social security Benefits (often paid, at present, to the mother of a family) are the only financial independence some women have and can be a lifeline for those in an abusive relationship. Child Benefit was originally referred to as a “wallet to purse transfer” and was actually devised with this effect in mind.
The Women’s Equality Party deserve credit for spotting the implications of the single payee in Universal Credit which I suspect will see men annexing the families benefit income for themselves. Unfortunately this is the only credit I can give them. Since their inception they have failed to recognise austerity as a women’s issue. This is despite the fact that austerity policies, and Social Security Cuts particularly, disproportionately affect women. Working class women should not forgive them easily for this.