Minister spars with Labour over best means of undoing Tory welfare reforms following UN poverty report

Labour need to stop “weaponising” the two-child policy against the SNP and work with the Scottish Government, Aileen Campbell argued

SCOTTISH COMMUNITIES MINISTER Aileen Campbell condemned the “systemic failings” of Tory welfare reforms in her ministerial statement on UN Special Rapporteur Professor Philip Alston’s recently published report on UK poverty and human rights.

However, despite muted and marginal rebuttals from the Scottish Conservative MSPs present – who Campbell claimed were unwilling to stand up and defend a Tory government – subsequent questions saw friction between the minister and Scottish Labour over the extent to which the Scottish Government can and should mitigate UK Government policy.

The poverty report accused UK ministers of being in “a state of denial” over the crisis their policies have unleashed on the UK, prompting newly appointed Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd to dismiss the report earlier this month, saying Professor Alston had “discredited” his own findings.

By contrast, Campbell endorsed the report’s findings, saying: “Professor Alston’s report is a damning indictment of the systemic failings of the UK Government, which has overseen the first sustained rises in poverty in recent years – sustained rises which threaten to engulf almost four in every ten children in Scotland by 2030.

Campbell agreed with Professor Alston’s assessment that this prospect was a “social calamity and an economic disaster all rolled into one,” arguing that “further projected increases [in poverty] would be an attack on the very fabric of our society.”

 “Austerity and welfare cuts are not a necessity, They are a political choice, and in Scotland, we have made a different choice.” Communities minister Aileen Campbell

Campbell cited Professor Alston’s conclusion that “welfare changes have been a political choice, not a necessity,” contending that the UK Government could have genuinely ended austerity in the last UK budget. “But the political choice was made to find tax cuts for the wealthy instead.”

Campbell highlighted Professor Alston’s findings that the costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately on women, disabled people, minority ethnic communities, people in poverty and lone parents, as well as his call for an end to the benefit cap and the “abhorrent” rape clause, saying: “I hope his remarks will add weight to the repeated asks made by Scottish ministers and many others for exactly those changes.”

Campbell went on to say that the UN report also backed up widespread criticisms of Universal Credit, notably the in-built five week wait for payments to UC claimants, which in practice can be much longer.

“Advance payments to bridge that gap are then required to be paid back at a rate that substantially reduces household income.

READ MORE: ‘Stay angry’: Activists urge the public to keep Tories under pressure to scrap two child cap

“This is austerity by design,” Campbell continued. “Pushing people into debt, rent arrears and to emergency funding and food banks at the very start of receiving benefits. And again, the human cost is on people’s health and wellbeing. No one should be going hungry because they can’t afford to eat, or be anxious because they have to borrow money to put the heating on, or worry about being made homeless because endless delays mean their rent may not be paid.”

Professor Alston’s findings join those of the National Audit Office, the Work and Pensions Committee, and numerous charities and stakeholders, all of whom have made similar criticisms of UC.

While Campbell welcomed recent remarks by Amber Rudd that she wishes to deliver a “fair, compassionate and efficient welfare system”, the minister warned that “warm words are not enough,” and said that Rudd must “stop Universal Credit now.”

Campbell raised the fact that no consideration has thus far been given by the UK Government to what effect Brexit might have on UK policy, despite Scottish Government calls for an impact assessment. Campbell went on to call for a plan from the UK Government to ensure that those on low incomes are protected from the negative repercussions of any Brexit outcome.

Welcoming Professor Alston’s recognition that Scotland has taken a “fundamentally different approach”, Campbell emphasised the role of Scotland’s new social security agency, the Scottish Welfare Fund, and the £125m spent across 2018/19 on welfare mitigation and supporting those in Scotland on low incomes.

READ MORE: Hilary Long: The UN's findings on poverty in the UK reveal the rotten heart of Tory Britain

However, Campbell added, the Scottish Government was only capable at present of mitigating the worst of UK Government welfare policies, quoting Professor Alston’s opinion that “mitigation is a choice, and it is not sustainable.”

 “Austerity and welfare cuts are not a necessity,” Campbell concluded. “They are a political choice, and in Scotland, we have made a different choice.”

To take further action, Campbell reiterated the SNP’s frequent demand for the devolution of further welfare powers.

Labour MSP Elaine Smith acknowledged that the report had credited the Scottish Government with mitigating Tory welfare policies to an extent, but nevertheless argued that “it is not enough today to just attack to Tory government,” echoing Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard and UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s recent call for the Scottish Government to reverse to two-child cap in the upcoming Scottish budget.

Campbell rejected the suggestion that “we are just sitting idly by”, and again reiterated the amount the Scottish Government has spent “mopping up the UK Government’s mess”.

READ MORE: Scottish Parliament slams Universal Credit ahead of UN inquiry into Tory austerity

Campbell argued that the Labour Party needs to stop “weaponising” the two-child policy: “We want to work together in order to make a difference to women’s lives across the country.”

Debate between Labour and the SNP on this matter has become increasingly heated, with some pointing out that Labour under Ed Miliband’s leadership abstained on the Conservative welfare bill which included the two child-cap, and pointing out that opposition to the cap and the rape clause have been spearheaded by SNP politicians like MP Alison Thewliss.

Following on from Campbell’s warnings about the impending effect of Brexit, Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole Hamilton raised the possibility of a ‘People’s Vote’ with Scottish Government backing.

Campbell reiterated First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s position that she would not “stand in the way” of a second referendum on EU membership, but emphasised the need to focus upon preparing for the possible impact of Brexit upon the poorest in society, particularly in light of the “shambolic” way UK Government is taking Brexit forward.

Picture courtesy of Helen Cobain

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