A Budget Constrained by Caution

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This article appeared in the Evening Telegraph: 11/02/2019 [Online], Available: https://www.eveningtelegraph.co.uk/fp/ewan-gurr-no-money-to-alleviate-poverty-an-example-of-holyroods-lack-of-political-vision/  [Accessed: 2019, Feb 13]

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Last week, I travelled to the Scottish Parliament for the budget address with Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network (SUWN), a campaign group based in Dundee which was joined by campaigners from across Scotland in the call for progressive taxation for welfare mitigation. They sought a £5 increase in child benefit as well as greater investment in the Scottish Welfare Fund and for discretionary housing payments.

Outside the Scottish Parliament prior to Derek Mackay’s address, Sarah Glynn, a SUWN organiser, addressed the demonstrators saying: “465 people in Scotland per day rely on food parcels from foodbanks to survive.” She added, “The Scottish Government talk about dignity, fairness and respect, so we call upon them to use this vital opportunity to make an investment in the lives of people experiencing crisis.”

Glynn closed by saying, “We know that Scottish powers are limited, and we are ready to believe that if we had control over welfare, the situation would be much improved but Scotland does have the power to provide more help where it is most needed, and the power to raise money through more progressive taxation to pay for this without making cuts elsewhere.”

I am neither a member nor supporter of any political party but I would say I have been broadly supportive of the SNP’s stewardship of the economy. The abolition of student debts, provision of free school meals and establishment of the Scottish Welfare Fund are all commendable. However, as I sat in the public chamber at the Scottish Parliament for the budget address last week, it struck me as unremarkable.

Mackay promised “certainty and stability for Scotland” in the face of “a UK Government engaging in the systematic damage to our economy.” There was crucial investment in local government, healthcare provision and affordable housing as well as education but no reference to any of the investment requests made by the Scottish Unemployed Workers’ Network.

It was also a window into the state of our politics in Scotland. Aside from the poor concessions secured by the Scottish Greens, there were embarrassing Doctor Who analogies from the Scottish Conservatives, a pitiful defence of a decision not to invest £250,000 to lift 15,000 children out of poverty from a former social security minister and another cabinet member who, at one point, laughed so hard she fell off her seat.

I think most will understand a degree of fiscal caution on the eve of Brexit but what felt more distressing than the lack of investment in efforts to alleviate poverty was a poverty of political vision for Scotland. I caught up with Sarah Glynn for her post-budget reflections and she said brusquely: “The SNP are taking for granted the support of the working class people of Scotland.”

Between Stealing Food and Starvation

Last week, Evening Telegraph reporter Jon Brady and I spoke with a homeless lady called Dawn following the news of an increase in homeless applications in Dundee. Dawn was glad to have secured a tenancy and moved into her new home last Friday but also shared about the challenges she has faced securing employment due to a recurring question over a conviction she had for stealing food to avoid starvation.

It was, therefore, encouraging to discover that the Supreme Court last week ruled in favour of three people who claimed their lives were adversely affected in the pursuit of employment by past minor criminal convictions. The judges found that the way the criminal records were disclosed infringed upon their human rights impeding their ability to find work.

Having spent half of my life providing food to people experiencing poverty, I have sympathy for the late socialist John Maclean, who once stated if you cannot secure food by usual means you should just take it. If I had to make a choice between stealing food and starving my children, I know I would. Thankfully, the Supreme Court also believes such extreme acts should not destroy future life opportunities.