Two particular emails from constituents last week rest in my mind: One from an EU National who has lived and worked here for years, and is becoming increasingly concerned about their status in light of the “hostile environment” for migrants created by the UK Government; the other from a hardworking chap who has hit hard times and feels degraded by the treatment he is receiving under the Westminster Government’s welfare system. Both of these constituents have contributed much to East Kilbride and Scotland and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Sadly that’s not the case.
The uncertainty for those who have come from other lands and settled here is palpable. It’s horrible, and so difficult to understand how, just how, people who have lived and worked here for decades can be told “you’re illegal”; how they can be denied medical treatment, how they can be deported from their home. How many of us here in EK are second or third generation migrants? Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Indian, Chinese – the list goes on.
I truly believe that given the powers to do so, any elected Government in Scotland would do things differently; would start from a baseline of treating people with respect and dignity. I was heartened last week when the Scottish Government’s Social Security legislation was passed unanimously, by all parties in the Scottish Parliament. This followed the agreement, after the Independence Referendum, that further powers would be devolved to Scotland. I have said here before that the social security powers handed over are much fewer than we need to really make a difference, though some of them are indeed important.
For the first time ever, it has been enshrined in law that social security is a basic right, with the creation of an independent Social Security Commission to ensure all future regulations or changes comply with human rights.
Eleven benefits are being devolved between now and the end of this Parliamentary term: Disability Living Allowance and Personal Independence Payments; Carer’s Allowance; Attendance Allowance; Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit; Winter Fuel Allowance and Cold Weather Payments; Sure Start Maternity Grants; Funeral Payments; Discretionary Housing Payments.
Start date has already been agreed for Carer’s Allowance, which will from this summer be increased by the Scottish Government to the same level as Jobseeker’s Allowance. From next year, a new Best Start Grant will be available to parents of new-born children.
The infrastructure required and the transfer of other benefits is still being worked upon, though it has already been decided that there will be no private sector involvement in disability benefit assessments and an end to multiple unnecessary assessments. The indignity of assessment and review for people who are terminally ill will end – no arbitrary “six-months to live” condition applied.
Under our new system, a right to challenge a decision will no longer mean money being instantly cut. My office has worked on many cases where benefits have stopped, often for those who can least afford it, and often at the worst possible time. Great time and effort is then spent on claiming back what’s rightfully due, and the stress this causes is huge.
Unlike with the UK Government benefits, the value of welfare will not be eroded through benefit freezes, and instead annual increases will be in line with inflation. With the new, limited powers over Universal Credit, the Scottish Government has already increased flexibility around payments, with claimants now able to request they are made twice monthly, or that the Housing Benefit element is paid directly to their landlord.
The Scottish Government has already spent millions of pounds in mitigating the effects of Westminster policies – the bedroom tax for example, and by crisis grants through the Scottish Welfare Fund. This transfer of powers over some elements of the welfare system will allow us to treat people ‘as we would surely like to be treated ourselves’.
Dignity and respect were central to our handling of the Social Security legislation in Scotland. We could apply the same to immigration – a system to meet Scotland’s needs and aspirations. A system underpinned with dignity and respect. As both of my recent email correspondents noted, a baseline sadly not applied by the UK Government.