Welfare reform is a specialist subject for a politician driven by a desire for social justice
Jackie Baillie’s remit as Labour spokeswoman for Social Justice, Equalities and Welfare could have been written especially for her. An early career in the public and voluntary sector was followed by election to the first Scottish Parliament, where she served under Donald Dewar as Communities Deputy. Henry McLeish promoted her to Social Justice Minister in 2000. The topic, therefore, could be described as her specialist subject.
“It’s the thing that gets me up in the morning. You can be in politics for a long time and become jaded about things, but social justice is the reason I got involved in politics,” she tells Holyrood.
The decrease in child poverty under the Labour administration is something she is particularly proud of. Since then, she says, the figures have stagnated: “We live in an age of austerity. There are increasingly more children falling into poverty, more people falling into poverty generally, and when you look at the decline in incomes, it isn’t just those who are on benefits, the working poor are very much with us. The level of low pay is shocking.”
She argues the Scottish Government already holds levers for change: “Whilst they have a good child poverty strategy – it’s not surprising because they sat the sector round the table and said, help us with this – what they don’t have is the resource to back it up, the delivery mechanism, the monitoring.”
The promise to increase nursery places, as outlined in the White Paper for independence is an “inadequate” response, according to Baillie. Childcare should be flexible and affordable. “For those of us who care about tackling poverty, the earlier the intervention, the better; zero to three is where we must put our resources if we’re going to change the outcomes,” she says.
Labour’s record in government was a victory for the devolution she campaigned for, she says. “The reason child poverty dropped so much in Scotland relative to the rest of the UK underlines why it’s not a debate about powers. We deliberately focused on women’s employment and supported it with childcare. That drove down the poverty figures,” she says.
Arguably, the most influential announcement Baillie made in government was the transfer of housing stock from council ownership to housing associations, labelled ‘community ownership’ at the time. The level of debt saddled with the existing stock prevented investment in infrastructure, according to Baillie: “We wanted a clever way to free people from the debt so we could invest in housing. It was embarrassing for many of us to walk round areas we represented and see the quality of housing and the conditions people lived in. Frankly, we would stop at nothing to ensure the investment flowed into housing and that we were transforming people’s lives.”
It has been argued rather than freeing people from debt, schemes involving private investment merely move or ‘hide’ the debt, as was seen with the private finance initiatives in schools and hospitals. Baillie disagrees: “The primary aim was to unlock the money that was being paid in rent to actually pay for improvements. The second aim, which was equally as important for me, was the recognition that community regeneration can often be housing led.”
Working at a neighbourhood level allowed housing associations to do that, she argues: “It was also an opportunity to look at what you can do in terms of the community regeneration itself; how you work with the people behind the doors of those houses. Housing associations were at the forefront of doing some of that, of creating childcare groups, of creating cooperatives in dealing with financial exclusion.”
A product of those reforms, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations is now campaigning for an end to right to buy, and is supported in the Government’s new housing bill. Baillie isn’t convinced.
“I think that’s because they’re worried about their stock. And they’re worried about their stock in the context of the housing programme being slashed by the current government. I can understand why SFHA have adopted this approach. What I would say though is, we modernised the right to buy. It’s equally legitimate for somebody from a more disadvantaged background to want, as we all do, to own an asset. What we did is made that fair,” she says.
Doesn’t the housing stock shrink as a result? “The stock shrinks because we’re not replacing it. The impact on homelessness, rough sleeping is rising, there’s a whole basket of issues there. The bedroom tax, of course, how could I forget that?”
Indeed it would be difficult for Baillie to forget the UK Government’s notorious welfare reform which has seen benefits slashed for those with more rooms in their home than people, given she has repeatedly called for the Scottish Government to do more to mitigate its effects. On live radio in September, Baillie announced Labour would scrap the scheme, only to see a London party spokesman say she had gone “against what we are saying” and accuse her of going “a bit too far”. Only a week later, Labour leader Ed Miliband announced the same thing before the party conference in Brighton. Isn’t this a confusing signal to give to voters?
“Oh no, we’re very clear. We’re absolutely joined at the hip on this. The party has made a very clear commitment they would abolish the bedroom tax if elected in 2015, and it would be one of the first things they did. Equally, in fairness, the SNP have said they would abolish the bedroom tax in the context of independence. In both scenarios, though, people are having to wait, either for a Labour victory at the general election, or for independence to arrive and the negotiations to happen. I am being very practical in saying I absolutely agree with abolition, but you know, people are racking up debt now. We’re seeing them suffer now.”
However, some Labour councils in Scotland have voted down motions to prevent evictions, and at Westminster, a Labour motion to scrap the bedroom tax was defeated after several Labour MPs, including deputy Scottish leader Anas Sarwar, didn’t attend.
“What we were witnessing was all local authorities – it wasn’t just Labour ones, there were SNP-led ones as well – looking at what they were required to do as housing landlords, and what they also wanted to do to protect people. I think the problem you have was politicians playing politics with this in a way that was supremely unhelpful, at all levels, and across all parties. Instead of focusing on what do we need to do, and what do we need to do now, to protect both individual people caught up in this and local authorities and housing associations.”
The Westminster vote, as an opposition-day debate, was during a period where MPs usually plan other activities, says Baillie. The vote was ‘paired’, meaning if the party had used a three-line whip then the Government would have called back the same number of MPs and “it wouldn’t have made a difference to the final result.”
Baillie also points to the voting record when the bedroom tax was being introduced: “Where were the SNP MPs at that point? But then again, we’re trading ‘you should have done this, you should have done that’. What I’m saying is we have an opportunity to stand tall as a parliament to protect people, to do the right thing.”
Rachel Reeves, the new shadow secretary of state for work and pensions, has recently suggested Labour will be tougher than the Tories on welfare, indicating Labour supports both a benefits cap and the concept of a universal credit benefits system. For Baillie, this is about simplifying an increasingly complex set up: “Reforming it to simplify it is not a bad thing. It introduces transparency and clarity, and makes it easier to get their entitlement. That said, the Tories have just been incompetent,” she says.
“Labour’s approach on a UK level is one that is predicated on getting people into work. I don’t want all the people I’ve worked with and care deeply about in the communities to be condemned to a life on benefits. My aspiration is for them to be in employment, and Labour have come forward with a jobs guarantee that we will make part of our approach to welfare. Welfare should be a safety net. It should be an adequate safety net, but a safety net it is. What we want is to give people dignity by giving them employment, by equipping them to be employed. Absolutely, we need to look at the benefits system and how it is an adequate safety net, and I’ve talked before about ‘refreshing Beveridge’, making it fit for the 21st century. Genuinely, we will have that adequate safety net, but I think we fail if we don’t say we want to get people into employment. That must be the objective of government. That’s what Rachel’s saying.”
For all Jackie Baillie’s campaign to offset negative reforms in the Scottish Parliament, wouldn’t her ambitions be better met if welfare was devolved? The idea has public support in polls, and was suggested by former Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore.
“I could also cite statistics of the number of people that say they want pensions dealt with across the UK, we want them to be the same level and fair, and we want the security. I think the truth lies somewhere in between. We’ve set up a devolution commission to look at what powers should be devolved and where there is a purpose to that devolution. And we’re not just looking at how you devolve powers from Westminster to Edinburgh, because frankly, when you look at this government, it’s been one of the most centralising governments I’ve ever seen. For me, the trick is, just as we did with housing associations, how you devolve that power down to the level of the community.”
Could the devolution commission’s report provide a detailed option for referendum voters?
“Hopefully in process terms, by the time we get to conference in March, it will become clear what our thinking is. I think we need to make clear that voting no is not voting for no change. We need to describe the nature of that change and why. That’s not just a kind of dry ‘here are the more powers we want’ – we need to describe it in terms of our vision for Scotland going forward, and indeed what some of our policy programmes are likely to look like. Not in detail, but that paints a picture of our direction of travel.”