Jenny Marra MSP : Scottish Budget
Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate
BUDGET (SCOTLAND) (NO 3) BILL: STAGE 3
5 February 2014
In 1999, we voted for a Scottish Parliament because we recognised that there would be times when we would want to do things differently in Scotland.
Never has that been more significant than right now, in relation to the issue of the bedroom tax.
If passed today, Labour’s amendment will mitigate the effects of the bedroom tax in Scotland.
The amendment follows a series of negotiations, which have brought us to the point at which the full sum required to mitigate the bedroom tax is in the cabinet secretary’s budget.
In the draft budget, there was nothing for the bedroom tax.
At stage 1, there was £20 million.
Now, the full amount—which the Government initially said it would be impossible to provide, because it would let Westminster off the hook—is in the budget.
We are glad about that.
We did it by working together across parties to negotiate a common ground.
Mr Swinney was clear that work remains to be done on an alternative scheme in the event of the Department for Work and Pensions refusing to lift the cap.
Discussions between us on this issue have, so far, been constructive, and have included a willingness on the Government’s part to continue to push forward development of that scheme together.
Earlier this afternoon, Jackie Baillie asked the cabinet secretary to confirm his willingness to continue to meet us, but he did not do so at that point.
Perhaps he will intervene now to confirm that he is willing to continue to meet us and work together on the issue.
John Swinney: I will deal with that in my speech.
Jenny Marra: Thank you, cabinet secretary, for saying that you will address that later.
The Deputy Presiding Officer: Please address your comments through the chair.
Jenny Marra: Sorry, Presiding Officer.
Linda Fabiani questioned the legality of housing associations taking measures to mitigate the bedroom tax.
East Lothian Housing Association has already done that, and the move has been approved by lawyers.
Renfrewshire Council has done something similar, and that move has been approved and audited by Audit Scotland.
Linda Fabiani: I think that the member misunderstands my point. I understand what she is saying and I know how those moves are working. I am concerned about small, community-based organisations that operate under specific rules and whose voluntary committee members might be legally liable. I wonder whether the ability to write off arrears that are solely attributable to the bedroom tax might perhaps mean that arrears that were due to other punishing welfare reform measures also had to be written off. I am concerned that people could end up in trouble, and I want to ensure that the possibilities are properly investigated.
Jenny Marra: It is my understanding that East Lothian Housing Association has voluntary members, but I am sure that the cabinet secretary and Labour members who have been working very hard on the issue know the ways of managing to mitigate the bedroom tax in full.
Our amendment makes that clear.
I turn to Murdo Fraser’s comments in the debate.
He said that his council—Perth and Kinross Council—spent only 14 per cent of its discretionary housing payments.
There must be some recognition that some councils have been better than others at letting tenants know what support is available.
Perhaps Murdo Fraser would like to take that up with the councils in his region.
Murdo Fraser also made some comments about the local housing allowance.
Malcolm Chisholm addressed the difference, but I will clarify the matter for Murdo Fraser.
Let us be clear that we are having the debate because the Conservative Government imposed the bedroom tax throughout the United Kingdom.
When civil servants in Westminster presented the proposal to Alistair Darling when he was chancellor, he handed it back to them and said that no Labour Government would do it.
When they handed the same proposal to George Osborne, he grabbed it with both hands and imposed the bedroom tax on Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Murdo Fraser: Can Jenny Marra answer me this simple question: does the local housing allowance, which was introduced by the Labour Party, incorporate an underoccupancy charge—yes or no?
Jenny Marra: Malcolm Chisholm’s comments to Murdo Fraser were very clear on the point.
That tax did not affect sitting tenants, which is the key difference.
Murdo Fraser can try all he likes to deflect from his Conservative Government’s policy of the bedroom tax, but we know that the Conservative Party is responsible for that iniquitous tax in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom.
The Parliament must now not fail those whose hopes have been built up in the negotiation by falling back on any arguments about the constitution or anything else.
The interest of Scots has been captured by the consensus, and our reasoned amendment gives us the chance to show that we are capable of putting aside our differences for one day in the name of permanently mitigating the effects of that iniquitous policy in Scotland.
Simply to oppose the bedroom tax is to maintain it.
We must walk a different road.
We must find a different way.
That is what the Parliament was created to do.
When Donald Dewar opened the Scottish Parliament in 1999, he said:
“We will make mistakes. But we will never lose sight of what brought us here: the striving to do right by the people of Scotland; to respect their priorities; to better their lot; and to contribute to the commonweal.”
When we vote today, let us not simply vote to reject the Tory bedroom tax—a mistake in every sense.
Let us vote to do what really matters: to make life a little bit easier for Scots who are suffering now.
With the political will, dedication, time and effort of the Scottish Government, we can make the effects of the bedroom tax history.
The cabinet secretary has come this far; we know that he can cross the finishing line and deliver.
He can ease the anxiety of those whose fears are growing, stop the worry for those who cannot afford to pay the tax, and remove the stigma for those who simply want to stay in their homes—the homes in which they have lived for years—and the communities that they love.
He, and we, can better their lot.
He can build upon the commonweal.
Let us not rest on the mistakes of others but confound them by the strength of the values upon which our Parliament is built.