Jenny Marra  MSP : The Scottish Budget

Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate Budget (Scotland) (no. 3) Bill : Stage 1

22 January 2014

Our budget should reflect, and match up with, the priorities that we have for our nation.

In March last year, the largest survey of poverty ever conducted revealed that levels of deprivation in Scotland were at their worst for 30 years.

The University of Glasgow’s poverty and social exclusion survey told us that one Scot in 20 cannot afford a balanced diet, that one in 14 cannot afford basic items of clothing such as jackets or shoes and that one Scot in three suffers from financial insecurity.

Since the SNP came to power in 2007, £1 billion has disappeared from poverty projects in Scotland. The fairer Scotland fund and projects in our most socially excluded communities have gone.

Draft budgets this week in local authorities have voluntary organisations bearing the brunt of cuts.

There are cuts in Dundee to Dundee Women’s Aid, Barnardo’s and countless other organisations that do work with people in our communities who are struggling.

Today’s budget has no clear link to poverty reduction.

With anti-poverty budgets being slashed since the SNP came to power, that priority has all but vanished. The use of food banks in Scotland continues to soar, but we have no discernible plan for those who need and use them.

What of Scotland’s climate change targets, which the First Minister heralded as the most ambitious in the world but which were missed again last year?

The policies that the Government has put in place to tackle climate change have been openly criticised by Scotland’s two largest local authorities because there is no clear funding line to pay for them.

Targets without funding and action become merely empty rhetoric.

That is why I have been pleased to hear in the debate and during the Finance Committee debate before Christmas consensus that the Government’s budget must be linked to its own priorities—the national performance framework.

Michael McMahon made the case for that well.

I hope that the cabinet secretary will take the point on board in his next budget.

Brave and bold Governments look to reassess priorities, to be strategic with their money and to be focused on economic growth and creating a new and better Scotland now.

Labour’s key ask in the budget is familiar to the cabinet secretary.

We have discussed publicly and privately that we want £50 million to mitigate the bedroom tax.

The SNP’s answer to that, as we have heard many times in the chamber over the past couple of years and today, is to get rid of Westminster, but that is overly simplistic and counterproductive.

While Parliament remains within the economic strength of the United Kingdom, its duty is to enhance or mitigate policies and factors that affect people’s lives in Scotland.

In every jurisdiction, Governments will pass policies that are iniquitous.

That is why Labour members campaign for progressive policies and Governments throughout these islands.

It is our duty to do all that is in our power to mitigate the bedroom tax.

The cabinet secretary and countless SNP speakers said that they did not have the mechanism to do that.

I expect that the cabinet secretary might be able to find the money if he did, as I have heard SNP members say many times in the chamber that they want rid of the bedroom tax, so I assume that they are also committed to mitigating its effects in full and have already found the £20 million for that purpose.

What the cabinet secretary and his officials say they cannot yet find is the mechanism to mitigate the full effects.

I ask the cabinet secretary whether he and his officials have exhausted the local authorities’ powers of wellbeing.

Iain Gray made that suggestion in his opening speech and I made the point earlier in the debate to Kevin Stewart.

 Fiona McLeod: We are talking about the local authorities’ duty of wellbeing towards their residents. How does Jenny Marra feel about East Dunbartonshire Council, which is a Labour-Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition that said, up until Christmas eve, that anybody who wanted to apply for a discretionary housing payment had to produce the receipts for their messages? Is that about wellbeing for the tenants?

Jenny Marra: We are looking for the money across the country.

The cabinet secretary has come up with £20 million.

We need to find the full amount of money to mitigate the bedroom tax and Scottish ministers must give direction to all local authorities on that.

Has the cabinet secretary exhausted or considered local authorities’ power of wellbeing?

That suggestion has been made.

It is a power that was given to local authorities across the United Kingdom by the Labour Government in 2003.

It allows local authorities to enhance wellbeing and to address certain needs in their communities.

Some of the Government’s stated aims in legislation are to tackle poverty and deprivation and to reduce inequalities.

A cursory reading of the provisions in the Local Government in Scotland Act 2003 gives me confidence that it could be used to find the mechanism that John Swinney is looking for.

Have Government officials considered that?

I also draw the cabinet secretary’s attention to the provisions in the 2003 act that give Scottish ministers powers to extend the scope of that power of wellbeing and enable Scottish ministers to give direction to local authorities on that power.

As Iain Gray said, a Labour Government in Westminster next year will abolish the bedroom tax and the SNP is committed to doing the same in the event of an independent Scotland.

We have said today that we believe that it is in the cabinet secretary’s power to cancel out the effects of the bedroom tax now for families up and down Scotland who are struggling to pay it, and for the families who are paying it, but at the expense of other essentials, in these hard-pressed times.

The bedroom tax is an iniquitous tax.

The indignity that is at its heart offends so many members across the chamber, which is why Labour has made this our single ask: we will support the Government budget if the cabinet secretary finds the money to mitigate the tax and tells Scotland clearly that he will no longer tolerate it.

In good faith, in good hope and with the commitment that we will work with the cabinet secretary over the next few weeks to achieve that, we will put our support behind his budget tonight and I hope that he can deliver.

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