The Welfare State is one of the best ideas of the 20th century, giving people the chance to start again when their lives are damaged. Some people have had to depend on it for extended periods of time and some have had the safety net catch them so they could climb back up again.
It's been under attack for decades now, a toxic narrative of "scroungers and layabouts" leading to a jaundiced public view of benefits recipients as being somehow undeserving. That started politicians off down the path of cuts and limits. The rhetoric was that there are deserving people and undeserving people – remember Labour under Tony Blair lauding "hard-working families" while they started the benefits cuts? The Blair/Brown government introduced the Bedroom Tax in 2003 with Edinburgh as one of the guinea-pigs – the 'Pathfinder' areas – and the same attitude continued through the Cameron and May governments.
Now we have benefits caps, cuts to disability benefits, women being told they'll have to prove they were raped to get child tax credits, and work capability assessments that class people fit for work who are clearly not fit at all. I've seen people struggling with a terminal illness harassed to go to return to work interviews; older people who can barely walk being isolated further as they lose mobility vehicles; those suffering from mental illness sanctioned and left in even greater stress. People are being harassed by an incoherent, inflexible, utterly heartless system that has lost all sense of what it's there for.
Record numbers of negative decisions on benefits are being overturned at appeal – in large part because DWP staff have targets for refusal of benefits. Imagine that: millionaire Ministers who will never want a day in their lives setting targets for civil servants to refuse a few pounds to the most vulnerable members of society.
The horror and the sheer inhumanity of that is unbelievably cruel. They can't even plead ignorance to the suffering these policies create, as the evidence is overwhelming. We've had the UN's scathing report last year, showing the UK is in violation of disability rights, astonishingly ignored by the government. We have alarming research showing attempted suicides amongst people claiming out-of-work disability benefits doubling from 2007 to 2014. This shocking state of affairs should spur any government into action. Yet there is no sign, no sign at all, of any change coming from the politicians in control in London.
They still talk about "skivers versus strivers" and the movement is still towards cutting the tiny amount of support that people can access. They talk about 'teaching' job seekers through sanctions and forcing people to food banks. They talk a great deal about benefits fraud – which amounts to a tiny fraction of the benefits bill – and they turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to the tax fraud, the offshore accounts and the tax dodging that rips billions of pounds away from the public coffers.
The fate of people who need a little bit of help from government is less certain now than it has been since the creation of the welfare state. Things need to change, attitudes need to change, politicians need to change.
That's why I welcome the change of tack being taken in Scotland as a new system is developed for delivering those benefits that are finally being devolved. The new system will only account for around 15% of the total benefits bills in Scotland – but they will be delivered with human rights and human decency in mind.
It takes a bit of time to develop a new system and make sure we get it right – they haven't exactly got a decent model to base it on – but the legislation is making its way through Holyrood now and it's good to see how it's taking shape.
In particular, the creation of the Scottish Commission on Social Security is a really welcome move. It will be there to independently scrutinise the system, hold politicians to account and make sure that dignity, fairness and respect are at the heart of policies in practice, rather than just lofty promises. It will examine regulations before they come into force to check they are realising rights, not putting blocks in the way.
The commission will make sure any future Scottish Government will be held to account too, no matter what their political hue. It will look at what's being proposed, see if it fits the principles on which the system is based, and prevent any ideologically-driven changes that go against the grain from pressing ahead with impunity. The new system may still be limited in powers, but not in its ambition to do things better. It's an opportunity to change things by changing the way we look at them – we must grab it with both hands.
25/01/19 4:00 pm - 5:00 pm Royston/Wardieburn Community Centre
01/02/19 1:00 pm - 2:00 pm Constituency Office, 166 Great Junction Street Leith
08/02/19 3:30 pm - 4:30 pm McDonald Road Library
15/02/19 1:00 pm - 2:00 pm Stockbridge Library Surgery
22/02/19 4:00 pm - 5:00 pm Royston/Wardieburn Community Centre