Right turn ends up in cul-de-sac

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SCOTTISH Labour leader Johann Lamont is not a Tory. Her instincts and intellect point in the same direction of travel 
. . . left. So what on earth 
possessed her to use the language of small-minded Conservatism to launch 
her party’s big debate on welfare 
benefits?

She says hand-outs and freebies, (her words not mine, reminiscent of the divisive, demeaning prose of rabid right-wing columnists) cannot be afforded, so some of the legislation of which the Scottish Parliament can be proud should be dropped.

Presumably, Johann is referring to the financial support for unemployed, disabled and homeless people. There appears to be a bit of a guddle on Labour’s thoughts on which benefits are symptomatic of a “something for nothing” culture. So yes, the impression was left that means testing would sort out the deserving poor from the undeserving poor. Everyone must “face up to reality” and universal benefits that did not differentiate were an indulgence that cannot now be afforded, according to Labour, erstwhile defender of the have-nots.

According to Johann Lamont, university students in Scotland, where tuition is free, although there are numerous paid-for courses and parts of courses in the Higher and Further syllabus, could be taking advantage of a cultural cowardice that is failing to challenge the benefits system and admit that, as a country, Scotland can no longer afford them.

Therefore, as a “Realist” she says free tuition should be discontinued by the Scottish Government, even though she and her colleagues in Labour’s shadow finance team rarely let a week go by without boasting of the huge size of the block grant Scotland gets from Westminster.

Politics watchers may have spotted the contradiction in blaming the Scottish Parliament, and therefore the Scottish Government, for the benefits system having gone to hell in a hand basket. Westminster governments decide on levels of unemployment benefit, benefits for disabled people and their carers, and the payments that go to supporting young people without jobs or a place in a college of further education.

The Scottish Government, in an effort to improve on the bargain basement benefits for old people, has provided money from the spending allocation it gets from Westminster for free and contributory travel passes. This is an area of benefits provision paid for by the Holyrood government out of the block grant from Westminster, just like university tuition, so that even the poorest of the poor 
can access life-enriching pursuits and, as has been proved, become less dependent on benefits.

But Finance Minister John Swinney buys support with his 
council tax freeze, according to his Labour opponents.

Labour’s objection to this is that it benefits the medium and high wage earners. But in freezing council tax, although I personally would have preferred him to unfreeze it this year, he was working within Holyrood’s limited powers to put a bit more in everybody’s pocket.

It’s at this point of Johann’s crusade on “clawback” crusade that the wheels start to come off when Ian Murray MP suggests a temporary tax holiday for rich people. Presumably he thinks it better to raise taxes rather than 
just cut top-up benefits in Scotland.

But the MP, whom I’ve found to be decent and caring when our paths have crossed, has the wrong end of the stick if he thinks the rich will be taxed if Holyrood uses its limited power to tax income. Only the standard rate of income tax can be charged, hitting less well-off working families, and leaving practically untouched the people earning obscene salaries.

Because this is the big flaw in the case for cuts in the additional benefits the Scottish Parliament provides: Holyrood can only spend and prioritise on one side of the financial equation, the Holyrood finance minister, without all the powers of taxation open to the present Chancellor of the Exchequer in London, cannot 
operate a clawback from non-needy taxpayers.

Labour Party spokespeople pursuing a programme of targeted benefits, rather than universality and clawback, would have sounded more credible if they had advocated transfering power to tax to the spending government – Holyrood. Scots could then decide as a 
community on the types and levels of taxation needed to pay for our system of benefits, which would, of course, demonstrate our priorities in the good and bad times.

Johann railed against non-means tested benefits, but seemed to suggest that the Scottish Government should continue to control only a part of Scotland’s tax base. Thus arguments showing universality/clawback to be less expensive than means-tested 
benefits are not examined.

Joann says the SNP government makes every debate about the referendum. Naturally. Scots have to choose independence or devolution in the referendum. All government departments are examined from both viewpoints, particularly the finance department 
. . . it taxes, spends and prioritises and helps to create social justice.