Podcast and transcript: Social Security Reform Panel with Ben MacPherson MSP, Alison Johnson MSP, Mike Vallance
This is an audio recording of two of the Members of Scottish Parliament who sit on the social security reform committee in the Scottish Parliament (Ben MacPherson MSP, Alison Johnson MSP) plus Mike Vallance who is part of Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty. They are talking in a panel following a screening of the film ‘I Daniel Blake’ which has caused a ground swell response to the punitive measures being instituted by the Westminster Government, such that the Scottish government has arranged the taking over of 15% of the welfare budget to organise some benefits north of the border.
The podcast begins with an excerpt from the film which takes some of the words and sentiments from the Daniel Blake character which is based on a great deal of research that was brought together by charities with the writer Paul Laverty. This screening of I Daniel Blake took place in the University of Edinburgh and was organized by Stephen McMurray and colleagues. The three speakers were chaired by Peter MacMahon who is the political editor for Border Television.
Pete MacMahon starts speaking at 2 minutes 12 seconds. He introduces Ben MacPherson MSP who is part of the Scottish National Party, Alison Johnson MSP who is part of the Green Party, and Mike Vallance who is part of Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty .
3 minutes 30 seconds
Ben represents a constituency in the north of Edinburgh which is a diverse community which is affected by many of the issues covered in the film I Daniel Blake, including the welfare reform issues at the heart of the film. At the time of the screening, it had been the fourth time that Ben had seen it. He says that the reason that the film is so powerful for him, is that although Daniel Blake is a fictional character, people like Daniel Blake have been at his MSP surgeries talking about the same issues here and now in Scotland.
He saw the film the first time at the cinema and the second time there was a screening at the parliament. He says that Alison Johnstone and her Green Party colleagues were there, Scottish National Party colleagues were there, some Labour Party colleagues were there, unfortunately there were no Conservative Party MSP’s there.
Ben suggests that we have to be clear about where the responsibility for the welfare reforms lies, and it is the Westminster government which has created the circumstances and taken forward the policies that have created the suffering that is depicted in the film. He highlights that the same suffering is happening in the communities he represents.
Ben MacPherson is a member of the Social Security committee in the Scottish Parliament, along with Alison Johnstone and others. The committee has the responsibility to help make sure that the new powers which are coming to Holyrood over social security are used well and to help make a difference.
Unfortunately the issues which Daniel Blake faces surrounding Employment and Support Allowance are issues which will not be devolving to Holyrood. So Scottish Parliament will not have the ability to change the law or the policy around ESA (Employment and Support Allowance).
What they are doing as a committee is looking at the 15% of powers which are coming to the Scottish Parliament, which are mostly around disability benefits and certain aspects of Universal Credit. As a committee, they don’t just look at the devolved powers which are coming to Holyrood, but they examine and criticise the reserved powers as well in an attempt to influence them.
When the Secretary of State for the UK parliament came to the Scottish Parliament, Ben says that it is fair to say that they gave him a hard time, particularly around the issues which were raised in the film. Damian Green dismissed the film as just a bit of fiction, and the response he got from the Scottish Parliament was that he had better take the issues in the film more seriously that he is.
Ben says that logistically it is going to be a challenge to take 15% of the social security system out of the Department of Work and Pensions, moving it across the border and creating a new social security system for Scotland with those powers. That process has some technical and IT challenges around it because the data at the Department of Work and Pensions is not of the highest quality.
There is also the practical need to set up the new social security system and agency in Scotland. Some of the devolved benefits will be able to be delivered through the Department of Work and Pensions, and this is being taken forward by the Scottish Government. The reason why the Scottish government believes that it is important to create a new agency in Scotland is because of something clearly demonstrated in the film I Daniel Blake. MacPherson says this reason is because we need a different culture about how we deliver social security in this country.
We need to get away from calling it welfare and social security, and this is the Scottish Government’s commitment. We need to create a system which is based in dignity and respect, where we get back to the idea that we as a society are creating a system about our collective wellbeing which is there for all of us if we need it.
We need to get away from the judgemental language, culture and systems which are demonstrated so powerfully in I Daniel Blake. He continues… We need to get away from the suspicion and instead create a culture of support and encouragement. That – he says – is absolutely at the heart of why we need a new agency.
That is absolutely at the heart of why we need a new agency. It is just as important as the practical delivery and the systematic changes in the policy; we need to change the culture so that we create a society where we value social security fully again and get away from the language of skivers and strivers, and that divisive language that the Westminster government has put forward.
The Scottish government consulted on how to use the social security powers that the Scottish parliament is going to have in order to listen to communities, in order to listen to individuals, to make sure that they acted knowing how things are on the ground, and how things are in the different organisations which are operating in this field of advocacy; and all of our charities.
Alison Johnstone MSP
11 minutes 31 seconds
Alison was recently taking part in a discussion on citizens income which is the idea that we reform the benefits system and replace it with a universal and non-conditional guarantee to income for every citizen. She suggests that after watching the film, it pushes home why this is so important that we think about this and it is something that the social security committee will be taking evidence on.
It is not just about the system but it is about the culture, and we do have an opportunity in Scotland to do things differently. At least with a proportion of the benefits. Ironically, it means that the Scottish Government is going to have to work more closely with Westminster than ever before because if we muck this up, the devastation which we will be causing to people in their daily lives will be huge.
So it is really important that we get things right from the start. If you look at the film, the culture that was suggested to exist amongst many staff who were dealing with people who were finding themselves to be at their most vulnerable, is truly worrying.
We have visited jobcentres, and we have been working and hearing from people who are in receipt of benefits at the moment. I think it is fair to say that the committee felt when we visited the jobcentres that the staff were very much chaperoned. We didn’t really get an opportunity to get that informal one to one; I think that there was probably always at least three staff together, possibly always with management.
Now whether or not that made a difference as to what we heard, I don’t know, but certainly we got left with an ‘everything in the garden is rosy’ point of view – which is not the case. I am going to be looking at what is going to be coming into my mailbox.
At one point in the last year I attended a sanctions hearing with a constituent. Now the constituent had been sanctioned because they were unable to sign on and attend a training event at the same time; and because of this they were sanctioned, had to appeal for a hardship loan and they were also trying to look after their four year old daughter at the time.
This person was very well supported by family and friends, and at the sanction hearing the judge threw out the case immediately, but did make the point that he was seeing far too many cases that were similar to this. This wasn’t a one off and we know that from the number of appeals that are successful that far too many people are being sanctioned unnecessarily.
Ben mentioned that the Scottish Government will be debating the responses to the social security consultation so we will hear more about those individuals and organisations that responded to the consultation; what they would like to see, what people would like to see transformed in the system.
At the heart of this has to be a rights based system, and Daniel made the point very clearly. I think that the scene in the food bank is emotionally overwhelming, and I am heartened – it is an issue which is really close to my heart but I think we should have a right to food. This should be a part of any society that calls itself civilized.
This is not a film which has been made just off of what ideas which are floating around in people’s head. These are the stories which we are hearing far too often in our communities and from our constituents. I think that very often in the social security committee it becomes quite technical.
Benefits and welfare reform are so complicated it is simply mind boggling. We have heard from our work recently that in the past Citizens Advice workers used to spend 45 minutes on the average appointment. Since the introduction of Universal Credit, which was introduced to simplify things and always make sure that work pays, the appointments are now 90 minutes long. Such is the complexity that you are dealing with.
The scene where Daniel is trying to use a computer for what is probably the first time, we have taken evidence on that too. Citizens Advice are saying that sometimes they are spending a great deal of the appointment teaching people and see people who do not have an email address, people who do not have access to a computer, a laptop, a smartphone; and we have this ‘digital by default’.
That is simply inhumane. So many of these issues are not being tackled head on because the people they are impacting are vulnerable, they are stressed, they are hungry, they are exhausted. That is a very difficult film to watch but I think that the more people who see it, the better. I think brings it down to the human level and lets us see some of the kinds of decisions that are being taken on our behalf.
17 minutes 34 seconds
I Daniel Blake is telling the truth about the benefits system. In my experience, the system is often worse and more brutal than what we saw in the film. A couple of years ago, a manager at Leith job centre sent around an email to all staff saying that she believed that 20% of the people signing on werent meeting ‘conditionality’.
In their jargon that means she wanted 20% of the people signing on at Leith jobcentre to be sanctioned. Jobcentre workers have revealed that they actually have disciplinary action taken against them if they dont sanction enough people or if they dont force enough people onto Workfare – which is compulsory work for your benefits.
At the Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty, we accompany people to the jobcentres and several times I have had the police called on me at Highriggs jobcentre in Tollcross, for nothing more than speaking up for somebody in an appointment. The same has happened to other advocates at Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty.
Every week at Maximus at Argyll House which is just off the Grassmarket; every week that company finds desperately ill people fit for work under government orders. If you go to the jobcentre you see loads of people who are clearly not fit for work that are having to sign on because they have been disqualified from Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
We had somebody at the Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty dropin today, who you just need to know him for a couple of minutes for you to know that he wasnt fit for work. He has just been kicked off Employment and Support Allowance.
As the young guy China in the film says, “The DWP will fuck you around Dan, they will make it as miserable as possible, no accident, that’s the plan”. The system is deliberately designed to drive people off benefits and into the kind of insecure, low paid, zero hour, jobs that China has in the film.
So the attack on welfare doesnt just affect people on benefits, it affects all working class people in the broadest sense. The assault on benefits is attacking everybody’s wages and conditions, and it is a part of a global class war by the rich against the poor, but there is something practical which we can do to fight back.
At the beginning of the film you see Dan in what is called a Work Capability Assessment for Employment and Support Allowance. He was on his own, but imagine if somebody had been there accompanying him to the assessment and imagine if someone had said:
“now just wait a minute Ms Healthcare Professional, don’t we need to consider Employment and Support Allowance regulation 29 ? This says that because of Mr Blake’s health condition – his heart condition – that it would be a substantial risk to the health of Mr Blake, if he was found fit for work. Obviously he could have another heart attack and fall off that scaffolding. So you wont be finding him unfit for work according to ESA regulation 29 wont you ?”
It is really important that in these sorts of assessments, to have an accompanier who is clued up like that. It is really important to insist on your right to have the assessment recorded, which means that they cannot get away with the lies they often tell. And it is really important if you are in the benefits system that you know that you have the right to be accompanied to all appointments, not just the disability assessments but also these appointments at the jobcentre that we see where people are harassed and threatened with sanctions.
It can make a real difference this kind of solidarity of somebody accompanying a claimant. The groups that are organizing these screenings of I Daniel Blake collectively are called ‘We Are All Daniel Blake’. We want a lot more people to get involved in this sort of solidarity accompanying people to the jobcentre and the disability assessments.
We are going to be organizing some informal training for this, so if you would like to be kept informed of that leave your name on one of the sheets which has been going around. What we think in Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty, is that solidarity and people supporting other people is key. We see that in the film; but we need to make it broader, we need to spread it.
Paul Laverty is the screen writer for I Daniel Blake, and after one of the screenings he said at the Q and A; the politicians imposing austerity know what they are doing, so it is not a case of convincing these politicians that they are doing wrong, we need to make these policies unworkable’. And that is really true, what we need is to organise at the grassroots in our communities, and we need to take direct action like we did when we beat the poll tax all these years ago, and more recently when we organised against the bedroom tax.
There is different kinds of actions we can do in Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty. We have regular stalls and leafleting at Highriggs jobcentre, at Leith jobcentre, and also down at Musselborough. Also, if someone has a problem, if it is appropriate, we can accompany them and fight alongside them there and then.
If we cant sort the problem out like that, we can put out a call for people to come and take action in support of that person, to get what we need. For example, last year there was a claimant that was getting a lot of harrassment, so a colleague accompanied him to his regular fortnightly signing on at High Riggs; my colleague was assaulted by one of the security guards who would not let him in, so what we did was two weeks later we got together 50 plus people to demonstrate at the time of his next signing on appointment.
This was folks from all around Edinburgh, Dundee, Glasgow, and Greenock. This time the colleague accompanied the claimant without any problems, and when he came out he said that the advisor had for the first time treated him with respect and did not harrass him. That was obviously purely down to the solidarity.
Another thing that we do in Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty is to blockade and occupy employers that exploit claimants through Workfare. What we do then is that we put a huge long banner right across the front of the door which reads “If you exploit us we will shut you down” so we develop a counterpower from below to make these brutal policies unworkable.
We have been putting pressure on the Scottish Government to make real changes in this area of welfare, the details of which are laid out in one of our leaflets. One point of which is Disability Living Allowance and Personal Independence Payment (PIP) are being devolved; these are really important benefits for disabled people and what’s happening right now is that people that are on Disability Living Allowance (DLA) are being called in and are being assessed to decide whether or not they are going to get Personal Independence Payment.
In the course of that assessment 30% of people are having other benefits cut off, other disability benefits; they are having their DLA cut off and they are not getting any PIP and in addition a lot of these people are losing their mobility cars. So we think that it is absolutely vital that the Scottish Government stops its reassessment of people on DLA, that they take action as soon as possible so that people keep their DLA and dont have to risk losing it whilst the new system is being devised.
It is good to hear the sentiments from people like Ben and Alison that people need to be treated with dignity and respect, but what we need at the same time is really concrete measures – we need actual changes made. And the Scottish Government has limited powers, but it has some powers.
We would like a response from the Scottish Government as to if they are going to make these changes that we think are needed. These things are what a lot of claimants, and a lot of disabled claimants have said.
Finally, I would just like to say that Daniel Blake died in the film and in real life many people have died due to the injustice of the benefits system, including people in Edinburgh. I think our reaction should be to be angry and determined to organise to change this. We need to support each other like through accompanying each other to these benefits appointments.
We need to resist cuts and austerity, and make these brutal policies unworkable. We need to build up a counterpower from below which can lay the seeds of a totally different world; a world where resources are held in common and where it is people that count not money and profits.
Questions and Answers
30 minutes 24 seconds
Question: It is my first time seeing the film and I have a few friends going through similar circumstances so I guess I just want to ask that the Green Party sees it as an issue of rights that have to be extended. My gut feeling on the back of that is that that is the problem; it is seen that these are rights that the government are handing out to people – that these are awards for going out job seeking, or for being “good”.
I’m wondering what you think about totally shifting it and looking at it in terms of what people need, and just giving people what they need regardless of how people behave because the characters in the film had to be sane for the film to work. I don’t really care if folks are scroungers or work shy or whatever; Im just wondering what you think. If somebody’s work-shy and a scrounger and a proper layabout what are you going to do for them.
Question: I’m reluctant to ask this, but is it going to get worse before it gets better ? I’m kind of relieved that you have made some kind of mitigating steps but I’m starting to think that we are truly shafted in the short term future.
Question: The social security committee, the guys that are in the committee is there any way you can change the name of that to get away from the stigma of social security ?
32 minutes 39 seconds
Pete MacMahon: Alison, do you want to answer the question about needs and rights – is there a difference ?
Alison Johnstone MSP: I think the point I was making was that if we are paying attention to people’s human rights then they shouldnt be degraded and debased by the system. They are made to jump through so many hoops to get what they are actually entitled to; to let them have any kind of quality of life at all.
And let’s face it, Jobseekers Allowance which is £70 a week basically, I would suggest it is insufficient. And the point I was making about citizens income is that is unconditional; every citizen would be entitled to that. Some people might throw their hands up in the air and say ‘how can that possibly be fair when that will just encourage people who want to lay about’…
You know, there will always be some people who would prefer not to work but there are also the majorty who do want to, and if you are given a citizens income youve got that unconditional base if you want to care, if you want to educate yourself. It gives you lots of opportunities. Where it has been trialed there is evidence to show that there is an increase in entrepreneurship; people are more willing to take risks.
The thing which it stops is this dreadful situation that arises because when you are relying on Jobseekers Allowance, you may come off it sometimes because you get insecure short term work. And when that ends you are back to square one. So I think for me having human rights really is about fulfilling human needs…in response to the name changing; some people prefer ‘social security’ to the name ‘welfare’ but it is certainly something that the committee could look at; and Id be interested to hear your suggestions.
Pete MacMahon: Presumably Ben, you think that things will now get better now that the Scottish Government has – I accept limited powers, but more powers…
Ben MacPherson MSP: Im going to caveat that by saying that it is such a complicated system that I dont think we can talk about it in simplistic terms like that. I think that one of the big problems at the moment is that a lot of the messaging that is coming out is not taken on the nuance of it.
The message circulating in the Scottish Government is that we are getting control of the social security but that is factually incorrect; we are gaining control over aspects of social security. I think it is very important that we get that clarity. In terms of naming it the social security committee, that was actually a change from the welfare committee so that was in order to try and make it – social security is seen as a more positive descriptor than welfare. So that was meant to be a positive change but maybe that needs to go a step further.
In terms of a citizens income we are really looking forward to looking at that and examining it in the committee. That is about thinking further forward because we wouldn’t be able to implement it the way things are right now in terms of what legislative competence the Scottish Parliament has.
We are looking at it aspirationally, rightly because it has been tried in other countries and I am very open minded to it and positive about it. I think it well could well be the future. Your question was a great question in terms of ‘will it get worse before it gets better ?’. I think in Scotland, I am confident that things will get better with the devolved powers that we are now taking control of now. One because we have this ambition to implement different policy changes in that other system at the moment.
For example there are flexibilities around Universal Credit at the moment that will allow us to pay it out on a fortnightly basis instead of a monthly basis which is proposed by the UK government to make people more financially responsible. That is their view and we think that more vulnerable people benefit from having their income on a fortnightly basis if that is what they want.
In terms of housing elements of the system the UK government have certain systematic changes where payments are paid to claimants rather than directly to housing associations, which was the way things were in the past. The Scottish Government is committed to restoring that but also going a step further and pay private landlords directly as well; so that is another reason why I am trying to create another system.
I think that the aspects of Universal Credit which are the main elements covered in the film; Alison and I were in Musselborough speaking to claimants recently. We have done a lot of work in the committee and it is clear that it is not working; it is a long way off being an effective and more importantly a supportive system – so on that aspect from Cornwall to the Highlands I think it is going to be bad for some time.
38 minutes 38 seconds
Pete MacMahon: Mike – is it getting worse or is it getting better ?
Mike Vallance: There’s a lot of really bad things coming through. Universal Credit is one; Benefit caps which is resulting in people just no getting enough to live on and they cant pay their rent; the cuts to Employment and Support Allowance; the Work Related Activity Group which is coming in April; People are going to get £70 a week instead of £100 a week.
The Work Capability Assessments at the moment are disqualifiying more and more people, and what we think is if somebody’s GP says that they are not fit for work, then they are not fit for work and they should get benefits; because the GP knows you, not some in an assessment centre who has just met you and that is under pressure to cut you off benefit.
I will try and be quick – the Citizens Income – I think it is very positive in so far as it recognises that everybody as a human being has a right to everything they need in order to live but we have got to be careful because some very rightwing nasty people like the Adam Smith institute is advocating it. So it could be implemented in such a way that it actually cuts a lot of benefits and leaves a lot of people worse off.
I think that Citizens Income is too timid. Over a hundred years ago Karl Marx talked about society where people gave according to their abilities and took according to their needs; which means people could freely access what they need, and if it was possible then, how much more possible is it now ?
Question: My name is David Seagrave of Dunfermline, when I was a young man I underwent similar experiences to those of Daniel Blake… I tried to start work experience for people such as myself who have Asperger’s syndrome – I am sure you know what that is – it is not my fault that I have it… people in authority judge me as mad and induce panic. And so I try and help people in my own feeble way by offering them the goods of my brain power, chiefly photographics of film cameras.
So I put it to the panel, is there any hope that people will follow my example and teach crafts like carpentry, another Daniel Blake would be teaching his neighbours how to make furniture. I will be teaching people how to take photographs for that purpose… a lady who makes clothes might teach young ladies how to make clothes so a whole community could pull itself up by its bootstraps by people of my generation teaching younger people how to survive under Tory tyranny. Has anyone got any views on citizen action of this kind ?
Question: Ben mentioned that there are only aspects of social security which are being devolved to Scottish Parliament and Alison said that the Scottish Parliament is going to have to work more closely with Westminster than ever before. How are you going to cope with what seems like such a clear difference in values between the Scottish Parliament – which has limited power – and Westminster Parliament which ultimately has the final say no matter what we do ?
Question: Hi there, it was just on the idea of the Citizens Income and looking further afield and you were saying that’s more aspirational. So I was just wondering if there was any other models which you have found when looking towards other countries – any other systems which you have found which would be better than what we have at the moment ?
43 minutes 44 seconds
Pete MacMahon: Ben, do you want to start on the differences between Westminster and Holyrood – but it is true that Holyrood can if it wants create new benefits, is it not ?
Ben MacPherson MSP: With Westminster’s permission, and there is the assumption in Scotland that that consent would be unjustifiably withheld. In terms of working together, I think that’s such an important point in question, in that there is now a joint ministerial working group so that the DWP and the Scottish Government are meeting on a regular basis about how to manage the transfer and how to manage the integration of data and delivery.
As a committee we also meet with the same committee in Westminster, and there is more and more joint working on that. I think the divergence… there needs to be very clear information out there firstly and foremost about just what the Scottish Government controlled areas of the system, and just what UK controlled areas of the system once we get to the point of delivery.
And that is another reason for delivering an agency in Scotland to deliver the devolved benefits. But what we are also mindful of is that when people are receiving their benefits a lot of the time they are just going to want the money, and they have a right to it; and there is not going to be much care which government that comes from. The most important thing is that we work effectively together and make sure that nobody falls through the gaps because that could be an unfortunate consequence of devolution and that’s not what it’s meant to be about.
Finally I’d like to give an example of where change is already progressing, and that is in the area of employability programmes. So in the benefits system at the moment people can be referred to an employability programme which is meant to help give them the skills and experience in order to help find employment.
At the Westminster level there is a sanction and conditionality around that, and the Scottish Government have clarity that we can deliver it differently in Scotland where there is no sanction or conditionality. So that will be of benefit to Scottish claimants who are involved in those programmes, however they could be sanctioned by the DWP in other parts of the system.
So there are no easy answers on it. I think what we do is deliver the benefits here more effectively, we make sure that we are innovative in delivering where there is flexibility as well as benefits and keep making the case for more of the benefits to come to Scotland; and that’s where progress will develop.
Pete MacMahon: Mike, what about this question of helping people ? Does helping people help, if that is not a stupid question…
Mike Vallance: I think that sort of activity, that sort of self organised education from below is really positive and it does go on and it should be encouraged. For example, here we have got Alex from the Ragged University, which is an example of that.
I suppose that LETS (Local Enterprise Token Schemes) are an example of that, and there is a lot of that informal sort of ‘people helping each other’ education goes on which I think is really necessary; and it goes along with direct action and trying to effect change through collective action.
Just to say very quickly that in Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty we don’t have any faith in any politicians. We think that the only way that we are going to get a better world is if we organise and take action ourselves. For example we got a lot of companies and charities to pull out of Workfare because we blockaded them, we occupied them, we gave them lots of bad publicity.
I would say that we definitely welcome the abolition of sanctions for the work programme in the employability schemes. That is a positive concrete thing and I think that what we need to see is more positive concrete actions taken by the Scottish Government. Ive already mentioned DLA and PIP; another one is Carers Allowance – that should be increased at least to the level of pension credit £155 a week.
And there are other changes which could be made like ending means testing, ending the number of hours that you have to work – they restrict it at present. It is details but it is down in this leaflet, and we would ask for responses. Also with the benefits caps which are coming in, the Scottish Government has got the power to create new benefits. We need payments to be made to stop people suffering as a result of the benefits caps that are coming in during the next few months.
Pete MacMahon: Thanks very much. As part of coming here I had a look at the Scottish Government’s website and their powerpoint summary of the benefits system reaches seventeen pages so I have sympathy with your point about the devil will be in the detail. Alison, Mike does not trust you because you are a politician, how would you respond to that ?
Alison Johnstone MSP: I would actually say that my party was one of the first to act on ending the sanctions that are part of the programmes. If you go onto the Green Party website you will see the report that we think it is essential. The thing about the work programmes was that people were being sanctioned if they did not attend these programmes. Sixty five percent of the people who attended were not in long term work after three or six months – so they have not got a great success rate.
So we do have an opportunity in Scotland to make our own work programmes and imagine that they were voluntary so you go along because you believe that they might help you. I would like to see a different approach, make sure that we are engaging with people who are committed to make sure that folk end up in a living wage and a long term job.
We have been asking this of the committee. We want to make sure that it is not just a copy of what Westminster has been doing because frankly it has not been good enough. We are investing public taxation in it and we want to make sure that it delivers for those who are attending, because it is soul destroying if you go along to some rubbishy unsuitable approach and find yourself in a job that you really don’t want. And lots of people are forced into the first job possible just to get them to be in the system.
One thing we have to remember here is that we do have tax raising powers for the first time. One of the things the Greens called for in the budget process – we haven’t got it – was a five pound top up to child benefit. Those are the kind of things on which we can take action now.
And I think that you are going to have to be more progressive, you are going to have to ask those people who can afford to do so to pay more tax… we very much should be doing that, we are a wealthy country – you know, it really does beggar belief. I feel very conflicted about food banks. It is fabulous that people want to help and you can see the film was depicting, and we have seen it time after time ourselves.
People go to the food banks and feel that they are being treated as human beings. The other thing that food banks have been increasingly good at is getting people welfare and rights advice. They don’t feel judged so they are taking on various roles, but isn’t it a shame that we have to have them ! So I’d like to see people having enough money in their pockets where they have the choice to go and buy food in the first place.
I think Mike makes the point. Let’s have enough action from folk who don’t necessarily want to get involved in formal politics. I think it is really important. I got involved in politics in my thirties accidentally – trying and failing – to save a school playing field so I very much came out from a grassroots community effort, and I was so frustrated that nobody was listening to us that twenty years later here I find myself. But I think that it is really important that we hear more from those who are being affected by these issues.
Question: The film raises issues around period poverty. I know that in the parliament, in September, Monica Lennon MSP, around period poverty, and I just wondered had anything come of that in the last six months or so ?
Question: I just wondered if it is in Holyrood’s power to stop zero hours contracts, for instance, and to imprison employers who don’t pay the living wage; not that I think it should be called the living wage because it is not.
Question: This is a great initiative, it is just so heartwarming to see. 1981 Ian Sproat, MP for Aberdeenshire coined the phrase ‘scrounger on the doll’, how deeply that has been internalised… you have mentioned here a different culture, how do we promote cultural change, cultural revolution, a different language, a counter-narrative ?
This is a counter narrative, this holds against the notion of that discourse of ‘the scrounger on the doll’. So Im wondering, how do we take on the media ? How do we take on the media at reproducing ? It is an alliance in some ways between the Tories and the Daily Mail – and the horror poverty porn when it is on the television ?
The Benefits Streets and stuff like this ? How do we challenge the language ? How do we change the lies ? I think that is really important – a counter hegemony needing ideas. I am with the Citizens Income, I am really with that because it is really not about conditionality it is about rights and it is a universality of the post forty five government that is so exciting.
And my comrade Mike, I think I agree with you about Marx’s premise about each according to their needs. It comes from Young’s socialism from the thirties involving… Cohen and people like that – it doesnae belong to the Adam Smith Institute. For me it is a revolutionary idea, it is almost like a new settlement from after the second world war.
I take issue with Mike, how do the organs of dyad democracy of which you’ve all your life been involved in, and must be paid for. How do you form alliances ? How do we mature to a certain extent and form alliances with those on the left who are involved in liberal democracy ? So it is the language and alliance of counter hegemony ?
56 minutes 50 seconds
Pete MacMahon: A lot of those words seemed appropriate words for a lecture theatre. Mike, would you like to answer the question…
Mike Vallance: People are called work shy, people are described as scroungers but if we think of it, what is most work today ? What is most employment today ? I think if you really looked at it you’d see that the majority of work today is either to make money for a boss or it is to prop up the power of the state.
It is often producing things which are actually harmful like more cars for example; not to mention the more obvious ones like arms. It is often doing things which are at best socially useless like the whole financial system. The actual conditions of work, the ways that people are treated is totally disrespectful so I think that people are quite right to reject that sort of work.
People are quite right to reject being exploited and being ordered about and being told what to do. The other thing is that I know from experience from advocating from folk and my own experience of being on Jobseekers Allowance, I know that lots of people are doing really useful work, really important work which they are not being paid for – it is voluntary work.
We actually supported somebody who was working voluntary at one charity supporting people who were ex-prisoners and he is being forced to give up that voluntary work to go and work in the Salvation Army charity shop under threat of sanction. So yes, I think we need to question the nature of work.
Work should be an expression of creativity. Way back people like William Morris were speaking about this, about how work should be creating something of beauty and meeting people’s needs. More recently we have got initiatives like Lucas Aerospace Combine Shop Stewards of the 1970s where they worked out a detailed plan of how instead of making armaments to maim and kill people they could make socially useful products like public transport and alternative energy, and so on.
So I think we need to question what is work ? Who’s it for ? And if people controlled the work and organized their work cooperatively without bosses, and if the work was not dominated by the market but if the work was directly to meet people’s needs it could be a really satisfying experience. Everybody would want to do it rather than sitting around watching some crap on the tele.
Pete MacMahon: We are getting a bit pushed for time. Period poverty, zero hours contracts – and not that Holyrood has any power over that – but could we imprison people who break these rules. I don’t know if you want to answer any or all of some of those…
Ben MacPherson MSP: I would like to pick up on the points you made and also very important nuances which you were talking about sir. On zero hours contracts – zero hours contracts were obviously mentioned in the film and the constituents that I represent…
…some of them are really seriously disadvantaged because of their employment rights and because they are in the hospitality sector which is making more heavy use of zero hours contracts and that is having a negative impact on their family and also their ability to afford housing and food and everything else.
My own personal view as an individual and as a politician would be that we should scrap zero hours contracts tomorrow. I used to work in commercial law and there would be some people in commercial law who would make arguments for them; and in my view they are not valid arguments.
Everything that can be achieved through a zero hours contract in terms of flexibility for the employer is available in other employment law. So there is no good reason for them. None at all. No commercial reason, and no social reason. But we cant do what we want in Scotland – we could have had employment within the Scotland Act but unfortunately that was resisted during the Smith Commission. Let me make a political point just for accuracy, the Labour Party were the main buyer for that unfortunately, which is surprising to me…
Pete MacMahon: …Just one thing on that – it cannot do it within government contracts no ?
Ben MacPherson MSP: …within the procurement of government contracts there are… the Scottish Government can enforce, say for example, employability conditions around the living wage or…. I don’t know the answer to that question if I am honest, I wouldn’t want to give an inaccurate impression. But I do know the answer on the living wage…
Woman interjects: You should not call it a living wage because it is not a living wage
Ben MacPherson MSP: …well, I think that you are absolutely right because the UK government has highjacked the term ‘the living wage’ by rebranding the minimum wage as the living wage. The living wage we now call in parliament, the ‘real living wage’, and me and Alison are now accredited real living wage employers in Scotland.
What the Scottish Government is doing is putting a lot of effort and emphasis into encouraging more and more employers to become ‘real living wage’ accredited employers. So that is how we are advocating and trying to address low pay in Scotland, as well as the Scottish government is in on the initiative.
Very quickly, the point about enforcement, basically through EU procurement law, there is dubiety about whether you can insist on a living wage in a public sector contract. The legal advice that the Scottish Government has received is that they cant.
Alison Johnstone MSP: Obviously we are constrained by the powers that we do and dont have. One thing that we could do, and one thing that I would ask the Scottish Government to do – and have done so is – do not give one pence of public money to companies like, and these are two companies that the Scottish Government have given a lot of public money to, are Lockhead Martin (huge arms manufacturer) they do not need our money, they are not toiling, they are massively, horribly profitable for all the wrong reasons…
…and Amazon. Now I have asked John Swiney about this – it is on the record, you can find it – this was an enquiry we had into underemployment a while ago. And his answer was “well, they provide jobs” – because I was saying ‘could we not build in criteria; you don’t get access to regional support assistance for example if you have not paid all your taxes or you dont pay all your rates.
These are the kind of things on which we could take a stance and say, actually we think that is wrong. I think in regards to the poverty porn and use of words like ‘scroungers’; we have to get serious and adopt a completely zero tolerance approach.
Or else we have a lot of other issues. Society has changed its attitude. There are obviously some who still need to be dragged kicking and screaming on issues – look at racism and questions such as sexual orientation. People have had and continue to have a tough time. This is one of those areas where we say absolutely not. No one is a scrounger, they are in a vulnerable position and they need our support.
And I think we do have to develop that kind of counter narrative to make sure that it is heard. The woman at the back who mentioned the period poverty….. Monica Lennon, who is a Labour MSP, and I co-convened a cross party group on construction – would you believe. We look at all kinds of issues with apprentices not being paid the minimum wages and so on.
This is an area which we are going to continue to work on. International Woman’s day is coming up on March the 8th and I am speaking on this issue at that event. So I cant say that there has been any fabulous progress but I think that this is a basic necessity of life. It is a product which should be freely available, and I think it should be made easily available, accessible…
…so that nobody is put in the position of; the depiction in the film was fairly devastating but it is an issue that will continue. The issue of VAT on sanitary products as a luxury is being debated and discussed too. We will continue to push on that. Thank you.
Ben MacPherson MSP: I just wanted to touch very briefly on the gentleman’s point at the back because I think it is one of the very most important questions about how we shift consciousness around the attitude and the conception of how people view the social security system, and beyond. I dont think there is a panacea answer for that. All I would say is that our media and our politics, all too often encourages negative messages, negative stories and produces criticism. And there are efforts within our Scottish Parliament, within our media, and within Scottish civil society to try and change that balance, and that is essentially the positively and constructive and the compassionate.
And we are only going to shift that balance if we as a society start to in the majority accentuate the positive more than the negative.
Pete MacMahon: Mike, do you want to say one brief last words…
Mike Vallance: Aye, I would just urge folk to get involved. You know that there is lots you can do. You dont need to devote your life to it, but you can do your bit to stand up against the injustices we seen in the film. It can make a real difference so do leave your details and get involved.
Pete MacMahon: Can I just thank the panel of Mike, Ben and Alison on behalf of you, and thank you for your questions and contributions. Can I also say that I have learned a lot from being here. It is a good experience for me to come out and do something like this because normally I spend all my time with – creatively, respectfully politicians – and I have also heard a politician who has said that he does not know the answer for which a huge amount of credit should be given. But I am sure he will get back to you with that answer.
And I would also like to thank you for letting me chair. I was slightly worried that because I was the only guy in a suit that you might think that I was one of these sinister decision makers who are depicted in the film. But thank you for coming, and thank you for your contributions.