By a Newsnet reporter
In a heated exchange in Holyrood, Labour’s Jackie Baillie has been accused by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon of misrepresentation, grandstanding, and hypocrisy over the bedroom tax.
Ms Sturgeon’s comments were made during the debate on an emergency motion Ms Baillie had put forward on behalf of Labour calling on the Scottish government to make up to £50 million available to mitigate the effects of the housing benefits cut on Scottish local authorities and housing associations.
The emergency motion put forward by Ms Baillie was as follows:
“To ask the Scottish government to bring forward emergency legislation to protect tenants from eviction as a result of the arrears arising from the so-called bedroom tax, and financial support to help local authorities and housing associations to mitigate its impact.”
Ms Baillie claimed that that Labour’s “repeated calls” for the Scottish government to take action had been echoed by COSLA and a number of housing organisations.
In response, Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon rounded on Ms Baillie’s party for its “hypocrisy” and “grandstanding” over the bedroom tax, noting that Labour controlled local authorities have refused to rule out the eviction of tenants who get into difficulties paying their rent as a result of the cut to housing benefit. She added that no SNP-led council will evict tenants who get into difficulties due to the bedroom tax.
In an interview on Radio Scotland yesterday morning, the Labour MSP refused to confirm if Labour controlled local authorities would refuse to evict those falling into arrears. A stance repeated on Newsnight Scotland when she again refused to confirm if Labour councils would be asked to commit to no bedroom tax evictions.
Ms Sturgeon also pointed out that the Westminster Labour party has refused to say it would abolish the tax should it be returned to office after the next General Election. In fact, Labour have signalled that they would keep the tax in place. Speaking to the BBC earlier this month, Labour’s shadow minister Helen Goodman said:
“We’ve said that the bedroom tax should only apply if people have been offered a smaller place to live and turned it down because, obviously, it is better to use the housing stock more efficiently.”
Labour MP Helen Goodman confirms Labour’s stance on the Bedroom Tax
In her reply to Ms Baillie’s question in Holyrood on Wednesday, the Deputy First Minister said:
“It is first in my understanding that Jackie Baillie has misrepresented the position of COSLA. If in fact that is the case will she come back to the chamber this afternoon and correct the record.
“The Scottish government will continue to do everything within the powers and resources that we have to protect vulnerable people across Scotland. But Labour’s position on this issue is shamelessly hypocritical, and it has got nothing to do with protecting vulnerable people.
“Behind Jackie Baillie’s rhetoric the reality is very different. Firstly we have the reality of Labour council’s voting against no-evictions policies. In other words Labour want the Scottish government to legislate because they cannot persuade their councils to do the right thing voluntarily.
“Secondly we have a point-blank and disgraceful refusal by Labour to say that they would scrap the bedroom tax if they were re-elected to government.
“And thirdly, we have the grotesque situation of Labour saying that they oppose welfare cuts, while being joined at the hip with the Tories in a campaign to keep the powers over welfare in the hands of the Tories instead of arguing for this Parliament to have the power to decide.
“Instead of grandstanding, and may I say it, rather belated grandstanding, Jackie Baillie and Labour should be getting behind the efforts of the Scottish government to protect the vulnerable. And they should be joining us in a united front against the Tories instead of touring around the country telling us we are better together with the Tories. That’s the reality.”
Ms Sturgeon added: “This question today is a fig leaf for Labour, because they want to divert the attention of the Scottish people from the real issue … because powers over welfare remain at Westminster, then we have to put up with a Tory government that we do not vote for imposing welfare cuts and the bedroom tax on Scotland.
“If Labour really cared about vulnerable people across Scotland then they would be having a united front with the Scottish government against the Tories. They wouldn’t be in a campaign with the Tories to keep welfare powers at Westminster.”
Ms Sturgeon also noted that neither Ms Baillie nor Labour’s Holyrood leader Johann Lamont had signed a petition lodged with the Scottish Parliament earlier this month calling on Holyrood to take urgent action against the bedroom tax.
In a further blow to Ms Baillie and Labour’s credibility on the issue, it emerged on Wednesday that Ms Baillie’s own local authority, Labour controlled West Dunbartonshire Council, had voted down an SNP supported motion to ban the eviction of tenants who get into arrears as a result of the tax. Instead Labour has supported a motion saying that the council will not evict tenants who have agreed a payment plan with the housing office.
Speaking to the Dumbarton Reporter earlier this month, Anti-bedroom tax campaigner councillor Jim Bollan of the Scottish Socialist Party said:
“Any no evictions policy from Labour at some time in the future, if it ever materialised, would be conditional on a repayment plan set internally by the Housing department.”
Councillor Bollan added: “We also need more investment in welfare rights services which the Labour motion does not mention. Our motion suggests an additional £250,000.
“This could be funded from the reserves which are over £4m. This motion is what you normally get from Labour – smoke and mirrors and promises of jam tomorrow.”
Meanwhile the architect of the bedroom tax, Conservative Works and Pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, was heckled by protesters while giving a speech in Edinburgh. Anti-cuts campaigner Willie Black yelled:
“Why are you here in Scotland? We have a different philosophy. We’ve not elected you and your Tory cohorts. We don’t want you; we don’t need you. We’ve more pandas than you. You’ve only got one MP and we want a different Scotland that cares for people who are distressed and in poverty.
“You’re going to make millions of people homeless – people that definitely need help. You’re making the richer, richer and the poor poorer. And we’re going to see the end of you. Back to England where you belong, you ratbag.”
Mr Black was escorted from the premises by security guards.
Mr Duncan Smith was in Edinburgh to attend a meeting with the welfare reform committee at the Scottish Parliament. At his insistence, the meeting was private and held behind closed doors, leading to accusations that the Coalition government was unwilling to defend its policies publicly to the voters of Scotland.