Lamont must come clean on Labour’s ‘London-centric’ regional benefits caps


   By a Newsnet reporter

Labour in Scotland has been challenged to “come clean” on where they stand on shadow chancellor Ed Balls’ plans for regional caps on welfare payments, amid fears it will increase inequality across the UK.
The call from the SNP follows a number of previous commitments from Labour in Scotland to oppose regional variations in the benefits system.

Johann Lamont and Scottish Labour MPs and MSPs have so far refused to oppose Mr Balls’ London-centric policy despite his plan directly contradicting their own Devolution Commission.

Mr Balls has proposed that a system of regional welfare caps should be introduced, which he claims would take account of higher housing costs in London and the South East.  This would mean that people living in better off parts of the country would be entitled to higher benefits payments than those in poorer parts of the UK.

A recent economic report for the Reid Foundation found that the policies of the main UK parties consistently favour London and the South East at the expense of the rest of the UK. 

Although Labour portrays itself as the party of “redistribution”, if implemented Mr Balls’ policy would contribute to the redistribution of wealth from the poorer parts of the UK to the richest, and would further widen the growing gulf between the rich and poor which already scars the country. 

Labour in Scotland has previously said it was opposed to any regional or geographical variation in benefits policy.  The party cited this as one reason it was opposed to devolving control of welfare and benefits to the Scottish Parliament, even though recent opinion polls show that a clear majority of Scots are in favour of devolving welfare and benefits to Holyrood. 

Ms Lamont’s Devolution Commission wrote in their report:

“In considering whether it would make sense to devolve provision, and so increase differences in benefits, we have to ask, would it matter if pensioners in Scotland were paid more generous pensions than in England, or if unemployment benefits were higher in Doncaster than Dundee? As a Labour Party, we think that does matter.”

Former Labour leader Gordon Brown made a similar commitment when Labour recently launched its own anti-independence campaign separate from the official Better Together campaign.

Speaking at the launch, Mr Brown stated that the guarantee of equality of welfare provision across the United Kingdom was a strong reason for Scotland to remain a part of the UK.

Mr Brown said:

“There are equal social, political and economic rights for people no matter which community you live in, no matter whether you are in a poor area or a rich area of the country.”

However after the current Westminster Labour leadership plans are implemented, this will no longer be the case.  People in better off parts of the UK will be entitled to higher benefits payments than those in poorer areas.

The devolved Labour government in Wales also condemned regional caps in June of last year, stating:

“The Welsh Government does not support the introduction of either a regional or localised welfare benefit cap. Local variations in housing costs have existed within the benefits system across the UK for decades.”

Labour MPs from the North East of England have also voiced their disapproval, speaking to the BBC Politics Show earlier this month, Newcastle East MP and former chief whip Nick Brown said the idea of regional benefit caps was completely unacceptable.

Mr Nick Brown said: “I am firmly and irrevocably opposed to regionalisation of pay and regionalisation of benefits. A large number of other back bench MPs from the region feel the same way.”

Despite open opposition to Ed Balls’ plans from other sections of the Labour party, so far the Labour leadership in Scotland have avoided answering questions on their stance towards the proposals – which strike at the heart of Labour’s strategy for persuading Scotland that the country is better off within the UK. 

The SNP is now calling on Johann Lamont and the rest of the Labour party in Scotland to come clean, and either openly oppose the new policy in line with their previous statements and commitments, or to admit that they have carried out a major U-turn based upon Labour’s electoral considerations south of the Border.

The SNP say that the latest Labour U-turn is yet more evidence that Scotland is not the priority of the Labour party, which appears more interested in adopting “London-centric” policies in order to court Conservative and UKIP leaning voters in the south than responding to the needs and desires of their Scottish constituents.

SNP MSP Jamie Hepburn, who sits on the Welfare Reform Committee, said:

“Johann Lamont’s silence on Ed Balls’ Tory-styled plans for regional welfare caps show up an embarrassing policy U-turn in which they’re abandoning their principles for the sake of ‘what London says goes’.

“The welfare plan Labour in Scotland describe in their Devolution Commission is the complete opposite of what Ed Balls is proposing – but Johann Lamont’s silence proves Ed Balls didn’t read or care for what Labour in Scotland were hoping to present. It is a gross insult to the membership of the Labour party in Scotland that their subordinate leadership refuses to stand up and be counted.

“Scotland has paid more tax per head than the UK average in every one of the last 30 years – and the official figures show that Scotland subsidises the rest of the UK, not the other way round – yet Labour are now talking about having lower welfare payments in Scotland than the south of England. Johann Lamont should tell us whether she is for or against Ed Balls’ plans for lower benefits in Scotland than London.

“Ed Balls has now made it clear that if Labour was ever re-elected at Westminster they would adopt the Tory mantra of cuts, cuts and more cuts. The silence of Johann Lamont has made clear that Scottish Labour are going to let Scotland be dragged along with this London-centric policy. The only way to safeguard the welfare state in Scotland is by voting Yes next September.”