Why are Labour politicians given an easy ride by BBC News in Scotland?

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By G.A.Ponsonby

It’s a common refrain from independence supporters:  Unionist politicians, especially Labour politicians, are rarely challenged with the same vigour by BBC interviewers as are their SNP counterparts.

Criticisms can range from the failure to ask a Unionist spokesperson an obvious question, asking a question but not pressing for clarity or even presenting the same politician with a soft-ball question which is in essence a platform to attack the SNP.

Ian Murray MP
Ian Murray MP

Last Friday (November 20th) an interview took place between Labour’s sole Scottish MP Ian Murray and Good Morning Scotland presenter Gary Robertson. The interview was ostensibly about the Scotland Bill and the news that a House of Lords Committee had advised that it be halted due to a lack of clarity.

Towards the end of the interview, the BBC presenter brought up the issue of Tax Credits. Gary Robertson asked Murray why the Labour party had joined the Tories in blocking the devolution of Tax Credit powers to the Scottish Parliament.

Below is a recording of the full exchange:

Ian Murray’s response is almost incomprehensible.  He talks at speed, mixing technical terms with what is in essence gibberish.  He is barely challenged by the BBC Scotland presenter.

At the end of the interview the listener is left with no clear understanding of what has been said by way of a response to the initial question.  I listened to the full exchange and made a transcript which I’ve analysed.  You may find my analysis interesting.

Robertson: 

“Just on the issue of transparency and what is best for the people of Scotland, why then did your party vote against the devolution of full Tax Credit powers to Holyrood recently?”

Robertson’s question is short and simple.  How does Murray respond?

Murray:

“Because Clause 21 and the new Clause 34 allows us to do that anyway.”

Analysis:

Murray’s answer is codswallop.  The Scotland Bill does not allow the Scottish Government to assume full control over Tax Credits.  New Clause 34, tabled on 4 November, allows Holyrood to create new benefits in devolved areas, charged to the Scottish consolidated fund.  Clause 21 allows the Scottish Government to top-up reserved benefits.  The Labour MP has started his answer with what is essentially a lie.

Murray continues: 

“The [Scotland] Bill says quite clearly that the Scottish Parliament can introduce any new benefits in devolved areas and top up any benefits that are still reserved at the UK level.

“The Smith agreement said quite clearly that Social Security should remain a benefit.  And what we’ve said is that we’ll use the new powers to restore any tax credit losses for the people of Scotland.”

Analysis:

Having fibbed about what Clause 21 and Clause 34 allows the Scottish Parliament to do, Murray then truthfully explains what the clauses do in fact allow.  His remark about the Smith Commission is irrelevant as is his claim on what ‘Scottish Labour’ will do.

Robertson:

“So do you have guarantees that compensation from the Scottish Parliament wouldn’t be taxed as income?”

Analysis:

Incredibly Gary Robertson has refused to challenge Murray on his answer to the first question.  Murray’s claim that the two clauses “allows us to do that anyway.” Is either ignored or has been accepted as fact.

Murray then proceeds to answer Robertson’s second question on whether top-ups will be clawed back by the UK Government.

Murray: 

“Well that’s indeed … there’s a command paper under, eh, Section 55 of the Smith Agreement that the Secretary of State’s been quite clear says it wouldn’t be taxed as income.”

Analysis:

Section 55 of the Smith Agreement says the following:

Any new benefits or discretionary payments introduced by the Scottish Parliament must provide additional income for a recipient and not result in an automatic offsetting reduction in their entitlement to other benefits or post-tax earnings if in employment.

But Smith is not a binding document.  There are areas of Smith such as Crown Estate that have not been implemented fully by the UK Government.  Indeed when the question was asked directly in the House of Commons, David Mundell refused to guarantee that top-ups would not be viewed as additional income.

Murray continued:

“There’s no point in having a power to introduce any new benefit and the Secretary of State for Department of Work and Pensions has said quite clearly *that* will be outwith the UK Benefit System.

“Now that to me says that if it’s outwith the UK Benefit System and sits alongside the Command Paper and Section 55 of the Smith Agreement then it won’t be taxed as new income.”

Analysis:

When he appeared before the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee, Iain Duncan Smith was asked specifically if top ups would be considered additional income and be clawed back.

Duncan Smith replied: 

“As I said, it’s a matter for the Scottish Government to do what they want to do with regard to any payments they want to make separate to the existing benefits system…”

As far as I can tell, not one UK Government Minister has guaranteed that top ups will not be clawed back.

Murray continued:

That’s an important process and why we’re able to make the commitment that if Labour are returned to power [sic] in May in the Scottish Parliamentary Elections, we’ll restore any tax credit losses that the UK Government put forward.”

Iain Duncan Smith
Iain Duncan Smith

Analysis:

What is an important process?  Murray has merely said Iain Duncan Smith has given a guarantee that top ups won’t be clawed back.  But neither Duncan Smith nor David Mundell have given any such guarantee.

 

 

Robertson:

“But it might seem a little strange to people that you say the Tax Credits will have a devastating impact on children, the changes that are being proposed by the UK Government, but you wouldn’t support the devolution of that power to Holyrood.”

Analysis:

Gary Robertson is clearly not paying any attention to Murray’s answers or is simply not interested in challenging them.  Murray’s response to this third question, with the exception of the parts where he repeats Labour’s pledge, is unintelligible waffle as can be seen below.

Murray: 

“Well we’re saying quite clearly that we’ll top up the tax credits, we’ll restore it, we’ll do whatever needs to be done to make sure people aren’t worse off.

“The process is here.  You still have to answer the question, if you devolve something that’s intangible, you can’t just devolve Tax Credits because you don’t claim them until such time as you require them.

“You need to put in place a framework that allows the basis level and the foundation level at UK areas and allow the Scottish Parliament to decide what they want to do to top it up.  Kezia Degdale has given a full commitment that we’ll do that with the powers that are currently in the Bill to make sure nobody loses out.

“It’s fully costed and I think that’s exactly the right thing to do.  I think we should get on to a debate here about how we use the powers and that’s what Kezia Dugdale is doing and I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do and people who are receiving Tax Credits and are worried about losing them, I think will find that very welcome.”

And that is it.  This is the only time a Scottish Labour politician has appeared in a one-to-one interview on the BBC and faced questions about the party’s refusal to back the devolution of Tax Credits.  It is also, as far as I can tell, the only time a Scottish Labour politician has had a one-to-one interview and faced questions on the possible claw back of top ups.

I think you’ll agree that Gary Robertson was not as thorough in his examination of the answers from the Labour MP as he would have been had he been questioning an SNP politician.  Below is an example of Gary Robertson’s forensic interview style when the interviewee is a senior SNP politician.

Alex Salmond being interviewed in 2011.