Bitter foes, now firm friends
You can find a podcast on pretty much anything these days. It’s a little niche, granted, but if you’re into 2010s austerity nostalgia, George Osborne and Ed Balls are about to drop their new ‘frenemies’ podcast. The former chancellor and ex-shadow chancellor - “once bitter foes, and now firm friends”, according to Osborne - will be offering “accessible and compelling” expert analysis on the shoddy state of the economy, while presumably not shouldering any of the blame for it.
Sure, people with different political views can form friendships, but forgive me if I find this particular bromance a little unsettling. It’s as if we’re expected to forget the brutal austerity era unleashed by Osborne, along with David Cameron and Nick Clegg (remember them?). While the former Prime Minister – seldom seen since his cheerful post-Brexit departure - rakes in the speaking fees, and his old deputy has disappeared to Silicon Valley with Facebook, the disastrous policies they bequeathed us continue to cause hardship more than a decade on.
Remember the outcry following their government’s first raft of welfare reforms, particularly the infamous bedroom tax? Housing associations, homelessness charities, the Scottish Government and political parties across Holyrood - including Miliband and Balls’ Labour Party - united to condemn the policy.
A cut to the housing benefits of vulnerable people in social housing with a spare bedroom, with no thought about the impact on those with disabilities who might need extra space for medical equipment or the effect on caregivers or on children in shared custody arrangements, not to mention the chronic shortage of suitable alternative housing.
Do Osborne and co now get a pass on the bedroom tax and their other savage cuts simply because a few years have passed?
Today, the effects of the bedroom tax are being felt as strongly as ever. Scottish households have been disproportionately hit, with 100,000 facing over £700 in average losses every year. Our Scottish Government is spending £84 million in 2023-24 to shield families from this UK tax and from long-time frozen housing allowance rates, highlighting the lasting consequences of Cameron and Osborne’s policies and their retention by successive governments since.
The two-child limit from that era further piles on the injustice and misery. Reducing low-income families’ income by an average £2,800 annually, this Tory policy choice disproportionately affects ethnic minorities, women, disabled individuals, and single parents.
The addition of the hideous ‘rape clause’ compounds it, forcing women to disclose their trauma to strangers to access financial support for a third child. Analysis by the House of Commons Library shows that in the last year, the policy has affected more than 80,000 children in Scotland and, shamefully, that a quarter of these bairns have fallen into poverty.
So, the Scottish Government is spending a further £6.2m to mitigate the benefit cap as fully as possible within devolved powers, which along with the alleviation of the Bedroom Tax, will see families with the least in Scotland £2,500 better off on average per year than counterparts elsewhere in the UK as a result. The Scottish Child Payment, introduced just two years ago has increased to £25 per week per eligible child, and has been praised by anti-poverty groups as a landmark step in tackling child poverty.
Social Security Scotland currently operates 11 other benefits, including the Best Start Grant and Carers Allowance Supplement.
Meanwhile, SNP colleagues and I down in Westminster continue to call for the UK Government to fix those additional issues that have plagues the rollout of Universal Credit, including scrapping the sanctions regime and the five-week wait for a first payment, which the Trussell Trust has shown pushes people into food bank use.
The next stage of Universal Credit hits Edinburgh North and Leith from September. With the onus on the claimant to re-apply, there’s a real worry that some folk will miss out so in recent weeks I’ve met with Edinburgh Council’s Advice Shop, as well as local groups like CHAI, Citizens Advice Edinburgh, Circle and VOCAL. They’re doing a power of work to support people to access the various forms of support they’re entitled to, but it’s an ongoing slog.
The recent rise in the cost of living has only deepened existing problems; the reality is many have borne the brunt of UK austerity policies for years. So, it’s really concerning as we approach the UK election next year, that his Majesty’s Loyal Opposition has dropped its opposition to them.
In 2013, Ed Balls said the bedroom tax was “driving people to the edge of despair”; now Labour protests there’s not enough money in all the UK Treasury to scrap it. Where once the party said it would abolish the vindictive two-child limit responsible for pushing 250,000 children into poverty; now its Leader says if elected his government will keep it. I sincerely hope they rethink these positions.
It’s one thing Ed Balls teaming up with his former adversary for kicks and giggles; it seems another entirely for the party of Hardie and Bevan to be siding with Osborne’s austerity politics today. ■
The effects of the bedroom tax are being felt as strongly as ever