Time to devolve power, not just blame
I have been and was a member of the Labour Party for a long time before I ever thought of putting my name forward as a candidate for election.
There was one simple reason for making that odd decision, giving up a good job with the BBC: the creation of the Scottish Parliament. I have always believed in devolution. I have always believed in the Scottish Parliament, just as my party has always believed in home rule.
I suspect many of you will know the three key aims of the first Scottish Labour manifesto – home rule, a minimum wage and temperance.
The point is that devolution – working people taking control over their own lives – was my inspiration and has been at the heart of Labour’s thinking since our formation.
And when we talk about devolution or perhaps better expressed in that European term, subsidiarity, that does not simply mean the transfer of power from Whitehall to St Andrew’s House. To me it means each of us exercising as much control and influence as possible over the forces that affect our lives and the services which support us.
The establishment of the Scottish Parliament was a major achievement in that process, but I worry that devolution has stalled over the last few years. I don’t just mean our debate over the alternative route offered by independence (and you will be relieved to hear I am not going to re-open that discussion), but for me the more worrying tendency to centralise control at Holyrood.
The creation of a national Police Service, a national fire service, the closure of local courts, the regionalised merger of colleges – the list of ever more centralised services is a long one.
But we have an opportunity now, today, in the Scottish Parliament and at the forthcoming elections, to resume our journey. To do so, to support localism is not just the right thing to do, in many ways it more accurately captures the spirit of our times, the Zeitgeist of modern Scotland. The high levels of political engagement we are witnessing, the extraordinary voluntarism on display at last year’s Commonwealth Games, the empowerment recommended by the Christie Commission, all point in the same direction.
It is a positive agenda but I think it is fair to say that one of the reasons there is such a demand for communities, volunteers and active citizens to be given more opportunity to have their say and to play their part, is the general concern, the disillusionment even, at the ability of existing decision making processes to protect us or to reflect our wishes.
I have always seen the Scottish Parliament as one of the key ways of empowering Scots, of giving us more self-confidence and more control over our own lives. But at no point was the devolution process supposed to stop there. We need to put one of the founding principles of the Parliament into practice: to share power with the people we represent.
Labour has a very clear agenda, a very clear set of policies which demonstrate our commitment to greater local control and accountability. The Crown Estate and the work programme will be devolved under Labour not just from the UK Parliament, but from the Scottish Parliament too. These are just some of the choices that will be put before you at the election in May – and they reveal some of the differences between the parties.
There are areas of consensus too, or at least some signs of broad agreement between Labour, the SNP, Liberals and Greens on issues such as land reform, community ownership – for example of renewables – and on the importance of community empowerment.
I want to expand, if I may, on that last issue as there is currently a Community Empowerment Bill before Parliament and it both illuminates how national government can support localism and simultaneously has thrown into relief many of the difficulties about putting our belief in localism into practice.
How do we ensure robust and democratic accountability when it comes to utilising public resources? How do we reconcile local control and therefore local variation, with national demands for equity and fairness? Put another way, one person’s localism is another person’s postcode lottery.
But perhaps the most important question of all: how do we ensure that rather than narrowing inequality in Scotland, local decision making and community empowerment does not make it worse?
UNISON are just one of the many organisations who have asked the Parliament, how do we guarantee that “those voices that are already less well heard in Scotland” are not drowned out or overwhelmed by “the well organised, well off, further controlling assets and influencing service delivery to suit their needs”.
That concern – that those who shout the loudest will take advantage of local empowerment and the vulnerable will be further disadvantaged – has been echoed by the Poverty Alliance, Oxfam, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation amongst others. To give you some concrete examples – the report of the 2020 Public Services Trust found that graduates are more likely to be active in the community than those with no qualifications, middle aged people more than the young, and readers of quality newspapers more than tabloid consumers.
When the pressing issue facing local, national and international communities is the extremes of ever-rising inequality, we must not let our good intentions blind us to the dangers of compounding the problem.
UNISON in fact flagged up a number of potential danger areas with the empowerment agenda. Governments at all levels can often hide behind community empowerment when another description might be outsourcing. I would imagine that I am not the only one here who would balk at the prospect of undercutting the wages and conditions of public servants or even replacing paid staff entirely with volunteers. Publicly owned assets which are taken over by the community might then need the support of a private partner – effectively leading to privatisation by the back door.
The fact that a community is local or has a shared interest does not make it more equitable or more likely to put the needs of the poorest first. It does not even mean it is more likely to reach a shared or consensual decision. My family is from Skye originally and my relatives still tell me that however disputatious we get at the Scottish Parliament, it doesn’t hold a candle to the passion and language vented at the local common grazing committee.
Yes we should devolve power, but we need to ensure that democratic accountability is preserved, the vulnerable protected and equity and fairness maintained.
I want to make one more point and that is not so much about power, control and influence but about that other crucial factor in any decision making process – money.
I am sure I do not have to tell anyone in this room about the extreme pressures facing you in your decision making every day. I am all too well aware of the budget constraints imposed on you and I am also all too aware of the devolved chain of responsibility.
The Scottish Government will rightly complain that the Tories have cut their budget by 10% over the last five years. But councils, such as West Dunbartonshire for example, have had their budget cut in turn by the Scottish Government by a whopping 22%.
In fact it often strikes me when it comes to subsidiarity, that the Scottish Government is pretty good at holding on to power while simply devolving blame to local authorities for any cuts.
Despite the disproportionate cuts to local government budgets, many councils have demonstrated what can be done with political will and the right values.
Fife Council for example, has abolished Social Care charges and looks set to abolish home care charges. That is a fantastic, principled decision, made even more impressive when you consider the huge financial pressure they are under due to cuts from Edinburgh.
However, in my view, this was not a budget decision that Fife Council should have had to make. I do not believe any local authority should be forced to charge our disabled and elderly friends and family for social care.
I believe social care charges – and the funding of the abolition of those charges – is a matter for the Scottish Government at a national level. And I would like to take this opportunity to express my full support for the Scotland against the care tax campaign.
And this is the key for the future of localism.
Scotland’s national government not telling councils what to do, but working in partnership with local authorities to deliver real change for Scotland. Change based on a determination to create a fairer more equitable Scotland.
In order to tackle those issues, we must ensure local authorities have the finances to deliver change and that is just one reason why the forthcoming General Election matters so much to localism here in Scotland.
Local government and how it is funded is entirely devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but in May’s election, how Scotland is financed will play a key role in how all the political parties pitch for voters.
Whilst the Tories will continue to radically shrink the size of the state, Labour is committed to ending austerity across Britain. We are committed to delivering a political agenda that closes the inequality gap rather than widening it.
And unlike the Scottish National Party, we are committed to retaining the Barnett Formula – Scotland’s block grant.
This week, following the news that Scotland’s estimated net fiscal deficit is now at a staggering £12.4 billion, the future of how Scotland is funded is even more crucial.
And that is why I firmly believe the SNP’s calls for Full Fiscal Autonomy is bad for Scotland, bad for Scotland’s local authorities and bad for localism.
The loss of Barnett, which is what the SNP are seeking at this year’s General Election, would mean a loss of more than £6 billion pounds to Scotland in 2015-2016. That is half the entire local government budget. It is the equivalent of 138,000 jobs.
Scottish Labour will not let that happen.
A future Scottish Labour Government will work in partnership with local authorities to ensure national government supports and enhances the work you are doing and the choices you make.
If our goal is to create a better, more equitable and socially just Scotland, strengthening local democracy to increase opportunity and tackle inequality must be at the centre of that aim.