jimtoggleJim O’Neill praises – yes, praises – the actions of the Scottish Government this week. Brace yourselves.


I think I am going to disappoint all my nationalist critics this week since this blog will have no criticism of the SNP – well, nearly no criticism. Indeed, I am going to praise the Scottish Government for the first time in quite a while.

But first to a shocking story that has just become public thanks to the investigative work of Private Eye. In 2012, Professor Malcolm Harrington was asked to carry out a review of fitness to work tests on the health of those who had undergone them. This was when the first real concerns about the fairness of the tests, carried out by ATOS, were being voiced.

Naturally Professor Harrington believed that all the information about the outcomes of the tests had been passed to him and he wrote his report on that basis. It now becomes clear that a substantial number of outcomes, which resulted in the death of the participants, were not released, with the collusion of the Ministers. Such a misleading limitation of the data obviously impacted on Professor Harrington’s report and has called into question his conclusions.

Naturally, opposition parties in Westminster have raised a stink about this and Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens have all called for an independent inquiry, both into the hidden reports and who was responsible, and also into the wider issue of deaths linked to welfare reforms. Naturally, the Government are resisting this but a head of pressure is building up. There is only one fly in the ointment – the lack of any call from the second largest opposition group, the SNP. Maybe they missed it as a result of their obsession with Indyref2. However, it is not too late for them to join the call. Now who is their Social Security spokesperson at Westminster?

Here it is, my little nationalist friends. Here is where I am nice to the SNP Holyrood Government. I believe in being critical where there are things to criticise, and haven’t I had a lot over this past year, but not in manufacturing artificial criticism where it is not warranted.

When Scottish Social Security Minister, Jeanne Freeman, announced that the first steps in mitigating the dreadful effects of Universal Credit would be to allow recipients to choose between fortnightly or monthly payment and to allow the Housing Benefit element to be paid directly to the landlord, it was a clear win/win situation both for the recipients and the landlords.

One of the biggest criticisms of Universal Benefit has been to force people, used to budgeting on a weekly basis, to budget on a monthly basis. This has meant that many have run out of funds part way through the month, forcing them often to choose between food and paying bills. This drove them more and more deeply into debt and has resulted in, among other things, a substantial increase in housing debt. While public sector providers have sought to manage this, the same has not been true in elements of the private sector, leading to people losing their home in that high cost rent sector.

One way to avoid this, the Housing Associations and the Councils have said, is to reinstate direct payment of Housing Benefit to the landlord. This ensures the security of the tenancy, the fluidity of the housing provider and takes one more concern off the shoulders of the tenant. As the Chair of a Housing Association where some 70% of tenants are on some element of Housing Benefit, I can attest to the accuracy of this from our own accounts.

So, three cheers for Ms Freeman and for these first steps in mitigating the impact of the Tory welfare reforms. Now if only something could be done about the ridiculous penalties, and about Bedroom Tax 2…