There’s been an outbreak of consensus, or at least solidarity. Folk in Scotland do not like the “bedroom tax”, what the Westminster government calls “the spare room subsidy”, and all parties, except the Tories, have united in parliament to put a £50m line in the budget to abolish it.
Along with the poll tax, the bedroom tax will go down in history as a serious political mistake, foisted on Scotland by a government in London that was addressing an imagined problem in the south-east of England. It meant that council tenants, and housing association tenants, were losing up to a quarter of their housing benefit, if they were deemed to have a spare room. Up to 77,000 of the poorest households in Scotland were affected, many of them sliding into rent arrears as a result – four times as many as the year before.
The SNP government was gathering its brows like gathering storm over the issue and demanding that London raise the cap on welfare spending to offset the tax. Labour and the Liberal Democrats realised this was doing their Better Together referendum campaign no good at all. The SNP finance secretary John Swinney saw an opportunity to do away with the tax altogether and unite Scotland against Westminster at the same time. So he accepted a Labour suggestion that local councils and housing associations would be reimbursed for any losses in rent due to the bedroom tax.
It was a marriage of convenience for both parties rather than a marriage for love. That came earlier in the week when MSPs, by a majority of 105 to 18, approved of the Same Sex Marriage Bill. Scotland has followed England to become the 17th country in the world to recognise gay marriage. The main churches argued fiercely against it, right to the end, and are still fearful it will lead to them being forced by the equality laws to offer gay marriage ceremonies in their chapels, churches, temples and mosques.
But the parliamentary consensus did not last long. By Thurday’s question time, Labour’s Johann Lamont was reading out a list of company chief executives who said an independent Scotland would be a more difficult place to do business. They included the boss of BP and the leaders of the main supermarket chains. Alex Salmond replied that whatever their chief executives might say, there was no sign these major companies were about to cut their investment in Scotland.
He was slightly more consensual over pleas from the Conservative leader Ruth Davidson and the Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie for a stay of execution over the abolition of corroboration in criminal prosecutions. Perhaps it was the fact that the parliament’s justice committee had also asked for a rethink. He offered a review by the former judge Lord Bonomy – but only of the additional measures that might be taken to safeguard against the miscarriage of justice, such as increasing the majority required for a guilty verdict from 8 out of 15 jurors to 10 or 12.
The government is still on a collision course with most of the legal profession over what I think is largely a semantic debate. Scotland might be one of the few countries in the world to require “corroboration” before a case can be taken to court, but most countries have some sort of “sufficient evidence” test before a prosecution is mounted.
Two disturbing reports have come out this week about the health service in Scotland. One, from a BBC investigation, found that up to £800m a year was being stolen from the NHS by various frauds carried out by staff and patients. They range from false prescriptions, to theft of equipment, to dentists charging for gold fillings when in fact they were using cheaper materials. Such frauds, identified by health boards over the last five years have risen by 42 per cent. Let’s hope that is a sign that more are being discovered.
The other report came from Audit Scotland which warned that the care bill for elderly patients in hospitals and nursing homes was set to double to £8bn over the next 15 years. That’s “unsustainable” it said. Not enough was being done by local health boards and councils to treat elderly people in their own homes. It seems we need to follow through on our pioneering policy of free personal care.
Finally, I see that Scotland is over-represented in the GB team at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. We have 18 sports men and women there, a third of the British contingent. We are, after all, the land of ice and snow. Our best hope is in the game we invented, curling. Eve Muirhead may well lead the women’s team to a gold medal and the men, skippered by David Murdoch will only be a stone’s throw behind. Watch out too for Andrew Musgrave in the cross-country ski-ing. He recently beat the Norwegians at their own game. But, of course, we don’t go there to win but to simply compete.