With Scotland’s greater disability history, cuts and caps take their toll

Despite devolution, welfare benefits in Scotland are still run from London

Mon, Aug 5, 2013, 10:42

The house where Gordon Colgan, who suffers from cerebral palsy, grew up in Invergordon deep in the Scottish Highlands overlooking the Cromarty Firth, was busier when his two siblings lived at home. Today, Colgan (24) lives there with his mother, Julia Kliszcz.

He lives on disability benefits, while his mother gets about £120 a week, including a £59.75 carer’s allowance.

Two bedrooms upstairs are empty, but neither is of any use to Gordon since he cannot get to them. Since April 1st, mother and son have faced an increase in the cost of renting the property from the local council – up from £13.60 a week to £36.25 – although a discretionary Whitehall-approved payment is covering some of the extra costs – for now.

Despite devolution, welfare benefits are centrally run from London, where work and pensions secretary Ian Duncan- Smith argues that state-owned housing stock should be used as efficiently as possible.

The validity of the theory is undeniable, although implementing it in practice is more complex, since there is usually a shortage of smaller properties to move into, while moves can shift people away from family connections or useful community ties.

So far, the change has led to a battle of nomenclature, with opponents labelling it as “the bedroom tax”, while the British government argues that they have made changes “to the spare room subsidy”. It is a battle that Duncan-Smith has lost.

In Colgan’s case, his downstairs bedroom was converted by the local council to give him an accessible wet-room; a hoist was installed to help him get in and out of bed, while a ramp gives him access to the garden.

“What would be the point of spending all this money to give him the same facilities somewhere else in a smaller house?” his mother asks, adding that the discretionary payment will last for only three months before it expires.


Nothing suitable
Although reluctant to move, she has spoken to the local council about smaller properties but nothing suitable is available. This has led officials to suggest that she move into a one-bed flat while her son moves into supported accommodation.

The family’s difficulties are nothing new, according to Richard Hamer of Capability Scotland. “Scotland had significant amounts of social housing, which was never really the same way in England. There is still more of it today,” he tells The Irish Times.

“Inevitably, now, there is a greater effect from the bedroom tax. There is a greater history here of disability. That is put down to heavy industry, mining, ship-building. Even the Conservatives accept that that is the case. We are in a phoney war stage, however.”

People will spend months appealing the changes before they know for certain how much they will be affected. “There is probably a six-month period where people are still in a state of confusion where the fog is so thick. People are scurrying around trying to sort things out. It will be nine months time before we will start to realise what the real position is.”

Disabled people with live-in carers had believed they would not be affected, following a statement by prime minister David Cameron to that effect, only for it to emerge that he meant that they were more likely to qualify for discretionary benefits.

The difficulty here is that the new payment is exactly that: discretionary and time-limited, leaving the disabled in a state of perpetual anxiety that their benefits could be changed, according to Motor Neurone Disease Scotland.

Citizens Advice Scotland says the bedroom tax will affect 4,600 households in Scotland, including 10,000 children. More than half of those households will lose £50 a week, while a quarter will lose £100.

“They will either have to cut back on rent, food or fuel,” says CAS chief executive Margaret Lynch. “That’s the reality of this benefits cap. Families with children will face eviction, poverty, hunger and cold.”

Welfare benefit cuts have been popular, however, as Richard Hamer concedes. “The Westminster government has done a stunning job at making out that claimants are scroungers, but the bedroom tax is one where people are generally not supportive.”

Meanwhile, there is the matter of London rule, since the Scottish government is in control of housing policy, but not, in the case of local authority tenants, in charge of the funds that are needed to make it operate.


Series of moves
So far, the bedroom tax is the only one of the series of moves put into force by Duncan-Smith – benefits caps, cuts in housing benefit, and so on – that the Scottish National Party has said it would reverse.

Within months, people will face rents they cannot pay, but yet be unable to move to smaller properties, Hamer warns.

“Twenty years ago, a previous Tory government brought in discrimination laws that say that you can’t do things that impact worse on disabled people than others. Now they are doing things which they acknowledge themselves are doing exactly that,” he says.