Taxing people for having a spare bedroom is cruel

LAST week, the SNP Government set aside money in our budget to fully mitigate the impact of Westminster's 'bedroom tax'.

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With around 80,000 Scottish households affected by the measure - many of them including children or someone with a disability - it was the right thing to do.

Taxing people for having a spare bedroom and forcing them into rent arrears, or the possibility of losing homes they have lived in for years, has always been a cruel and heartless measure and so it is good that the Scottish Parliament has been able to step in.

It is also good that, on this issue, Scottish Labour backed the SNP - showing that it is possible for us to put party rivalry aside and unite in common cause.

Making the money available is only the first step though.

We also need to be able to get it to the people who need it in the form of regular, ongoing payments that avoid them getting into rent arrears.

Because housing benefit is a responsibility of the London Parliament, the only legal way we can do this is through Discretionary Housing Payments.

However, there is a cap on how much we are allow to spend on DHPs and we are already spending up to the limit - so we have had to ask the Department for Work & Pensions to lift the cap.

So far, there has been no response, but let's hope they agree to do the decent thing.

If the DWP refuses this request - which would be outrageous given that it won't cost them a penny and they are responsible for the 'bedroom tax' in the first place - the Scottish Government has pledged to come up with a scheme that allows councils and housing associations to avoid evictions.

However, this will be a second best scheme as it will only be able to help people after they have fallen into arrears, rather than help them avoid arrears.

That's why we must keep pressure on the DWP.

While last week's development - and the SNP/Labour alliance that brought it about - was a good moment for the Scottish Parliament, it also demonstrated the absurdity of the position we are in when it comes to welfare.

The Scottish Parliament has been forced, from within a fixed budget, to find tens of millions of pounds to pick up the pieces of a disastrous policy imposed by a Westminster government that we didn't vote for.

And to make matters worse, we are having to jump through legal hoops to find ways of getting this money to the people who need it.

You don't have to be a lifelong nationalist, like me, to see that it would be so much better if decisions about welfare were simply taken by the Scottish Parliament in the first place.

That way, we would never have had a 'bedroom tax'. Taking decisions here in Scotland - and not at Westminster - has been good for health, education and justice.

It would be good for welfare too - and the scandal of the 'bedroom tax' is proof of that.

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