It is a grim irony that on the day it was announced that Heriot-Watt University had removed the Salmond “rocks will melt with the sun before I allow tuition fees to be imposed on Scotland’s students” stone, the Scottish Parliament had one of its most dire day’s on historical record. Many university Principals are now talking openly about ending free tuition to deal with the collapse in income in the Universities sector from Covid-19, thereby extricating one of the major progressive metaphorical milestones in the history of Scottish devolution. The timing of the stone removal added to the mood of legislative regression around Holyrood at the moment.
What other conclusion could be drawn from the scenes in parliament yesterday, where the argument against Andy Wightman’s proposals to support tenants were made not on the substance of that most important matter, but because the Scottish Greens MSP apparently did not show sufficient deference?
“If he had actually talked to us, we might have found a way forwards in order to protect tenants,” Housing Minister Kevin Stewart inexplicably claimed.
As it happens, Wightman later published evidence that he had in fact sought to engage Stewart on the matter of protecting tenants one week before bringing his amendments forward, and was roundly ignored by the Housing Minister. Not that it should matter. Passing legislation to protect tenants in a pandemic is Stewart’s job. The Housing Minister should apologise not just to Wightman, who was subjected to absurd personal insults in a debate that should have been about policy, but to the over one million people in Scotland who rent, and apparently have been spurned by the Scottish Government out of spite.
While voting down Wightman’s amendments, the SNP found time to join with the Tories in voting for exempting student house-providers, many of which are based in tax havens, from the need to pay Council Tax if they have no students resident. That’s not all. Amendments to allow for collective bargaining in the private social care sector, which would have given unions the right to access care homes they are currently shut out from, were rejected. Clap for carers – but don’t allow them to organise?
The one saving grace was that a support fund was agreed for social carers which would see them not financially penalised for being off-sick with Covid-19, but that was a small chink of light in an otherwise grim day.
The STUC said it was “extremely disappointed” that “amendment after amendment to the Coronavirus (No.2) Bill was voted down often by an alliance of SNP and Tory votes.”
“Today is a step backwards in the Scottish Government’s aspirations to support workers and tenants dealing with the fallout of Coronavirus,” new STUC General Secretary Roz Foyer said.
Shelter Scotland director Graeme Brown said following the vote that: “It is hard to see now what is going to prevent a tidal wave of evictions sweeping people into homelessness services which were barely coping before the pandemic.”
Many SNP members were aghast at developments in Holyrood too, pointing out that rent controls is already party policy after being supported at SNP annual conference. But there is clearly an issue at the top of the party, as landlord interests always seem to come out on top over tenants. There is an awful whiff of New Labour about all this; where progressive, forward-thinking policy is agreed by an energetic membership and then ignored by a sclerotic administration that has become impervious to the grassroots after more than a decade in office.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s some life left in this government, some extra reserves of energy that this crisis can un-tap and we will see a late avalanche of reform before the 2021 election. Let’s hope so. But the evidence of yesterday – of inertia in government at the worst possible moment for society – means I’m not counting my chickens.
Source Direct is a free morning newsletter providing you with all the latest Scottish news in your inbox each morning, including:
- Analysis of the key stories
- A summary of what’s in the Scottish papers
- The latest on Source
- Interesting opinion pieces from around Scottish media
- A letters section
- Upcoming events for activists
To sign-up for Source Direct, click here.