Amongst the hoopla of the Labour leadership contest and appointment of the new shadow cabinet, a number of important debates and votes at Westminster seemed to slip under the collective radar.
On Tuesday, George Osborne managed to quell a backbench Tory rebellion which would have prevented his planned cuts to tax credits. So eye-watering is the scale of the cuts that the Chancellor effectively had to schmooze his own MPs to push the legislation through. Sadly, he succeeded in doing so.
Tory MPs backed a plan to cut spending on Tax Credits by £4.4 billion in the next financial year. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, 7,500 households in my North Ayrshire & Arran constituency with one person working will lose on average £550 a year. Tax credits are paid to those in work who do not earn enough to make ends meet. This attack on those at the bottom end of the pay scale flies in the face of Tory claims that they want to help ‘strivers not skivers’ and exposes the cuts as purely ideologically driven.
As of April next year, cuts to tax credits will see the earnings level above which they are withdrawn reduced from an annual income of £6,420 to £3,850.
No one would deny that successive UK Governments have saddled us with £1,590,000 million of debt which needs to be reduced. Nonetheless, the fact remains that we live in a country where the Government will write blank cheques to renew nuclear weapons, turn a blind eye to large scale tax avoidance and cut taxes for millionaires whilst attempting to balance the books by removing the already meagre benefits relied upon by millions of people.
In politics there are always choices to be made. The UK Government seems to be incapable of making the right ones.
Not content with removing government assistance to top up family incomes, the Tories have also taken a further step towards passing laws which will make it increasingly difficult for workers to improve their wages and working conditions.
The Trade Union Bill represents an unabashed and ideological driven assault on the rights of workers to protect themselves. The Bill, as it stands, would require a minimum 50% turnout in strike ballots – with public sector strikes also requiring the backing of at least 40% of those eligible to vote. The Tories themselves only received 36.8% of the popular vote at last May’s General Election.
To make it more difficult to increase participation, the Government has denied Unions the right to ballot their members by phone or by email. On top of this, new powers will see fines of up to £20,000 imposed if someone on a picket line fails to wear an armband, whilst it will also become legal to seize union paperwork – a worrying development considering the recent blacklisting scandal which saw many workers left ‘unemployable’ for simply reporting health and safety concerns.
Whilst it is important that union ballots are carried out accurately, transparently and without intimidation, this legislation betrays a desire to cripple unions with fines and bureaucracy, whilst making it very difficult to organise industrial action the final recourse available to workers in dispute with an employer.
The SNP Government could protect workers and the First Minister has made it clear that she will. What we need is for Labour and other Opposition parties to join our demand for employment laws to be devolved to Scotland by including it in the new Scotland Bill. It remains to be seen whether the new Labour leadership will support a move which would allow us to ensure Scottish workers remain protected from vindictive Tory legislation.