It’s not enough to condemn the Budget, our parties must offer a new way forward
The National, by Patrick Harvie
Like many people, whenever I see George Osborne pop up on the TV screen, I can’t help wishing that vote in September 2014 had gone the other way, and that Scotland was preparing to take responsibility for its own economy later this month.
I felt this again watching yesterday’s Budget announcement. The Chancellor’s never-ending cuts, shameless tax breaks for the wealthy and poorly disguised attacks on those on low incomes made me wish we didn’t have to endure another day of inhumane economic policy.
On these occasions, Mr Osborne regularly makes unconvincing attempts to play the role of a fair, sensible-minded politician who cares about the people who have to struggle every day to make ends meet. In yesterday’s performance he claimed that by raising the threshold for the personal allowance, he will move 1.3 million of the lowest-paid workers out of tax altogether. As Paul Johnson, the Director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, has pointed out, this is just an outright lie. Anyone earning more than £8,000 will still need to pay National Insurance contributions.
In the meantime, Osborne is also raising the threshold for the top rate of income tax, meaning people can earn up to £45,000 before they have to start paying 40p out of each pound they make into the public purse. Unlike his proposal to ease tax on low-earners, there is no catch here. This means that a great many high-earners, not just those on six figures salaries but people like myself and other MSPs, will be better off than before. There is simply no justification for boosting the incomes of well-paid people while others are going unfed and unhoused.
It seems crystal clear that in Scotland we must resist these extremely unfair, regressive changes. The good news is that with the Scotland Bill being approved by Holyrood this week, soon we will have more powers that enable us to take action.
The exchange between Kezia Dugdale and Nicola Sturgeon at FMQs yesterday was frustrating (that’s pretty normal for FMQs) in that both the two biggest parties wanted to condemn the Tory Budget, but neither is yet spelling out all their tax policies. That’s fair enough of course, and there’s still a month or so before even the first postal voters make their decisions in the Holyrood election.
But in the coming weeks all parties will have to start offering clear and coherent policies on tax and welfare, showing how the effect of Osborne’s Budget can be reversed and giving Scottish voters the confidence that when we take responsibility for our own country we can build a better Scotland.
The Greens will show the willingness to raise tax for the wealthy and lower it for those who cannot pay. But we also recognise that it’s not just income we need to tax. Our country has a scandalous level of income inequality, but wealth inequality runs even deeper.
Most of our land is owned by just a handful of people, and decades of distortion in the housing market has driven this problem even deeper. A proper balance of taxation between income and property can help to close that gap and build the more equal society that will secure a good quality of life for everyone.
We also have the chance to create flexible local economic policies that are well designed for the circumstances of each community. With the freedom to set local tax rates, and to decide how much should be raised to provide investment and public services, local democracy would become the powerful force that it remains in many other European countries.
By reforming local and national taxation together, with a shift toward the national and a proper balance between income and wealth, we can create a tax system that’s progressive at every level.
We can also fight against the Tories’ cruel mishandling of the benefits system. A number of benefits will be devolved to us, and we can make sure these are distributed in a compassionate way, ensuring no one is left to fall through the net.
Take support for disabled people, for example. George Osborne has inflicted a substantial share of his cuts on the Employment and Support Allowance, and more than 640,000 people will also be hit by his reforms to the Personal Independence Payment. Cruel assessment requirements have meant people clearly living with a disability have to be subject to repeated and humiliating checks in order to keep receiving the benefits they are entitled to. With disability benefits getting devolved to Scotland, we can do things differently.
Scotland can be a compassionate nation that uses public resources for the public good.
I for one look forward to paying my taxes for that purpose, and I don’t believe I’m alone in that.