The sound of silence: why won’t the third sector criticise the Scottish Government?

The sound of silence: why won’t the third sector criticise the Scottish Government?
Third Force News, by Robert Armour


If you’re currently finding yourself turned on by Scottish politics, chances are decoupage, bus timetables and minutes of local council meetings get you hot under the collar too.


While there’s no truth in the the rumour Holyrood’s hallowed debating chamber is being earmarked for a soft play area, with no credible opposition our one party state does seem to be getting a seamless ride these days.


Major stuff is happening, yet most of the opposition is nodding heads in wilful acquiescence – with Tory-controlled Westminster being the go-to excuse for all that goes wrong north of Watford.


Even the Greens – once the last bastion of acceptable radicalism in Scotland – regularly side with the SNP, making First Minister’s Questions these days more sedate than a whist drive.  


But it seems this creeping fog of acquiescence has drifted beyond Holyrood and infused the third sector with an equally benign, lacklustre acceptance of pretty much everything.


Take social security. We’re getting some powers – which is good – but there’s a bigger story that probably should be getting shouted from the rooftops: what we’re not getting.  


We’re not getting control of job-related benefits. We’re not getting control of pensions. Nor are we getting control of Jobcentres, sanctions, or much else that has a huge impact.


Of the nearly £18 billion social security spend in Scotland, we’re getting around £2bn of this – a meagre 14%


So we’re not getting around £16bn. That’s the story.


To add insult to grievous bodily harm, it’s going to take four more year at least before we know how that 14% is going to be spent in Scotland.


When I visited a group of hard-pressed carers in Ayrshire recently, many told me they genuinely expected either themselves or their loved ones to be dead by the time this “fairer more humane” system is in place.


Is that a good thing? I think not. Others probably do too but they’re not telling me. Disability organisations, not hitherto known for their political inhibitions, are conspicuous by their silence. The reason? They don’t want to upset the relationship they have with our social security minister who they refer to as simply “Jeane”, much like you would a much-respected colleague.


What we hear instead from our sector is humming, a bit of hawing and a lot of “I know what you’re saying but the Scottish Government is in a really difficult position.”


It’s obvious the accessibility and close relationship these organisations have with Scottish Government ministers has anesthetised them into compliance. They believe they are on the cusp of this fairer more humane system – so much so they’ve allowed the bigger more pressing issues to remain unchallenged.


It means something as major and as impactful as the continuation of PIP assessments is worryingly and easily accepted by the majority of Scotland’s third sector because it “understands” that “Jeane’s hands are tied,” as one organisation put it to me.


Yet these are the very organisations who have been vocal to the point of breathlessness – and been pretty successful to boot – against everything instigated so far via Westminster: from the bedroom tax and housing benefit to fit-for-work assessments and benefit caps.


By my reckoning this all-encompassing haze of acceptance is only going to get worse. If devolution has the third sector by the short and curlies, the prospect of Independence has grabbed it by the nether regions. And with both hands.


Which of course makes my job all the more difficult. It used to be difficult to get the third sector to speak but now it’s becoming nigh on impossible. Maybe that’s the idea; maybe all along that’s been the conspiracy.


If so we’ve doubled bluffed ourselves into silence – so much so Jeane et al will increasingly believe they can do no wrong.