Monday, 19 August 2013


Peter McColl, Green Party, 19.8.13

Three topics to be discussed:-

  •     Independence and North Sea Oil
  •     Renewables in Scotland
  •     The experience of community ownership in the Highlands and Islands

1. The current UK government is tied to a policy of developing unorthodox fossil fuels, e.g. shale gas and fracking. This is part of a wider trend found in the USA and Ireland (where there is also a prospect of lignite reserves being used). This benefits the energy corporations. Osborne wants to divert government subsidies from renewables to the energy corporations involved in fracking. This is tied to a strategy of increasing people’s dependence on these corporations, since the alternative course of developing renewables opens up the prospect of local or community ownership.

Scotland still has considerable reserves of North Sea Oil, as well as undeveloped oil reserves west of Shetland. However, given the impact of burning fossil fuels on climate change, we need to consider methods of moving away from these. Money raised from existing reserves could be used to finance the transition to renewables, whilst the new reserves are left undeveloped. Climate change hits the poorest the hardest.

This would also mean opposing shale gas and fracking, which have other environmentally damaging costs – including polluted ground water and possible earthquakes. There is currently a planning application to frack under Mossmorran gas fractionation plant in Fife, with possible devastating consequences.

2. Scotland has the potential to take the lead in renewables – particularly wind, tidal and wave power. The unit costs of wind power have been falling dramatically. Even the cost of solar power is falling to such an extent that it could be used economically in more limited cases in Scotland, despite poorer weather and longer winters.

Money from oil and gas currently goes to the National Exchequer and the energy corporations (although ironically Norway’s state owned Statoil is one of the beneficiaries of oil and gas currently in the UK sector).

Now the development of wind power is in the hands of 3 major private corporations.

The alternatives to these forms of ownership include state control and/or locally owned companies or cooperatives. These can be more empowering.

3. The potential of social ownership can be best seen in the Highlands and Islands. The success of recent community land buyouts has been linked to the development of local renewable energy. This can be seen on Gigha, Eigg and in South Harris. These places have moved away from dependence on imported diesel fuel and are now energy self-sufficient, sometimes with surplus available for other uses.

Peter has been involved in an attempt to establish a community owned wind turbine in Portobello. However, they had faced major obstacles from the local council, including spurious opposition to a site next to a water and sewage treatment plant on the grounds of possible danger to the plant.


Allan, Gordon, Iain, Liam, Sarah, Vincent contributed to the discussion, raising the issue of the potential of carbon storage schemes, enhanced local democracy, how independence could actually improve the energy/environment situation, where the money for investment in renewables would come from, the balance between electricity distributed on the National Grid and more locally, the lack of constancy of wind power, the balance between old and new sources of energy, and the issue of fuel poverty

Two facts were revealed in this discussion. Ian Taylor, oil businessman and major financer behind ‘Better Together’ has s strong interest in fracking development. Food parcels, which require no heating, are having to be developed for the poorest, because people can not afford the cost of fuel.

Peter summed up by supporting further research into carbon storage schemes, but not placing any great credence on false promises. These have been made in the past, but have just been used to continue with old energy production methods in the meantime. The cost of renewables is falling rapidly making them increasingly cost efficient. Fossil fuels may initially have low costs when reserves are still large, but these deplete leading to a longer term rise in costs. There were also other potential energy sources such as biomass, but these are likely only to have more limited local potential. It would be possible to overcome some of the problems of the lack of constancy of wind power by having an underwater power connector with Norway, which has surplus energy produced by hydro-power. Electricity from wind power could then be fed back to Norway, when such power was being generated (a similar concept to power transfers in pumped storage schemes in the Highlands). There would be a need to keep some high voltage power stations for industry, e.g. aluminium plants, but these could use hydro-power. A major cause of fuel poverty lay in the control of energy by profiteering corporations. The creation of more local community power schemes was one way of addressing this problem.

Monday, 5 August 2013


Bill Scott, 5.8.13

Cuts – who they are falling on?
•         £22 billion of cuts to welfare benefits
•         More than half of all cuts falling on households containing disabled people.
•         The other major losers, apart from disabled people, are women in their 40’s & 50s with caring responsibilities.
•         Impact in Scotland = £4.5 billion being taken out of local economies
•         90,000 Scottish DLA claimants lose an average of £3,000 a year with the change to PIP.
•         100,000 ESA claimants also losing an average of £3,000 a year
•         Half of all ESA claimants also claim DLA and so total losses from just those two benefits could average £6,000 a year for tens of thousands of disabled people.
•         And of course Bedroom Tax is also falling disproportionately on disabled people. Across UK two thirds of households affected contain a disabled person.  In Scotland however it’s 80% of the 95,000 households likely to be affected.
But poor and disabled people aren’t just facing massive cuts in benefits and their families’ incomes. They are also facing massive cuts in essential services that they, more than any other group in society rely on, because they cannot pay for any alternatives.

The Campaign for Fair Society estimates that in England the combination of cuts in benefits & services means that: 
•         People in poverty will lose an average of £2,195 p.a. - 5 times more than the burden placed on “the average” citizen.
•         Disabled people will lose an average of £4,410 per person - 9 times more than the burden placed on the “average” citizen.
•         People with the most severe disabilities will lose an average of £8,832 per person - 19 times more than the burden placed on the “average” citizen.
So disabled people and others are losing social care & social work services, library services, education services, refuse collection, public transport, sport and leisure facilities etc. etc. etc.

That in turn leads to a loss of personal independence.  Without care services older and disabled people cannot even get out of their own homes and go to shops or visit friends and relatives or take an active part in community life – e.g. as volunteers – they are even perversely forced to give up work.

How are local authorities making these cuts –
·         Care charges – being levied on people already relying on benefits. Marginal tax rate for a disabled person is sometimes 95 – 100% of their disposable income!

·         Higher entitlement criteria for care services – leading people to lose care packages that they have had for years and in some cases decades. Pam’s example.

·         Day Centres being closed.

·         Supported employment services such as Remploy being closed – thousands of workers emptied onto dole.

·         Disabled people and their carers being sent ultimatums that they can either accept cuts in care packages or go into residential care.
·         Loss of Mobility – 48,000 people to lose Higher Rate Mobility. 16,000 of them will also lose Motability vehicles.

·         Loss of Homes  - Scottish Government estimate that 11,000 people will be evicted due to Bedroom Tax – we think that’s an under-estimate.

·         Service providers moving disabled people out of individual flats and into “communal living” with 8 or more sharing – and that may just be the start of a move back to disabled people being forced into a new form of residential care.

But some would argue “We’ve seen cuts before. What’s new about these ones?” 
The answer is that apart from being more vicious and deeper cuts happening over a very short timescale these are not just benefit cuts but an attack on the very concept of the Welfare State.

Reign of Terror:  The Government are using their allies in the Tory press to attack and scapegoat benefit claimants and immigrants for not just the Financial crisis but all the ills of our society  - the lack of jobs, something for nothing benefits, lack of affordable housing.

But the real truth is that the Tories and the Lib Dems and Labour believe that the crisis in Capitalism can be solved through supply side economics – if workers can be forced through fear to accept cuts in their wages and terms and conditions of employment – as they have largely over the last five years - then the rate of profit can be restored. By the way company profits have never been higher than they are at present – it’s just that they are not being shared with their workforces.

To achieve this fear amongst workers claiming benefits has to be made as shameful and degrading and difficult as possible.

Disabled people are literally being assessed to death – 30 a week who are found fit for work die within six weeks of their Assessment.

But they now face not one assessment but  potentially dozens in the course of their lives - WCA, PIP assessments, Blue Badge assessments – awards for life thing of past regardless of whether you have a lifelong or progressive condition their aim is to bring you back time after time after time.

Result continuous stress of fearing that the next time you could lose your ESA, your PIP and or your Blue Badge.  Add to the stress of losing your benefits the stress of trying to get them back again through appealing.
·         Appeals –  Over 800,000 appeals now in the system. ESA appeals in 2012/13 heading for a quarter of a million in a single year. 
But even for those who manage to get put on benefits what then?
Work Related Activity Group of ESA & JSA claimants and Single parents whose children are aged over 5 – all face sanctions unless they participate in mandatory job search activities.

There are now also proposals that sick people will be compelled to undertake “treatment” for their condition on pain of losing their benefits if they do not attend medical interviews.
Since May 2010 two and a quarter million claimants on Jobseeker’s Allowance have had their benefits referred for a decision on whether to cut their benefits for a fixed length period.
A study conducted by the DWP in 2006 showed that around 130,000 claimants were subject to sanction referral that year.  These latest figures are seeing figures of over 110,000 in a single month.
Since 2010 1.5 million people have been sanctioned for failure to attend an Advisory interview and half a million for failure to participate in the mandatory Work Programme.

When people are sanctioned they are treated as no longer in receipt of benefits and thus do not turn up in the official statistics – a clever way of reducing the claimant count by tens of thousands each month without putting a single person into work.

But it’s not just the numbers. Those who fail to meet their Work Related Benefit Commitments can now lose -

·         30% of their benefits for 13 weeks for the first failure;
·         30% of their benefits for 26 weeks for a second failure within a year of the previous one;
·         and 156 weeks—3 years—for a third, or further, failure within a year of a previous failure that led to either 26-week or 156-week sanction.

It’s likely that 80,000 people who are currently claiming have already been sanctioned twice  - if sanctioned again in the coming year they could lose 30% of their benefits for 36 months.

And the alternative to being sanctioned?  - Workfare being sent to work in Tescos or Asda or some other extremely profitable business, for just your benefits.
Workfare is unwaged slavery and designed to get people to take any job rather than have to work for nothing. And any job now would include the 1 million (or many more?) on Zero Hours contracts, less than the minimum wage etc.

The latest DWP report is seriously advocating residential workfare for disabled people and the long term unemployed,  carrying out menial, repetitive work for nothing more than your benefits, living in communal dorms, potentially a hundred miles from your friends and families until you have been trained for work

We are seeing a return to the Victorian concept of the workhouse where people will be prevented from falling into the sin of worklessness.

And for those lucky enough to escape that fate – why instead of benefits food vouchers that you can exchange at your local Foodbank stocked by the generosity of those lucky enough to be in work.

In other words the wholesale importation of the American welfare system of shaming and humiliating the unemployed and poor and making them reliant on charity rather than benefit “entitlements”.

This is what we can look forward to if we continue in the Union.

Can an Independent Scotland do Better? –
Cuts totally unnecessary. We are spending less, in terms of a proportion of national income, on benefits now than we were during the last major recession in the early 1990s (GDP). Spending on working age benefits accounts for about 5% of GDP today compared to around 8% in 1992/93.
Moreover even if you accepted the need to “pay our way”  – and I don’t  -none of the benefit cuts would be needed at all if we just collected a small percentage of the estimated £25 billion pounds lost each year in tax avoidance and the £70 billion lost in tax evasion by the likes of Amazon, Google, Starbucks and Philip Green of Topshop shifting their liabilities to lower tax regimes. 
Moreover benefits are not only affordable but necessary.  They stabilise capitalist economies by maintaining demand when times get hard – it was Keynes and Beveridge, both Liberals who understood this, but it’s a concept that Labour has abandoned.

Finally Scotland is better placed than the UK as a whole to pay out more in benefits -  Scotland is the eighth wealthiest country in the world. The three wealthiest countries by the same measurement are Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland (just ahead of the USA). The UK ranks in 17th place.

However we shouldn’t be content in simply avoiding the worst of what the UK intends to do and accepting that people on benefits will be poorer than those lucky enough to be in work.

We need to campaign for a system that genuinely supports Independent Living and decency –
High levels of inequality in a society are associated with higher levels of ill-health and reduced well-being.
Getting welfare on the cheap has costs in terms of the health and well-being of citizens which in turn are passed on to the tax payer. Investment in effective welfare provision which helps to reduce inequality will lead to better outcomes, not just for individuals but society as a whole.
The over-riding principle of any new Benefits system in an Independent Scotland should be that it supports all of Scotland’s people, including disabled people, to reach their full potential and play a full, active and equal role in Scottish community and economic life. 
We need to invest in childcare and Access to Work – Norway is wealthy because it supports far more women to be active in the workforce. Access to Work which provides for adaptations to workplaces, office furniture and even pays for PA support at work results in a return to the Exchequer of £1.20 for every £1 spent.
There are literally hundreds of thousands of jobs that need done – in terms of personal assistants, childcare and health service workers, renewable energy etc. So we should create jobs for those that want to work rather than penalising folk who can’t find one.
We also need to invest in public transport to make it free and more accessible to reduce people’s dependency on cars and to allow disabled people to access work and the community.
We should also, it goes without saying, abolish the Bedroom Tax as it flies in the face of providing Homes for Life – homes that can be adapted to meet our needs – to have the extra rooms needed when we become parents and to also have them when we acquire care needs as we get older.
Even with vote for Independence will this happen without a struggle? No. Just today Alex Salmond is quoted as saying that the benefit cap would be retained in an Independent Scotland. The benefit cap would be completely unnecessary if we were building social housing for the tens of thousands of families that need them and still had a Fair Rent Act that restricted profiteering by private landlords.
So vote Yes to Independence. But be ready to campaign for a fairer more redistributive benefits system because it will not be given to us without a fight.