A new FOI (from the DWP) has shown that the analysis in my last blog was correct. The Scottish Government do unquestionably have the power to provide direct financial assistance to WASPI women in Scotland. The FOI also shows that the SNP Social Security Minister Jeane Freeman acknowledges and accepts that these powers exist. The SNP have been playing fast and loose with the truth on this issue, at times outright lying, and leading Scottish voters, WASPI women and the Scottish Parliament on a merry dance. This blog explains how and why.
Since my last blog
I dropped my phone late on Friday night as I tried to read the results of my latest FOI on the welfare powers of the Scottish Government. I dropped it because I couldn’t believe what I was reading.
Since my first post on this I’ve received nothing but flack from nationalists and direct and indirect attacks from people within the SNP claiming I’m completely wrong. I’ve also received the usual abuse from nationalist trolls such as Wings and Mr Malky for daring to question the SNP, but that comes with the territory.
As a result, despite my confidence in my own analysis and logic, doubts were beginning to creep into my mind. If I was right surely Mhairi Black wouldn’t double down by saying what I was proposing was wrong, but she did in the National a few days after my blog:
“However, what I’ve also started to pick up is the nonsense that the SNP Scottish Government can wave a magic wand and provide additional payments and pensions to those who fall under the WASPI banner. This myth has been debunked time after time, most recently in the debate last week when my colleague Philippa Whitford corrected the Pensions Minister to remind him that the restrictions of devolution specifically stop the Scottish Government from acting on pensions.”
Strong stuff. My claim is “nonsense” and Black was very specific in ruling out additional payments as well as pensions to WASPI women. That’s a direct contradiction of my statement that whilst the Scottish Government can’t provide “pensions” to WASPI women it can create new benefits which would financially protect Scottish women affected by the increased pension age.
We have also since had this from the SNP setting out their position on WASPI:
“In government, we will always use the powers at our disposal to protect the poorest in our society and mitigate the worst excess of the Tory government. However, with the limited social security powers devolved to Scotland, the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to create new pension benefits. The SNP will continue to fight for the UK Government to take responsibility, deliver the pension that women born in the 1950s deserve and end this inequality at source.”
In itself this doesn’t technically contradict my blog, as we’re back to the very tight wording about “new pension benefits”. However if it turns out that the SNP could provide financial benefits to WASPI affected women this statement would be disingenuous to say the least.
Someone also pointed me to the (February 2017) statement by SNP Social Security Minister Jeane Freeman to the Scottish Parliament:
“To Jackie Baillie, I say that I am not prepared to let the Tory Government off the hook but, even if I was, section 28 of the Scotland Act 2016, on exceptions to reserved areas, says that top-up does not include pensions assistance or assistance ‘by reason of old age.'”
Here was the SNP Social Security Minister stating clearly to the Scottish Parliament that one of my cases to provide assistance to WASPI women was wrong. I’d previously argued that Section 28 would not apply to WASPI women as it was paid before State Pension Age and that would also be the defintion of “reason of old age”.
This was a problem for me, not because I thought my analysis was wrong, but because it showed that the Scottish Government had already moved beyond technical language on this and into outright denial that the powers beyond pensions existed. That’s quite a raising of the stakes.
Next on the 21st of July the SNP also added another page to their website:
“Can the Scottish Parliament mitigate the WASPI changes?…
Pensions are fully reserved to Westminster. Even with limited social security powers devolved to Scotland, the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to create new pension benefits. This is explicitly set out in the Scotland Act 2016. Neither can the power to top-up benefits be used because WASPI women are not yet in receipt of a pension so this cannot be topped up.
The power to correct this injustice lies at Westminster.”
Finally I noted that Nicola Sturgeon herself penned this article from the Evening Times, which mentioned WASPI but spoke at length about raising the pension age:“How can they (the UK Government) say there is money to cut taxes for the rich, but no money to properly fund our pensions?
It just feels like everything the Tories do puts balance sheets before people.”
Whilst not directly about WASPI it gave me concerns that now we had the First Minister arguing the case for reversing tax cuts and paying pensions earlier than the UK State Pension Age. All fair enough in terms of politics but it would be shifty, to say the least, if those tax cuts hadn’t been implemented in Scotland (which they haven’t) and the Scottish Government then stood by whilst pension ages were increased when they could have paid benefits to everyone affected.
To be honest I was starting to doubt myself, why would the SNP raise the stakes so much if they were bluffing?
Another week another FOI
And then, late on Friday night I dropped my phone.
Anyone following me on whatdotheyknow.com will know I’ve been on this subject for months. Probing everywhere I could to get to the bottom of this issue. My FOIs to the Scottish Government had some success but ended in me having to appeal to the information commissioner. It was ruled that it was not in the public interest that the Scottish people should know the full powers of the Scottish Government on such a “sensitive issue such as welfare spending”. That’s clearly been a political choice.
However at the same time as probing the Scottish Government for their analysis it was clear to me that the UK Government would also hold correspondence between them and the Scottish Government on this issue. After all the Scottish Government could not solely decide that there was nothing they could do, they would need clarification from the UK government that they could not use their Section 28 powers to support WASPI women.
Based on all of the above you have to assume that the UK Government has officially told the Scottish Government that their powers can’t be used to support WASPI women or anyone before State Pension Age.
So three months ago I also put an FOI into the UK government, and it’s devastating.
The smoking gun held by Jeane Freeman
The UK Government is clear and emphatic. In two letters sent to Jeane Freeman, in response to her request for clarification, the UK government set out that the powers of the Scottish Government in welfare can be used to provide direct financial assistance to WASPI women.
In particular both letters note that either Section 26 of the act can be used to provide “discretionary welfare payments” because as Richard Harrington states in his letter “there is not prescribed definition of ‘short term’ and this will be substantially for the Scottish Parliament to decide”
He also clearly notes that the Section 28 powers can be used by the Scottish Government to create new benefits for those affected by WASPI women and specifically states:
“Whilst this power cannot be used to provide pensions to people who qualify by reason of old age, those affected by changes to the State Pension age will not yet have reached State Pension age. As a result, this broad power does offer the Scottish Government the possibility of introducing financial support to help this group.”
This snips off the final loose end that I noted in the last blog, that the only ‘get out’ clause for the SNP was the definition of old age, but here is the UK Government firmly stating the position that ‘old age’ only applies at or after State Pension Age.
Therefore there is nothing stopping the SNP introducing a new benefit for anyone before State Pension Age, by definition this includes WASPI women.
But it’s the second letter from Guy Opperman, sent only two weeks ago to Jeane Freeman that contains the real problem for the SNP. This letter reiterates the position set out by Harrington and in that regard doesn’t add anything new to the discussion.
But contained within it is a bombshell.
At least since the 22nd of June (when Freeman wrote to Guy Opperman) the Scottish Government:
“acknowledges that there are powers available to the Scottish Government that could be used to support people before they reach state pension age, including those who may be affected by the equalisation of the state pension age”
So let’s be clear on this. At least since 22 June the Scottish Government has accepted that it can provide direct financial assistance to WASPI women, but it hasn’t told anyone.
The letter also shows that whilst the Scottish Government accept that it is possible to provide this assistance they are now complaining that it would involve them using a range of powers to achieve the aim.
That’s quite correct, it would probably involve a combination of Section 24 and Section 28 powers, possibly with some Section 26 discretionary assistance if they were going to target support.
None of this changes the fact that the Scottish Government know that they have the power to support WASPI women but are saying something quite different in public.
A web of lies
There are a huge number of questions that follow from all of this, many of which will emerge as we digest this information. However here are a few that I can think of:
1. Why did Mhairi Black lie in her National column when she said that the Scottish Government can’t pay additional payments to WASPI women?
2. Why did Philippa Whitford lie in the Westminster Hall debate:
“Let me correct the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). If he reads section 28 of the Scotland Act 2016, he will see that the Scottish Government are prohibited from doing anything about pensions or relating to age.”
3. Why did Tommy Sheppard shout “rubbish” and Ian Blackford do a pantomime shake of the head in the House of Commons when Theresa May noted that the SNP have the power to support WASPI women?
4. When did Jeane Freeman accept that the Scottish Government did indeed have the power to support WASPI women and at which point does she feel it is right to correct her statement to the Scottish Parliament and apologise to Jackie Ballie? More importantly did Freeman knowingly or unknowingly mislead the Scottish Parliament?
5. Why have the SNP been publishing clearly misleading information about the powers of the Scottish Parliament in respect of WASPI on their website? Information that the Scottish Government know is incorrect and misleading.
6. Why is Nicola Sturgeon writing articles against raising the state pension age but failing to mention that the Scottish Government know that they could do something about it if they wanted?
The SNP and welfare
This is all very uncomfortable for the SNP. The new welfare powers of the Scottish Parliament mean that they need to start putting their money where their mouth is.
The trouble is they haven’t updated their rhetoric since the Scotland Act. As they get caught out arguing in opposition to a policy that they clearly could change in Scotland (this also applies to the two child welfare cap for example) they are reduced to pretending that the powers don’t exist for fear of their own supporters turning on them and demanding action.
That’s not a sustainable position, at some point the SNP are going to have to face up to the responsibilities of government and start to justify their decisions. If not then they risk the electorate favouring someone who will.