In a series of interviews, Able Magazine is speaking to the major political parties about disability issues and the forthcoming General Election.
Neil Gray, is the Shadow Scottish National Party (SNP) Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment). He was interviewed by Able Magazine editor, Tom Jamison.
What devolved powers really affect disabled people?
The whole premise of what we’re trying to achieve is a more dignified and better service. That’s what is being worked on at the moment in terms of the social security system. What we are saying is that we want to give disabled people the best opportunities possible using the powers that we do have, here in Scotland.
Is that ambition properly costed?
Well, that’s part of the issue of the new social security system that’s coming to Scotland: the one that we’re going to build. Obviously, the powers that are coming, are coming with Tory cuts pre-applied. For instance, the employment schemes previously were worth £100million, which devolved a couple of years ago. You would have expected a budget of around £100million. Now that the employment schemes have been devolved and the cuts have been applied from Westminster we are looking at a budget starting at around £8million.
It’s going to be complicated, but it’s going to be paid for through our resources in Scotland. We operate on a fixed budget, we cannot go beyond that; we have to sit within a fixed budget. We don’t have to operate in the same kind of, ‘this is how we’re going to pay for it in terms of tax receipts’. It’s from a fixed budget.
Would Scottish independence be good for disabled people?
Yes, of course it would. The taking away of the Motability cars, and the appeal of people who fail their PIP assessments and the re-assessments for them; this costs a huge amount of money. What we’re looking to do is to make things fairer. Now, if we had the whole, that’s all powers over social security, then clearly we would do a better job than what is happening right now. Obviously, issues for disabled people go beyond social security and we are doing what we can to make sure that disabled people have a fulfilling life.
Aren’t their cautious lessons to be learnt from the UK leaving the EU that would be reflected in Scotland leaving a larger group? Since Brexit, for example, the pound has fallen and the cost of living has increased.
No they’re not comparable, the UK is a union of regions. We are going to work in partnership with the rest of the UK. We see Northern Ireland, England and Wales as our friends and neighbours so we would not be operating in the same way that the UK government is operating on the Brexit negotiations. We’re looking to have a far more friendly partnership of equals within the British Isles.
Do you think that will really happen? You might argue that President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker has been all-but immature about his attitude to Brexit. He seems to have a punitive stance and wants to show Great Britain who’s boss. Somewhere in your mind are you bothered that might happen with the UK should a split occur?
I think what Jean-Claude Juncker is looking to do is to make sure that there’s a fair system for all involved but at the same time, he’s wanting to keep the EU together so he isn’t wanting to make it attractive for other nations to follow the same path (as the UK). I campaigned for us to remain in the EU, particularly in terms of human rights, in terms of employment rights and for disabled people.
Would an SNP government in an independent Scotland protect what we have lost through Brexit in terms of those rights you mention?
The SNP position is for independence within the EU and that’s the position as it stands – so this is the direction I would be looking to go in.
If you don’t get the numbers in the election, you may be in a position whereby you’re the leading party but not in a position to really call for another (independence) referendum. Are their specifics in that case where you can say to disabled people, that this is why you should vote for the SNP?
Just going back a step there, the mandate for us to open up the referendum came at the Scottish election last year, so with regards to what happens this time round, clearly we already have the mandate to hold another referendum. Theresa May is not going to be in a position to bat that back.
Those devastating cuts of £30 per week for those who desperately need additional help… I and my colleagues were fighting hard and managed to put extra pressure on the Prime Minister. As a result, we have had additional concessions from the Government. If my colleagues are elected it will be an SNP fighting force, fighting for disabled people.
I’m often sent columns from the Minister for Disabled People in Westminster. Why isn’t there a specific Minister for Disabled People in the Scottish Parliament? What does that say to disabled people in Scotland?
Well there is; there is a Minister for Social Security, and disability rights and equality comes into that department.
It’s not the same thing though, is it?
Some of them would have ministerial titles the length of my arm if all of their duties were covered. At Westminster I think it would be 170 ministers in the ministerial team so the jobs are divided up.
That is true, but isn’t it the case in Scotland, that as many as one in five people are currently ‘on the sick’? Surely the number of disabled people warrants a disability minister proper?
Well, just because the title of the Minister does not include a particular message does not mean that the Minister isn’t covering that brief. They look at disability issues and they are fighting hard to get the most powers they possibly can to ensure disabled people are given a far fairer deal than they currently get from Westminster.
We know there’s a disability minister that says nothing to the way you would treat disabled people through the Employment Support Allowance, through the Personal Independence Payments – who have to turn to social security because they have been absolutely hammered by the Government over the last 17 years. For not having the title in the name I think they are doing a very much better job at making sure disabled people have a far better system in place than is currently enjoyed through Westminster.