SIC councillors have torn into the UK government’s “utterly deplorable” welfare reform package, which they view as targeting some of society’s most vulnerable.
The government last year passed the Welfare Reform Act, which it says is aimed at simplifying the system and encouraging people off benefits and into work.
But it is also seeking to save £18 billion a year from the welfare bill by 2014/15, leaving members of the council’s executive committee to rail against changes which will see some of Shetland’s poorest households losing out.
The introduction of the so-called “bedroom tax”, which will penalise those deemed to be under-occupying a house, will result in a six-figure reduction in the amount of benefits coming into the isles annually.
Lerwick South member Jonathan Wills led the charge at Monday morning’s meeting in Lerwick Town Hall. He said it was “exactly what we should expect from a government of Old Etonians” who understand the needs of their own class and are out to “reward the rich and punish the poor”.
Dr Wills said the reforms were “mean-minded, petty and making life worse for the most vulnerable in society”. He viewed the bedroom tax as the sort of policy dreamt up by ministers who have “never lived in a small property”.
Councillor George Smith endorsed Dr Wills’ sentiments, saying it was vital that the “implications and shortcomings” of the “utterly deplorable” reforms to communities like Shetland were spelled out.
In addition to writing to the UK government, the council is to get in touch with Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael. He is deputy chief whip in the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, and councillors want to send him a clear message about the potentially disastrous implications of the benefits cuts.
Councillor Vaila Wishart said: “Our MP is a member of this government. He needs to be left in absolutely no doubt about the strength of feeling around the table – and [we should] ask him what he’s going to do about it.”
As previously reported in The Shetland Times, nearly 200 tenants staying in Hjaltland and SIC social housing could be hit by the bedroom tax when it is introduced in April. Those defined as having more rooms than they need could find themselves up to £100 a month worse off.
SIC chief executive Mark Boden said that, while he was not necessarily endorsing its view, one of the government’s intentions was to encourage more people to move into privately-rented accommodation.
But councillors pointed out that there were precious few small private or publicly-owned houses available. Political leader Gary Robinson said a small private home was likely to be more costly to rent than a larger public sector house anyway.
South Mainland member Allison Duncan said big companies who have sent workers to the North Mainland to build the Total gas plant were paying “astronomical rents” and taking up most available homes.
Head of housing Anita Jamieson said the SIC and Hjaltland Housing were looking at “mutual exchanges” so that more people were given the right size of house. But that would only go so far in solving the problem: “It really is restricted by the stock we’ve got, which is predominantly three-bedroom properties.”