Holyrood’s gift to Westminster

Reg McKay charts how the Scottish parliament has made social
care one of the most important issues in the General Election
campaign north of the border.

In the light of devolution one might well ask whether a General
Election has much significance for social care in Scotland. The
state opening of the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh in July 1999
introduced devolved powers for community care, children’s services,
criminal justice, and health – almost a clean sweep of social care

With the exception of welfare benefits and the allocation of
base line budgets, it is difficult to see what social care issues
candidates for Westminster can legitimately raise. Social care has
certainly featured high on the agenda of the Scottish executive,
sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally.

Hardly had the Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition settled
into their new ministerial positions than they were forced to
review mental health legislation as convicted murderer Noel Ruddle
secured his release from the state psychiatric hospital at

Ruddle was sentenced to detention without limit after shooting
dead a neighbour in 1991. He was released on appeal in 1999
claiming that his mental health condition had improved and that
treatment was no longer working.

The resultant Mental Health (Public Safety and Appeals)
(Scotland) Act 1999 became the first legislation passed by the
assembly. Mental health and human rights groups objected at the
“unnecessary” legislation, which was perceived as “a breach of
civil liberties”.

Scotland’s Westminster MPs were silent on that issue but before
long services to older people became a much hotter political potato
that no professional politician can ignore. Devolved powers gave
campaigners a new focus of power they hoped was closer, more open
and more responsive. A nationwide campaign, centred on Edinburgh
not London, was launched to implement all the recommendations of
the Royal Commission on Long-Term Care and no MSP or MP was left in
any doubt as to the strength of feeling among the public. By late
in 1999, signals were emerging from Westminster that free personal
care was not on the cards.

During the quiet winter recess, Iain Gray, then depute minister
for community care, announced that the executive’s commitment not
to use its revenue-raising powers during the first term meant they
could not afford to introduce free personal care.

Political commentators agreed that chancellor Gordon Brown was
calling the Scottish troops into line. The Scottish executive was
free to use its devolved powers as long as they agreed with

The executive announced “the biggest package of care for older
people this generation” but not free personal care. Older people
took to the streets in protest – the streets of Edinburgh not
London. Meanwhile, Henry McLeish succeeded Donald Dewar as first
minister after the latter’s death.

The issue provoked mass demonstrations and a series of revolts
led by Margaret Smith, a Liberal Democrat MSP. When the executive
caved in at the eleventh hour all MSPs and MPs suddenly announced
they had supported free personal care all along.

In the false start to the General Election run-in, before the
foot and mouth crisis, Jim Wallace, Liberal Democrat deputy first
minister, went public in support for free personal care. While some
might think this was as a result of a revolt by Lib-Dem MSPs
refusing to toe the party whip – it was an early sign of how the
Holyrood social care agenda may be used in the General

A number of MSPs also hold positions as MPs. Malcolm Chisholm,
the Labour MP who resigned from a junior minister’s post in protest
at the UK government’s slashing of benefits to single parents, now
finds himself depute minister for community care.

Whether the public see any contradiction in such a position is
to be tested for the first time at the polls.

In the smaller goldfish bowl that is Holyrood, individual
politicians are having a much bigger influence on the issues to be
debated in any election. Tommy Sheridan, the Scottish Socialist
Party’s sole MSP, holds centre stage on issues concerning poverty
and addiction.

Sheridan, who made his name in the anti-poll tax campaign, has
supported the passing of the Abolition of Poindings and Warrant
Sales Act 2001, which outlaws warrant sales to offset debt. This
issue and other poverty matters have been placed firmly on the
political agenda.

When 15,000 people marched through Glasgow last month in a
demonstration to stop drug dealers, MPs joined in, keen to be seen
expressing their support. Yet tackling addiction is a task
primarily of the Scottish parliament, not Westminster.

It was Sheridan and his broad-base of supporters who spoke out
for a more considered approach to drug misuse. While the publicity
centred on their support for legalising cannabis, their full
argument was geared towards tackling the causes of addiction –
poverty and social exclusion – while providing more resources to
help drug misusers rather than punishing the dealers.

The Scottish Socialist Party is standing in most constituencies
in the general election. Though not expected to win any seats, its
presence will force the issues of poverty and addiction back on the

Devolution has changed the political canvas in Scotland,
bringing social care to the forefront of public debate and
potential controversy. Labour in Scotland is embarrassed by the
contrast between the devolved and central governments but this will
not impact on the General Election.

However, the result is likely to be a tightening of the
political leash between Westminster and Holyrood. And if that
happens, social care will be the loser.

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