The National:

“Courage is more exhilarating than fear, and in the long run it is easier.” These were the words, originally spoken by Eleanor Roosevelt, on which minister for equalities and older people Christina McKelvie closed the second day of the SNP conference. 

Speaking in support of a wide-ranging motion on “fairness and social justice”, which passed overwhelmingly, she urged party members to use their courage “to face down discrimination and create that fair Scotland we all want”. 

These are inspiring sentiments: we could all use a little more courage, not least those with the power to effect change at the political level. So what could bravery in government look like?

Among the topics covered by the resolution was a recognition of “the protection of asylum seekers as a moral and legal duty”. This is an area where the common refrain that the Scottish Government is operating with “one arm tied behind its back” has particular resonance. 

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People seeking asylum in Scotland suffer under unjust policies enforced by the Home Office, and while the SNP speaks in opposition to those practices it cannot change the laws that mandate them. However, this doesn’t mean there is nothing to be done, and it’s not something that can afford to wait for independence

In the 12 lines of the resolution addressing this issue, 10 are devoted to calling on the UK Government to do things it has absolutely no intention of doing: to provide better asylum accommodation and services; to allow payments to be made to refugees for migrants experiencing domestic abuse; to introduce the right to work to people seeking asylum; or to devolve the relevant powers to Scotland. 

These are all things which have to be said, but words won’t keep people warm at night or put food in children’s mouths. It’s the remaining two lines that touch upon action that could be taken now, urging the Scottish Government “to explore ways of mitigating the negative impact of no recourse to public funds (NRPF) on migrants in crisis”. These words, although not discussed within the contributions at the conference, are vital.

NRPF excludes people from many forms of social security or local authority housing because of their immigration status. Just this month the Scottish Government announced it would provide grants to six charities supporting people with NRPF, bringing the total to over £550k during the pandemic. It has also funded local authorities for discretionary payments, equivalent to the Self Isolation Support Grant, to be made to people with NRPF who would lose earnings as a result of self-isolating.

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However, organisations such as those involved in the Ethnic Minority National Resilience Network have said this doesn’t go far enough to support the most vulnerable. Asylum seekers can be at particular risk of destitution due to their bar on working, combined with the challenging circumstances which brought them here — but they would be ineligible for self-isolation support for the very reason that it isn’t legal for them to work. 

Quite apart from the public health crisis, calls have been made for some time for the Government to use its new devolved social security powers to support those worst affected by NRPF. It is possible for the Scottish Government to use the legal and policy options at its disposal to take its stated opposition to NRPF and other elements of the “hostile environment” beyond the realm of mere words. 

The SNP’s immigration spokesperson Stuart McDonald said today that the Home Office “thrives on depriving people of their rights”. This is demonstrably true. If there is any one example of where the Scottish Government could and must be truly “courageous” in the face of injustice, then surely this is it.