The next item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-14031, in the name of Elaine Smith, on challenge poverty week. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.
That the Parliament recognises Challenge Poverty Week 2018, which runs from 1 to 7 October; notes the activities and events across Scotland to mark the week, including at the Conforti Institute in Coatbridge, to highlight the realities of, as well as the possible solutions to, poverty; understands that one million people in Scotland are living in poverty; considers that it is not right that so many people in society are locked into this; believes that it restricts the choices that people can make; notes the view that the grip of poverty can be loosened by boosting incomes, reducing costs and ensuring that everyone can participate in society, and commends the work taking place every day in communities across Scotland to tackle poverty.
I start with an apposite observation from R H Tawney:
“What thoughtful rich people call the problem of poverty, thoughtful poor people call with equal justice a problem of riches”.
Having met the Poverty Alliance, I lodged the motion to mark challenge poverty week and I thank members for the big cross-party support that it has secured. I thank the members who have stayed to take part in the debate and look forward to hearing their contributions. Members might wish to meet the Poverty Alliance in room TG 20/21 after the debate.
This year’s message is: “Challenge Poverty in Scotland? Aye we can!” There are three core themes: poverty exists in Scotland and affects us all; poverty can be solved by boosting incomes and reducing costs; and solving poverty is about ensuring that we can all participate in society. The wide range of activities that are taking place in communities around Scotland should leave us in no doubt of the commitment to offer support to those who are caught in the poverty trap while also speaking up together and taking responsibility for providing solutions.
A recent report from NHS Lanarkshire highlighted that nearly a fifth of children who live in Lanarkshire are growing up in poverty. In some parts of the Central Scotland region, that figure will be much higher. I am sure that we all agree that that is unacceptable. Such worrying statistics are to be found not only in the old industrial areas of higher deprivation in Lanarkshire. Last year, here in Edinburgh, on the doorstep of this Parliament, the use of food banks increased by 18 per cent—more than 9,500 people—and 96 tonnes of food were distributed through food boxes during 2017. That cannot become normalised and repeated year on year.
This week, a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report stated:
“Barriers to the labour market due to disability, ill health and childcare responsibilities remain prevalent characteristics of child poverty”.
“If we are serious about ending poverty in Scotland it’s vital that we build the public support needed to make real change happen. Challenge Poverty Week is a great opportunity to work together to highlight the damage that poverty wreaks and create the pressure needed for real action to end it.”
A members’ business debate gives us the opportunity to put aside party-political differences and to promote ideas for tackling poverty. Of course, the solutions that we propose might differ—for example, Labour supports the give me five campaign—but I am sure that nobody in the chamber wants to see children going hungry in modern Scotland. Of particular concern is the fact that getting a job does not provide the security of adequate food and shelter for families that it should. Thousands of households who are living in poverty contain at least one adult in work. It used to be the case that securing employment was a route out of poverty, but that no longer seems to be the case. Changes to family and child tax credits are likely to cause more in-work poverty.
With regard to the barriers to the labour market that were cited in the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, we policy makers can take action to change the system of work to enable more parents to access good-quality employment that suits their circumstances. The responsibility to tackle gross inequality and the poverty that underpins it must rest with us all.
I commend the work of the many charities and organisations throughout Scotland; I am sure that we will hear more details of them in the debate. My motion mentions an event at the Conforti Institute in Coatbridge, which has recently been renamed Xaverian Missionaries Conforti—I should put that right on the record. The Church Action on Poverty event, “Stories from the Edge” will bring together faith-inspired social activists to share stories, critically reflect and explore existing aspects of what makes a good society.
The Scottish Parliament has recognised in the past that faith organisations and communities have long been at the heart of providing support and assistance to those in need, and I reiterate our thanks for their work. However, although we thank and commend volunteers and churches for their much-needed interventions, it is really not good enough that in 21st-century Scotland, those in poverty have to depend on Victorian-style Christian charity—we really must say that.
Of course we must respond to the immediate problem, but we also need a fundamental shift in social policy to ensure the eradication of poverty and inequality. I recall, as will many other members present, the make poverty history marches of 2005. I recognise the shared belief that we can and must change how our society is organised. The economy that we have today was designed—it is the result of a set of decisions about our society’s priorities and resources—and just as it was designed, we can redesign it so that it works for everyone.
Last month, the Institute for Public Policy Research’s commission on economic justice published a report entitled, “Prosperity and Justice: A Plan for the New Economy”, which was the product of a two-year inquiry. Its publication is timely as we reflect on the 10th anniversary of the 2008 banking crisis. It details the commission’s belief that a new moral purpose is needed to define the goals of economic policy, and it offers a vision of what that could be. It argues that the economy needs to deliver prosperity and justice together and it explains what is meant by those terms and how they relate to each other. On the report’s launch, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a member of the commission, said:
“Prosperity depends on the security and quality of work, and the balance of work and life, the quality of our relationships, and not just ... the amount of income we receive. It rests on the common good as well as individual wellbeing.”
Challenge poverty week shines a spotlight again on the willingness of communities to rally round and offer a helping hand, and I am pleased to have been able to work with the Poverty Alliance and the other organisations involved. However, this is also about the future—a future in which local government can provide the public services that we all need, investing in our communities; in which every family has high-quality affordable housing, access to secure, well-paid work with the flexibility to suit all and the resources to feed and clothe themselves without recourse to charity; and in which the gap between the richest and poorest in our society is no longer extreme. The question is whether we can achieve that as a Parliament, as a Government and as a country; the answer has to be “Aye we can!”—but only if we recognise that significant interventions are needed to properly challenge poverty.
Next week, Blessed Óscar Romero will be made a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. He spoke out against poverty, social injustice, assassinations and torture; in 1980, he was murdered. I will end with his words:
“It is not God’s will for some people to have everything and others to have nothing.”
I congratulate Elaine Smith on securing this important debate and thank her for hosting the drop-in session, which I shall attend afterwards. She and I might disagree on many things, but we very much agree on a range of other things, including the scourge of poverty.
As we know, poverty affects too many households and people across the country and globally. It blights lives, diminishes hope and can lead to a feeling of helplessness and be a contributing factor in addiction. If dealing with it were easy, it would have been done by now, but exacerbating it is totally unforgivable; I shall return to that point in a moment. Ultimately, poverty is one of society’s challenges that we need to take seriously, irrespective of our party affiliation.
The motion highlights the event that will take place tomorrow in the Conforti Institute in Coatbridge, which has now been renamed, which Elaine Smith spoke about. I want to highlight a challenge poverty event that Ronnie Cowan MP and I will host tomorrow at the Aves Business Centre in Greenock in my constituency. We have promoted the event as a money and heating advice surgery.
We will be joined by representatives from the Inverclyde home energy advice team, the Inverclyde delivering effective advice and support team, Financial Fitness and Christians Against Poverty. The first three are local organisations that have helped, and continue to help, many people locally. The event will run between 11 am and 1 pm. If anyone watching the debate or reading the
Official Report knows of someone locally who could be helped, they should please let them know about it.
I thank the organisations that provided briefings for today’s debate. To some people, the figures might just be numbers on a sheet of paper, but in reality, they represent people whose lives are being challenged every single day. According to the Poverty Alliance briefing, 1 million people are living in the grip of poverty, including 230,000 children, and 65 per cent of all children who are living in poverty live in working households. According to Oxfam, 8 per cent of adults experienced food insecurity in 2017, which was defined as being worried that they would run out of food because of a lack of money or resources. In our most deprived areas, that figure is 18 per cent and one in 10 people reported running out of food during a 12-month period.
What kind of society thinks that it is fine for people to worry about eating? What kind of society thinks that it is fine for parents to worry about how they are going to feed their kids?
I have spoken in the chamber previously about food banks. In fact, I led the first members’ business debate on the issue. The situation has got worse. My office is a food bank collection point, I help the food bank, and I am in regular communication with its representatives. During the summer, I spent a few hours in the Inverclyde food bank and I put out an appeal because it was running out of food. Last night, we were informed on Twitter that, once again, the food bank was running out of food. The Inverclyde food bank needs pasta sauce, cereal, tinned fish, tinned fruit, rice pudding and custard, UHT milk, diluting juice and coffee.
This situation is disgusting, and Westminster policies such as the rape clause and welfare reform, including the roll-out of universal credit, have made it worse. Universal credit was introduced in Inverclyde in November 2016. Given the six-week lead-in time before payment, how could anyone seriously think that it would be seamless? Then there are the poverty wages that some businesses pay, as well as the continual short-term contracts and zero-hours contracts, to name further examples.
When the UK Government creates a new minister for food supplies to deal with the post-Brexit situation, what comfort does that provide to those who are already living in poverty and food poverty? Absolutely none!
We have a heartless Tory Government that has spent eight of the past 10 years delivering austerity. That cannot continue. People are already struggling and they cannot continue to live like this.
I will end with this point. When a primary school child tells the staff in the food bank that, in the past, they fed that child and their family, what impression does that leave on the staff of that child and their bravery? This is the reality of poverty in our communities. It is disgusting and it is abhorrent. If the Tories start considering all the communities that they represent and not just the rich chosen few, maybe their colleagues in Westminster might just consider the less well-off in Scotland and elsewhere across the UK.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in today’s debate and I commend Elaine Smith for her motion and congratulate her on it.
As we have heard, challenge poverty week 2018 runs from 1 to 7 October and highlights the challenges and realities of people who are suffering from poverty. This is an annual event; we have already talked about the Poverty Alliance, which is actively involved and has been working in the field since 1992. Having grown out of an informal network of groups, individuals and activities since the 1980s, the membership of that organisation is wide and varied— that is what it needs to be to ensure that we can look at the issues of social inclusion and the poverty that individuals are suffering. Its membership includes a wide range of organisations, including grass-roots community groups, individuals who are facing poverty, voluntary organisations, statutory organisations, policy makers and academics. It also acts as a national poverty network in Scotland, working with organisations and policy makers in the UK and Europe.
Two of the challenge poverty week aims are to highlight the reality of poverty and challenge the stereotypes that exist about it, and to demonstrate what individuals and organisations are doing throughout Scotland to address poverty.
I am sure that every one of the groups that the member has spoken to in his region over the past week or so has told him that the introduction of universal credit and the benefits cuts are key components of the increase in poverty. Does the member accept that, and that every one of those groups is telling him the same story?
I acknowledge that individuals feel that they are being challenged. The Westminster Government has been mentioned in this Parliament today, and the rules on occupation that it sends out to individuals might well have an impact. I see that in parts of my constituency, and I acknowledge that.
Each organisation tries to ensure that its groups tackle the challenge of poverty. To achieve the aims of challenge poverty week, organisations throughout Scotland are organising events to try to ensure that individuals are able to be involved. Organisations will support individuals by distributing information or by ensuring that they speak to politicians—it is vital that politicians listen to the views and opinions of individuals. Organisations should also focus on ensuring that individuals get the right and the opportunity to go out into their communities and undertake those activities. Given their clear focus on their priorities, organisations want to highlight and tackle poverty throughout Scotland.
We should look at what we can all do in future to have a bigger impact on everyone’s lives, and we should examine ways in which organisations can ensure that people have self-confidence and dignity.
Challenge poverty week’s vision is to end child poverty, to listen to people who are affected by poverty and to invest in high-quality education. That is vital. It is also vital that we respect everybody’s human rights and give people dignity in the circumstances in which they find themselves. That vision should be highly commended.
We need to address poverty by tackling inequality, supporting individuals on low incomes and supplying them with access to money and debt advice. We need to ensure that people who face the injustice of poverty get the support that they require to give them the confidence to manage their money and their resources effectively so that they can make responsible decisions.
I commend and congratulate Elaine Smith and others on all the work that they do in this area. I look forward to seeing progress as we move forward.
I congratulate Elaine Smith on securing the debate in support of challenge poverty week. Challenging poverty is a very important issue and, as other members have said, it resonates throughout our constituencies and regions.
We can look at some of the statistics in the briefings. The recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report illustrates that 230,000 kids live in poverty in Scotland, and the Oxfam briefing highlights the fact that 860,000 individuals live in poverty in Scotland. That is a scandal in a modern progressive country, and we all have a responsibility to address the problem.
We should also think about the stories that lie behind the statistics. What is actually happening on the ground? The reality is that there are still too many people who are not in work or, as others have said, who are struggling due to the aggressive policies on benefits changes that the UK Government is pursuing.
People who are in work might be working in two or three jobs, and more than 400,000 people are not being paid the living wage. That means that those people do not have enough money to live in proper housing or to heat and clothe their families. Their kids grow up unable to have breakfast before going to school in the morning, which means that they are not best placed to make the most of their educational opportunities or to have the best chance in life.
There is a big story behind the poverty statistics—people struggling on low wages, living in poor housing, living with poor health and not getting the opportunity to live their lives with respect and dignity. There is a challenge to all of us in fighting against that.
I want to talk about the work of one local group. Earlier this week, as part of challenge poverty week, I visited the Whitlawburn resource centre to look at the work of the Whitlawburn hub, and I spoke to Fiona Boyle there. The hub has an information technology facility that people who are out of work can use to get advice about their skills, to access training and to build their CVs. Importantly, it lays a foundation through volunteers training people in use of the IT facilities. The hub has helped people to get back into work and has raised their confidence and self-esteem, which can often be destroyed as a result of living in poverty.
Stuart McMillan was rightly critical of the UK Government, because a lot of the policies that are causing poverty are being driven by the UK Government. It is right that we speak out against that and campaign against it, but there is also a responsibility on us here in the Scottish Parliament to do something.
We heard yesterday that the Scottish budget will be published on 12 December. There is an onus on the Scottish Government to look at the policies and spending commitments in that budget to ensure that we are doing something real and live to tackle poverty. If we are going to tackle the statistics, we need a commitment from all levels of Government and all MSPs.
I, too, congratulate Elaine Smith on giving us the opportunity to begin to make more of a difference in challenge poverty week. I thank all the organisations that have provided us with briefings today.
Elaine Smith noted that members’ business debates should not be as confrontational as other debates, but I find it difficult to contribute today without noting the context within which the debate takes place.
It is clear that there is a very important role for employers and for schools in addressing poverty. Let us consider schools. We regularly discuss the education attainment gap. Quite frankly, it is simply impossible to reduce that gap if we do not address the gap that is caused by poverty. How can a child possibly do their best at school if they have not had a decent meal the night before and their parents have not had enough time to help them with their homework because they have been busy at their second or, perhaps, third job that day, which is one that does not pay enough? There is a role for all of us in this.
I could not agree more. Holiday hunger is an issue that is starting to be acknowledged. We can only imagine how some families feel when faced with a six-week or seven-week school holiday knowing that the school lunch was the one hot meal—or perhaps the only meal—of the day for their child. That recognition is welcome.
I have always felt conflicted about the food-bank issue. I congratulate the people who donate to, collect for and work in the food banks, but the fact that food banks have become a normal part of life in this country is a matter of huge concern that we must seek to address.
Nobody should have to go to a food bank; people should have enough money in their pockets to be able to choose with their families the food that they want to eat.
Stuart McMillan mentioned the emails that we parliamentarians receive about what food banks are running short of. Are those the foods that we should be recommending if we want to become a good food nation? All too often, they are not. For a start, they are tinned. As we know, many families in poverty are living in bed-and-breakfasts and do not have access to food, heating and so on. All those issues are, of course, interrelated.
The Parliament has done a lot of good work on the issue. For a start, dignity and respect will be put at the heart of the social security system; we are already seeing some of that in action. We need to do as much as we can to boost incomes, and schemes such as healthier, wealthier children will have an impact in that respect. Moreover, I massively welcome the fact that we are beginning to recognise that carers need more support.
However, we have also heard what the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has said about the impact of cuts to social security and other support for disabled people. Families with a disabled parent or child are bearing the brunt of the cuts, so when we look at challenging poverty, we have to recognise that such things are having a devastating impact.
At the moment, our schools in Edinburgh and the Lothians are being asked to contribute to food banks as part of their harvest festival events. Has it really come to this, in one of the wealthiest economies on the face of the planet?
I have run out of time, but again I thank Elaine Smith for the opportunity to challenge poverty this week. As we in Parliament move forward, we should ensure that we do exactly that in everything that we do.
Given the number of members who still wish to speak in the debate, I am minded under rule 8.14.3 to accept a motion without notice that the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.
That, under Rule 8.14.3, the debate be extended by up to 30 minutes.—[
Motion agreed to.
I, too, thank Elaine Smith for bringing this grave matter to the chamber for debate.
This year’s challenge poverty week gives us an opportunity to highlight some brilliant organisations that help to alleviate the scourge of poverty across Scotland. One such organisation is Healthy Valleys, which is based in Lanark in my South Scotland region. It works to promote health and wellbeing across the Clydesdale area, and is helping to transform communities and individuals’ lives by working with them to solve problems, build resilience and empower them to find solutions to tackle and relieve the impact of poverty, particularly on children, vulnerable adults and older people. The national average for child poverty is intolerable in itself, but in some areas of rural Clydesdale, the figure is 46 per cent. Healthy Valleys provides practical support and opportunities to improve people’s circumstances through, for example, child health and wellbeing programmes, parental support and, importantly, social prescriptions.
It is a real challenge to engage people who are hard to reach, and to ensure that they can participate equally in the life of a community. One particularly successful Healthy Valleys scheme has been the creation of community health cafes, which I have visited. They are led by volunteers and help to reduce isolation and loneliness. People can have a cooked meal on site and take one home with them. I commend Healthy Valleys for its work in my region, as I do other organisations and groups across Scotland, and I wish them every success in the future.
However, I cannot stand here without saying that we should not have poverty in Scotland in the 21st century. Of course people want to do things for themselves and their communities, and as a member of the Scottish Co-Operative Party MSP group, I have heard about—and support—empowering co-operative models across all sectors, including energy, farming, housing and childcare. Indeed, last week, the cross-party group on co-operatives, which is convened by my colleague James Kelly, heard about a student co-op organisation here in Edinburgh that is successfully bucking the trend of rip-off rents by private student landlords.
That said, zero-hours contracts, in-work poverty and child poverty are systemic in our society, and tax cuts for the rich and benefit cuts for the most vulnerable are a stark legacy of Tory rule—a fact that should not be ducked by the Tories in Scotland.
The Resolution Foundation has highlighted that the largest single-year increase in child poverty since the 1980s happened last year. The increase has been made even more obvious by the recent release of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report “Poverty in Scotland 2018”, which also highlights that the SNP is not using the powers of the Scottish Parliament effectively. It is clear that the failure of the Scottish Government to use its powers to tax the rich and share the proceeds across local authorities and voluntary sector organisations is contributing to destroying lives.
Alison Johnstone highlighted carers. As convener of the cross-party group on carers, I heard yesterday of cuts to respite care, inability to secure funding for transition programmes and much more. Last week, at the—
I am afraid that I cannot. I am in my last minute.
Last week, at the cross-party group on co-operatives, I heard about serious challenges that are faced by co-operatives. We need a system change. A future Labour UK Government would invest in transformational funds, a statutory £10 living wage and so much more. Here in Scotland, in Government Labour would introduce the Mary Barbour law, increase child benefit and do so much more here with the powers that we have. We would tax those who can afford to pay more so that we have a more equal society in Scotland. Let me make it clear: just one person in poverty is one person too many.
I thank Elaine Smith for lodging the motion and I congratulate her on securing the debate. As members have already said, 21st century Scotland is a rich nation, but we are looking at 230,000 children living in poverty. It is absolutely unacceptable.
I will go on to the social security element in a minute, but I have to say to Claudia Beamish that perhaps if her party had given support for full powers over social security, things would be different, so she should please remember that. We could have had the full powers—
No, I am sorry. I have to get on.
Challenge poverty week is an opportunity for everyone to raise their voices against poverty and to show what is being done to tackle poverty across Scotland. As others have said, the main aims of the week include highlighting the reality of poverty. I appreciate what Elaine Smith said about members’ business debates normally being consensual, but like other members including Stuart McMillan and Alison Johnstone, I think that there is absolutely no doubt that the actions by the Tory Government in Westminster are making more and more people worse off and driving them into poverty.
We have to give some credit for what the Scottish Government is trying to do without all the powers of an independent country. I will mention a couple of things—I cannot go through them all. We are the only part of the UK that has legally binding targets to reduce child poverty, which were brought in by the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017. The Scottish Government has invested £12 million in intensive employment support for parents. It has increased funding for the workplace equality fund and there is a new minimum payment of £100 per child through the school clothing grant. It is a shame that kids even have to get a grant for clothes; we are way back to the 1950s and 1960s.
There is also, of course, the new Social Security Scotland, which will treat people—as Alison Johnstone has said—with dignity and respect. I come back to my earlier point—what a pity it is that we do not have all the powers for that agency so that we could tackle poverty better.
Members have spoken about different events that are happening. Tomorrow in my constituency, Patrick Grady MP and I are holding a roadshow on universal credit, on the eve of its introduction to Partick in my constituency this month. It covers some of Patrick Grady MP’s constituency, too. It is not just we two who will be there: there will be community groups, people from Citizens Advice Scotland and people from the Department for Work and Pensions to give advice. It has been said, even by Alexander Stewart of the Conservatives, that our post bags are full and that we see people every other day in our constituencies who are suffering from cuts due to universal credit.
I want to mention something else that is happening in my constituency. The Refugee Survival Trust is taking part in challenge poverty week in the Kelvin hall next week. Many people do not take this into account, but poverty and destitution affect every part of society, and their impact falls disproportionately on refugees and asylum seekers. They find themselves in a precarious position, so I am pleased that the Refugee Survival Trust is participating in the event and providing information to people who are becoming destitute—who are sleeping in the streets and are impoverished.
We must all strive to end poverty. It is a disgrace that it exists in Scotland in the 21st century.
I congratulate Elaine Smith on securing the debate.
I wish to focus on food insecurity, which other members have mentioned. It is a disgrace that, in recognising modern-day poverty in Scotland and across the UK, food insecurity is an almost accepted part of poverty. When food banks first opened, there was a degree of shock that people could not afford food and a feeling that it was immoral for people to have to access a charity in order to feed themselves.
In 2011, when I first went to talk to people at a food bank, I had to go up to Dundee, because there was none in Fife at that time. There are now eight in Fife, run by and supported by volunteers, who are working really hard day in, day out to support the needs of their communities.
Food banks are now an important part of our support infrastructure, although they often struggle to meet demand. Kirkcaldy food bank is having to spend at least £8,000 a month to supplement its donations. Research from Fife Council suggests that at least 24,000 adults are living in food-insecure households in Fife, although that is thought to be an underestimate.
The drivers for that have been identified as changes to the welfare system, rising living costs, job insecurity and continuing low wages. The Scottish health survey was published last week and, for the first time, included a question on food insecurity. It revealed that 8 per cent of adults experienced food insecurity in 2017. That figure rose to 21 per cent for single parents. As well as concerns over food shortages, there is the issue of the quality of food that people on low incomes are able to access. The recent Food Foundation report highlights that the poorest fifth of families would have to spend 40 per cent of their weekly income on food if they were to meet the Government’s healthy living advice targets.
Prior to the school summer holidays, I wrote to the local authorities in my region to ask them how they were planning to address the issue of holiday hunger. Children who receive free school meals—in some schools they also get a breakfast—do not get that support during the holidays. We know that parents will often not eat in the holidays so that they can provide for their children.
There were different responses. Clackmannanshire Council was not preparing any support, reporting that it had previously run a pilot that had resulted in a lot of food waste, although it would explore options for next summer. The other local authorities, Stirling, Perth and Kinross and Fife, were running a variety of targeted schemes, which were referral based and built around a programme of activities with meals.
I recognise the efforts that are being made, but I also recognise the scale of the demand. Speaking to people at food banks, community cafes and support organisations, I could see that they were preparing for an increase in demand.
As part of challenge poverty week, I held a round table in Kirkcaldy on Monday with Fife Gingerbread, Home-Start, Citizens Advice Scotland, the Linton Lane centre, Kirkcaldy YMCA, Glenrothes food bank, Kirkcaldy food bank, the Ore Valley Housing Association, the Poverty Alliance and Fife Council to provide an opportunity to discuss the provision that was available over the summer holidays, what the demand was like, how organisations were responding to that and what the best way forward is. The issues raised included sustainable funding, the reach of the provision, the extent of the referral system, how to avoid stigma and how to recognise hidden hunger. I thank everyone who came along to the discussion, and I sincerely thank them for their effort in responding to a desperate need in Fife to reduce food insecurity and build resilience in our communities.
What can Parliament do to make their jobs easier? We need, as soon as possible, a comprehensive food bill that includes a right to food. That would give a statutory underpinning to efforts to tackle food insecurity. We should do all that we can to raise income levels. Food insecurity is a symptom of poverty. We need to ensure that the benefits system delivers a recognised minimum income standard. We need to ensure that the new income supplement, which the Scottish Government is committed to, is as ambitious as possible, and I will continue to argue that a top-up to child benefit is a good way to do that. By strengthening the Scottish welfare fund, we can ensure that people receive the cash support that prevents them from having to access emergency food provision. Finally, we must do all that we can to avoid in-work poverty.
Although I have focused on food, poverty has many negative impacts on people’s lives in our society. We must all redouble our efforts to end it.
I thank Elaine Smith for securing the debate. People have mentioned the million people who cannot afford the basics to live a decent life. If that does not make members angry and emotional, they must have hearts of stone.
Across Scotland, we can see the education attainment gap growing and the mental health crisis unfold before our eyes, with people desperate for help, but unable to get it. Recently, I spoke to a group of 15 young carers and 13 of them had sought help for a mental health problem. We see 1,000 people a year die from the effects of drugs. As members have said, food bank use is rising rather than falling. We have a housing crisis: people are unable to afford deposits, they are being ripped off by exploitative landlords, and landlords and councils are not even remotely able to meet housing demand.
All those issues affect women, the poor, the weak, the low paid, the disabled and the vulnerable the most. Over the years, we have had report after report on the issue. In challenge poverty week, we come here, stick our badges on, get our photo taken, take part in a debate, maybe hold events in our constituency and all feel very good that we have contributed something—yet nothing much changes. In fact, poverty is increasing and, shamefully—this did not get the coverage that it deserved last week—life expectancy in Scotland is falling for the first time in many years. That is an utter disgrace and an abject failure of public policy.
We know that the Tory benefit cuts, the stagnation of wages, precarious work, public spending cuts and attacks on local services all leave communities and families isolated and struggling to pay bills, buy food, buy clothes and pay the rent—never mind buy luxuries, such as toys for children, books or a short break. We know that under a Tory Government, poverty increases, just as night follows day. There was no mention of food banks or disability cuts or the increase in suicide rates in Theresa May’s speech yesterday or in Alexander Stewart’s speech today. Members should not give us compassion today when talking about the extent of poverty in Scotland, having yesterday cheered the very people who are causing that poverty.
If we want to do something different, we need a concerted cross-Government response to make the eradication of health and wealth inequality the core objective of Government policy. I have always believed that responsibility and accountability for that should lie in Scotland with the First Minister and at UK level with the Prime Minister, with every other minister and department contributing to an overall plan to eliminate those inequalities.
Where the Government has powers, it must use them and it must act. In Scotland, we could make work pay through a living wage of at least £10 per hour in all contracts that the Scottish Government gives out—we have the power to do that. We need to end the cuts to council services, which disproportionately impact those groups that I mentioned earlier. That could happen with the right political will. We need to invest in childcare and in policies such as North Lanarkshire’s club 365 school meal scheme. We have the power.
We need to increase the money going into the pockets of the most needy people. We could do that by topping up child benefit. I fail to understand the First Minister’s logic when she argues for universal provision in relation to tuition fees, the baby box and bus passes—all of which I support—and then argues against universal provision to put extra money in people’s pockets. That is utterly inconsistent.
We need to ensure that no one in our country sleeps rough or has no food to provide to their family. We have the power to tackle that and we could do it if we had the political will. We need to end the failing war on drugs and declare a national public health crisis. I repeat: we have the power.
If education is the Government’s priority then the approach is failing, because the gap between rich and poor is growing, not narrowing. We need to reverse that trend. We have the power to do it.
Debates come and go, and in many subjects, things are getting worse instead of better. If the Government were to act on the issues that I and other members have identified, it would have our full support. Tackling poverty and inequality should be the overriding priority of any Government.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in this afternoon’s debate to mark challenge poverty week, and I thank Elaine Smith for lodging her motion. I am sure that there will have been many interesting contributions to the debate, and I might be glad that I did not hear some of them. I apologise for my absence—I was hosting a delegation of alpacas outside. I hope that, when the debate has finished, other members might be able to go and see them, too.
I was just about to say that I was very grateful that the Presiding Officer gave me permission to be late, because I wanted to participate in the debate.
Although we might disagree on many things, we all agree that it is shameful that 1 million Scots are living in poverty. Despite some of the commentary—the accusation has been made that that state of affairs is all the fault of Conservatives—the situation is not one that has arisen solely as a result of the actions of a single Government. Administrations of all colours are responsible to one degree or another.
I say to members on all sides and of all colours that, here in Scotland, we have been handed a golden opportunity to tackle poverty and end the destructive cycle that has blighted our country for so long. The new Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017 sets an ambitious target of reducing child poverty to only 10 per cent of children by 2030. Of course, if we are to advance that aim, the way in which we measure poverty will have to change, because if we measure it against the median, we will always have people in poverty.
Therefore, I hope that the Parliament will give consideration to the new indicator of poverty that was recently published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which looks at income and expenditure and the impact that that combination has. What is important is how we measure what families actually have to live on and what surplus they have to bring opportunity into their lives.
Does Michelle Ballantyne agree that, as a consequence of the welfare reform process, some of our constituents are getting less money, which means that they have less money to live on, and that, as a result, unfortunately, more people—our constituents—are being put into poverty?
I do not dispute that. There is no doubt that there have been winners and losers as a result of the welfare reform process. Everybody is monitoring that and looking at where the impacts are, whether those are right or wrong, and what needs to be adjusted. It would be utterly wrong to say that the UK Government is not looking at that, because it is. We can see that it has already made adjustments. We are talking about a radical change to the way in which welfare is delivered, and we must ensure that, in the way in which the system is altered, it is made fit for purpose, so that, although people might not always agree with the decisions that are made, they can say that the process has been fair.
We in Scotland now have a significant part to play, given that the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 is enshrined in Scots law, 11 benefits have been devolved and Social Security Scotland is now open. I was pleased to visit the agency on Monday, and I will go back there again to talk to staff. We must remember that the 2017 and 2018 acts gained unanimous support in the Parliament. That is a clear sign that, when it comes to poverty, there is a will within the four walls of this Parliament for us to come together and take decisive action.
However, passing legislation is just the beginning. Solving a problem as complex and deep rooted as poverty cannot be done just by passing laws or, indeed, by focusing only on the social security system. That is why I welcome the motion. It recognises that the key to lifting people out of economic hardship is to boost their income and ensure that they participate in society by providing them with a range of choices and options to build a better life.
I have stood in the chamber and made that point before, but it deserves to be repeated. I know that other members have done that since I came back into the chamber. We must take a wider, joined-up approach when it comes to poverty.
When members debated the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill, I made the point that educational underattainment has been identified as a key contributory driver of child poverty. It restricts the life chances of our young people and prevents them from breaking the cycle as they go on to be parents. I take Alison Johnstone’s point that it is extremely difficult for a child to be effective in the classroom if they do not have a full stomach. We can address such things, and there are ways to do so that sit outside social security.
I see that the Presiding Officer is waving the pen at me, so I will lose a bit of my speech. I will say something quickly, if you will allow me some leeway, Presiding Officer.
I have spent most of my life working with people in poverty. That is my professional background, and I feel strongly about the matter. There is not enough communication between the services. The third sector does a phenomenal job and the public sector tries its hardest to do a phenomenal job, but the communication between everybody and the joining up of how we approach things, from the Government right the way down to the front line, is not that great at times.
Please sit down, Ms White. Do not argue with me. The Presiding Officer gave advance permission to Ms Ballantyne to not be in the chamber for the start of the debate. That is the Presiding Officer’s ruling, and you must just accept that.
Like other members, I thank Elaine Smith for bringing forward this members’ business debate during challenge poverty week. The debate is a chance for Parliament to collectively assert and raise our voices against poverty in Scotland and, as Elaine Smith said, to put aside party politics and focus on putting forward ideas instead. That should not necessarily come without the appropriate challenge to Government and people in power. The space that has been created today has provided members with an opportunity to consider what more needs to be done to challenge poverty. I appreciate Elaine Smith providing that space and commend the work that will happen in Coatbridge, which she mentioned, and the storytelling, because people’s individual stories are powerful and illustrate the horrifying impact of poverty in Scotland.
A number of key poverty publications have been published during this challenge poverty week, including the Scottish Government’s annual report on UK Government welfare reforms and the “Poverty in Scotland 2018” report, which was published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. That report was launched at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, and it ensures that people’s experiences and stories are at the forefront of the consideration of what we need to do to challenge poverty. Both reports highlighted the on-going UK Government austerity and the devastating impact that it will have. It will lead to more families in and out of work falling into poverty and it has been forecast that it will increase child poverty in Scotland. Some £3.7 billion will be cut from the benefit income of people in Scotland by 2021.
Welfare reforms have explicitly focused on reducing benefit generosity to families with children, and that is affecting the priority families identified in the Scottish Government’s tackling child poverty delivery plan. For example, over the first year of implementation of the two-child limit, around 3,800 larger families in Scotland saw their incomes reduced by up to £2,780. That was simply for having more than two children, and that situation is only set to worsen year on year.
It is estimated that the reform that will bring about the biggest reduction in spending in Scotland—of around £370 million by 2020-21—is the benefit freeze. The Scottish Government is taking action to mitigate the impact of UK Government welfare reform policies, including spending an expected £125 million this year alone, but unless the UK Government reverses the reductions in social security spending, it will be even more challenging for the Scottish Government to meet the ambitious targets in the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017. We will be challenging that poverty with one hand tied behind our back.
I agree that there has been a cut in the actual spend in the budget, but does the cabinet secretary accept that there has been a 1 percentage point increase in spending on benefits within the whole envelope of Government spending? It has gone up from 34 to 35 per cent of overall Government spend. The cabinet secretary talks about mitigation, but does she accept that, to a degree the issue is about choices on where to spend money on education, health or other such issues—
Sorry, Presiding Officer.
I am talking about the mitigation that we have to do to cope with, cover up, sweep up and clear up the mess that the UK Government has left. To be frank, unless the Tories accept that, it is probably not worth their making contributions on the issue in the chamber. Unless they adequately challenge their party colleagues and the Westminster Government on poverty, they are perhaps better suited to having meetings with alpacas than to contributing to the debate.
The reports that have been published this week outline the importance of continued concerted Scottish Government action in the area and the need to maintain a strong focus on child poverty across all policy areas, and that is exactly what we are doing. In developing the tackling child poverty delivery plan, ministers recognised that it is not the responsibility of just one cabinet secretary to deliver on child poverty, so the plan takes a cross-Government approach. My ministerial colleagues have been looking at opportunities during this week and beyond to raise awareness of the reality of poverty in Scotland; to highlight what needs to be done and what is being done to tackle the issue; and to encourage debate and discussion about how to identify more solutions.
Our delivery plan is already making progress and having an impact in a number of areas. We have agreed a new national minimum level of £100 for school clothing grants, which started this academic year and which will benefit around 120,000 families this year. Those are choices that we are making in the here and now to mitigate and help families cope with their poverty.
In September, Social Security Scotland made its first payments of the carers allowance supplement, which puts an extra £442 in carers’ pockets. Last month, Fair for You was the first lender to borrow from the £2.5 million affordable credit fund. The Scottish Government has invested £1 million in the fund, alongside investment from the Carnegie UK Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, to increase choices for people on low incomes and to provide genuine alternatives to high-cost credit providers.
During First Minister’s question time, we heard that we want to target and direct the money and resource that we have in the best and most appropriate way to lift more children out of poverty. Although it is absolutely appropriate and right for people to take forward the give me five campaign and to raise the impact that the measure would have, our analysis shows that it would not lift as many children out of poverty as the income supplement that we are working on in the here and now, which will deliver more for children across the country.
I have listed a whole host of policies, initiatives and other things that we are doing in the here and now to help families to cope with poverty that has been inflicted on them through the welfare reforms that have taken money out of their pockets. All those things contribute to ensuring the wellbeing of our country. It is important to recognise that we want to direct our funding to where it will have the most impact on families and children across the country. That is the most appropriate way in which to use and target our funds.
We will continue to do what we are doing, but with one hand tied behind our back. It is appropriate to reiterate Sandra White’s point that, if we want to radically transform the society that we live in, perhaps we have to think about what powers we need to have an impact and to transform lives and bring people out of poverty. Unless the Labour Party thinks about that, we will be stuck in a crisis of not being able to do things and implement policies without having to mitigate the impact of decisions that are taken elsewhere.
I want to make a bit of progress, if that is okay.
We are taking forward other measures that target people who need help the most. We are working towards delivering the best start pregnancy and baby grant before Christmas, which is more than six months earlier than planned. The grant will provide low-income families with payments of £600 on the birth of their first child and £300 on the birth of any subsequent child. Further payments of £250 for each child will be introduced by summer 2019 at key transition points in their life.
Across the Government, we are taking forward work to maintain a focus on poverty. We have implemented the fairer Scotland duty, which asks all public bodies actively to consider how, in making decisions, they can reduce inequalities of outcomes that are caused by disadvantage.
Members commented on particular issues. I completely agree with Alison Johnstone, Stuart McMillan and Claire Baker that it is unacceptable that, in a country as prosperous as Scotland, people are struggling to put food on the table. Everyone has a right to food, and people should not be forced to turn to food banks. That is why we announced in the programme for government that we would increase funding for our fair food fund to provide a dignified response to food insecurity. Of that £3.5 million of funding, £2 million will be focused on supporting families during the school holidays.
We need radical action to achieve the ambitious targets that we set out in the 2017 act. That is why we intend to develop a new income supplement, which will provide additional financial support for people who are living in poverty. It will top up income sufficiently to lift those households out of poverty.
I have listed a suite of actions, policies and strategies to make an impact towards eradicating poverty, but we can and must do much more to shift the curve on child poverty. That means ensuring that every member of the Government recognises their role. Tackling poverty does not mean work only by me or by Shirley-Anne Somerville; we must work across transport, the economy, work and employment to maximise the impact of those policies.
We work to tackle the social injustice of poverty with one hand tied behind our back, but we will continue to exert our influence and take action that is needed, while mitigating the worst impacts of welfare reform. Alexander Stewart acknowledged the appropriate and pertinent intervention from Neil Findlay, but the uncomfortable truth for the Conservatives is that such acknowledgement will not stop the trauma, the lack of food and the lack of dignity that people in Scotland face as a result of welfare reform. Acknowledging the problem will not put food on people’s tables.
Challenge poverty week is important and will continue to be so until we solve this, which means stopping in-work poverty—when folk work hard but cannot get out of the bit—as well as removing the barriers that people with disability face to entering the workplace, closing the gender pay gap and being ambitious in our plans to introduce an income supplement.
By preventing poverty, we will end its horrifying impact, which is felt across our communities. I do not think that anybody in the Government or across the Parliament is content just to stick on a badge and take a pic or a selfie to mark this week. My position in the Government is a privilege and with it comes opportunity. This week gives the Government and the Parliament the opportunity to come together and understand that, until the change that we need happens across the country, we must drive our effort and our work every day, every week and every year. As Elaine Smith said, we must reimagine and create the good society in which everyone has their fair chance to flourish.
13:47 Meeting suspended.
14:30 On resuming—