A few weeks ago, during challenge poverty week, I led a members’ business debate to consider the work that was being done in our communities to deal with the consequences of poverty and inequality. In responding to that debate, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government remarked that putting forward ideas to challenge poverty
“should not necessarily come without the appropriate challenge to Government and people in power.”—[
, 4 October 2018; c 44.]
I agree. Therefore, Scottish Labour has chosen to use debating time today to once again raise the issues of poverty and inequality, to challenge the Scottish Government to use the Parliament’s powers to their full capacity to address poverty and inequality and end austerity.
We know that inequality impacts on people’s life chances, life expectancy and education and employment opportunities. Tomorrow, a report will be published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission that, according to
, will show that Scotland remains unequal,
“with little improvement over the last three years”.
We know that women, disabled people and ethnic minorities are all more likely to be living in poverty; that women are less likely than men to have a job; and that women who work are likely to earn less than men. As inequality increases, so does the gap between rich and poor.
The latest life expectancy figures, which were published recently by the National Records of Scotland, must also give us serious cause for concern. The figures tell us that life expectancy in Scotland has fallen for the first time in 35 years. The United Kingdom figures are among the lowest for comparable countries internationally, and within the UK, Scotland has the lowest life expectancy. That trend is completely unacceptable.
Further, within the Scottish life expectancy figures, there are great disparities between local authority areas. For example, there is a variation of more than 10 years depending on whether a person is born in parts of North Lanarkshire or in Perth and Kinross. That is harsh evidence of the growing gap between rich and poor, not just in financial terms, but in general health and how long a person’s life will be.
Back in 2004, John Swinney, who was then Opposition leader, described the differences in life expectancy as a “national scandal” and accused Labour of complacency and inaction. In reality, the interventions that Labour was then making were beginning to close the wealth gap and slowly improve the life expectancy figures. Now, it is time for the current Scottish National Party Government to explain how that progress has stopped under its watch. This is today’s national scandal and Labour expects all the powers of the Scottish Parliament to be used to improve life expectancy for all our citizens.
With life expectancy stalling around the UK, responsibility for the consequences of austerity must be placed firmly at the doors of those in Government. Responsibility also rests with the UK Government, and there is no clearer illustration of its contempt for those in need of a hand than the way in which universal credit has been rolled out around the country. Case after case demonstrates the devastating impact of the punitive way in which universal credit has been introduced. The Department for Work and Pensions’ survey of claimants, which was published in June, shows that nearly half of all new universal credit claimants are falling behind with bills. It has been a disaster for many households that are already vulnerable. If Alex Cole-Hamilton’s amendment to pause the roll out had been chosen today, Labour would have supported it. My colleague Pauline McNeill will expand on that in her speech.
This is not just about material and economic resources; it is also about social relationships, social processes and the control and exercise of power. Any proper consideration of poverty, inequality and wealth raises fundamental questions about the organisation of society, its structures and social justice. The report by the Institute for Public Policy Research’s commission on economic justice, “Prosperity and Justice: A Plan for the New Economy”, which I mentioned in the previous debate, addressed those issues and outlined the belief that a new moral purpose is needed to define the goals of economic policy. The report argues that the economy needs to deliver prosperity and justice together, which is one good reason why I agree with Alison Johnstone’s comment in her unselected amendment that
“much more must be done to end austerity.”
As local authorities around Scotland try to set budgets and priorities for local services, Audit Scotland reports that council budgets have fallen by 9.6 per cent since 2010-11. In 2016-17 alone, councils had 2,500 fewer workers than they had in the year before. Quite simply, it is not possible to deliver the services that our families need with a workforce that is continually reducing. For households that have the least, those services are needed the most. Preventing poverty and reducing its impact means investing in local government provision, not cutting councils’ budgets. My colleague Alex Rowley will address that issue in more depth.
We also know that families in poverty have less money to spend on food and that they spend a greater proportion of their household budget on food than those with higher incomes do. That makes increasing the entitlement to free school meals and initiatives such as North Lanarkshire Council’s food 365 programme to tackle holiday hunger absolutely vital. It is why Scottish Labour supports an immediate £5 top-up to child benefit.
Poverty in a rich country means people not being able to eat properly and healthily, access school trips or social events, or live in a warm, safe, secure and affordable home.
Poverty affects mental and physical health and wellbeing. Shelter Scotland’s briefing for this debate reminds us that poor health and homelessness are inextricably linked, with a particularly high rate of admission to mental health services for those in households experiencing homelessness.
It is clearly the uneven distribution of wealth, resources and power that allows the rich to grow richer while the poor grow poorer. Working towards redistributing wealth, Labour would make the richest pay their fair share, unlike the Tories, who cut the 50p tax rate, and unlike the SNP, which has not reinstated that tax rate, despite its election promises.
We now have a super-wealthy class in a rich country while one in four children is growing up in poverty. In the past year, 94 homeless people died on Scotland’s streets, and life expectancy has fallen for the first time in 35 years. That is since the time of Margaret Thatcher. All politicians should hang their heads in shame when they hear those statistics.
Writing in this month’s
Children in Scotland magazine, John Dickie of the Child Poverty Action Group and Peter Kelly of the Poverty Alliance make the point that although the Scottish Government’s new income supplement is welcome, urgent action is needed right now, as families simply cannot wait. In reality, in order to get urgent action, we need a Labour Government—we need one not only here but across the UK—to redistribute wealth, stop austerity and eradicate poverty and inequality by implementing policies for the many, not the few.
That the Parliament notes with concern the recent publication of a number of reports that show that deep-rooted poverty and inequality persists in Scotland’s communities; understands that revelations from these reports include that, in the last 12 months, at least 94 rough sleepers died on Scotland’s streets and that at least one in 10 people living in the poorest areas of Scotland ran out of food due to a lack of money, and that life expectancy in Scotland has fallen for the first time in 35 years and remains the lowest of all nations in the UK; believes that, while UK Government changes to the benefit system are a significant driver of poverty, the Scottish Government has failed to use the devolved powers adequately to challenge and address the root causes of poverty and inequality, including those perpetuated by the policies of the UK Government, and, in doing so, calls for an end to austerity in Scotland.
There is much in what Elaine Smith said with which I agree. It is unacceptable that there continues to be persistent and deep-rooted inequalities in a country as rich and prosperous as Scotland. It is right that the Government is asked to do all that we can, not just to tackle that inequality in the here and now, but to rebalance our economy and ensure that we deliver lasting and impactful change for years and generations to come. However, the backdrop against which we seek to do that is inescapable, because it is a backdrop of ideologically driven austerity that has impacted on our budget and impacts on our ability to protect those most vulnerable in our society.
The UK Government’s welfare cuts have pushed more and more people into poverty, and their impact is devastating. Our analysis suggests that welfare reforms will reduce social security spending in Scotland by £3.7 billion in 2021. Alarmingly, the target of the reforms is to focus explicitly on reducing benefit generosity towards families with children. For example, over the first year of the implementation of the two-child limit, about 3,800 larger families in Scotland saw their incomes reduced by up to £2,780. The situation is set only to worsen year on year.
A quarter of the people moving from the disability living allowance on to personal independence payments were told that they do not qualify for support. Because of the decision to reduce universal credit work allowances, each year, more and more working people in Scotland are losing out as they move to UC. By 2021, working UC claimants in Scotland are expected to lose about £250 million a year in total. Delays in initial payments, on top of the lower rates of benefits overall, result in more people being in rent arrears or being reliant on food banks. That is why the UK Government must halt the roll-out of universal credit.
The reform estimated to bring about the biggest reduction in spending in Scotland—of about £370 million by 2020-21—is the benefit freeze. Contrary to the Prime Minister’s analysis, austerity is far from over for the most vulnerable in our society. It is hurting people hard—it is penalising them.
I certainly do not disagree with the cabinet secretary about the Tories’ cruel approach to the benefit system, but this Parliament was supposed to be a buffer against such situations, so perhaps we could hear about what the Scottish Government—10 years on—will do to tackle poverty and inequality. [
As I was going on to say, we cannot sit back and allow that to happen, which is why we have acted to mitigate the worst impacts of the UK Government’s welfare reform policies. The truth is that, 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 and, more generally, work towards creating the equal society that we seek.
Where we can take action, we are doing so. Since 2015-16, we have spent nearly £400 million on welfare mitigation. In 2018-19 alone, we will spend more than £125 million on welfare mitigation and measures to help to protect those on low incomes—that is more than £20 million more than we spent last year. That includes fully mitigating the bedroom tax and resource for the Scottish welfare fund, which has helped 296,000 individual households—a third of them with children—over the past five years. We have given people in Scotland the choice to receive their universal credit award either monthly or twice monthly, and to have the housing costs in their universal credit award paid directly to their landlord.
Our Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017, which was passed by a unanimous vote in the Scottish Parliament, articulates a bold statement of our collective commitment to end child poverty in Scotland. The actions that we need to turn that vision into reality were published in spring this year in “Every child, every chance: tackling child poverty delivery plan 2018-2022”—our first such plan. It sets out the initial steps towards meeting our ambitious targets, which are supported by a range of investments that include our £50 million fund for tackling child poverty.
Our new social security agency, Social Security Scotland, made its first payments of the carers allowance supplement in September. Our investment increases the amount that is paid by the UK Government for the carers allowance by 13 per cent, which puts an extra £442 in carers’ pockets.
To help our children in their earliest years, we will replace the sure start maternity grant with the best start grant, thereby increasing the payment to the first child and continuing payments for subsequent children, unlike in the UK system. In Scotland, free school meals are available to all children in primary 1 to primary 3 and to children of families on low incomes. That is just some of the work that we are doing to help to relieve the burden of austerity on the people of Scotland.
Nonetheless, we are not complacent. We know that there is far more work to do in order to further reduce child poverty and create a more equal and fairer society, and we are focused on doing more. That is why, in the forthcoming publication of our disability employment action plan, we will set out how we will work towards achieving our ambition to more than halve the disability employment gap—a commitment that we made in our disability delivery plan. We will also take forward actions on the gender pay gap. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has described both those areas of work as potentially “transformational” in tackling poverty.
In recognition of the fact that poverty is fundamentally about a lack of income, we will work towards introducing a new income supplement to provide additional financial support for low-income families. In the face of the heartbreaking realities faced by people who are homeless or sleep rough, we have allocated £50 million towards accelerating measures to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place. The homelessness prevention and strategy group will set out a five-year programme to transform temporary accommodation and end rough sleeping and homelessness for good.
I have set out not just a clear set of actions that we are taking, but our plans for where we need to do more and go further. Today’s debate holds us legitimately to account, but many of us will agree on where the ultimate finger of blame for the misery and pain that has been caused through cuts and reforms should point. The UK Government needs to halt universal credit, stop the austerity and instead opt to treat people across the UK with dignity and respect and provide the support that they need.
I move amendment S5M-14406.4, to leave out from “understands” to end and insert:
“notes that the Scottish Government has used devolved powers to challenge and address root causes of poverty and inequality, including setting targets to help eradicate child poverty by 2030, fully mitigating the so-called bedroom tax, launching the Carer’s Allowance Supplement, extending access to free sanitary products, implementing recommendations from the Homelessness and Rough Sleeping Action Group, increasing the Fair Food Fund and committing to a Disability Employment Action Plan; believes that UK Government policies are a significant driver of poverty and inequality, including welfare reforms that will lead to an annual cut to people in Scotland of £3.7 billion by 2020-21; calls on the UK Government to publish its analysis of the impact of Universal Credit on people’s incomes, and further calls on it to immediately halt the roll-out in Scotland and use the UK Budget to address its fundamental flaws, reinstating work allowances, reversing the two-child limit and lifting the benefits freeze.”
I am pleased to have the opportunity to open for my party in this important debate on ending poverty and inequality. George Bernard Shaw said:
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
If members on the other benches aim today to paint the UK Government and members on the Conservative benches as unreasonable, it probably underpins their unwillingness or inability to address the real drivers of poverty and inequality with the sincerity and intellectual rigour that the subject deserves.
Looking at the motion that Labour has lodged, and the subsequent SNP amendment, one could be forgiven for thinking that poverty and inequality began with the election of a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition and that universal credit was devised simply to attack and punish people. In Elaine Smith’s opening speech for Labour, there was no reference to the reasons for which universal credit was introduced or the catastrophic failure of Labour’s legacy welfare system, which showed no interest in improving our people’s life chances. Tax credits have been hailed by members on the Labour benches as a panacea for the poor—
Yes, but I have not had nearly as many such representations as the member implies, and those that I have had I have been able to resolve.
There was no human point of contact for people who had issues with tax credits and, worst of all, many people who improved their situation and their earnings found themselves faced with demands to repay large chunks of the money that they had been given. Hundreds of thousands of people have been driven into debt under the legacy systems, and 60 per cent of the people who are coming on to universal credit are carrying that debt with them on to the new system. Labour allowed debt to spiral, for the individual and the Government, and the cost to families across the UK was a contribution that rose by nearly £3,000 a year. Labour also paid out without carrying out due diligence, thereby opening the system to fraud. The cost of that fraud has been estimated at between £11 billion and £20 billion. Worse still, it was hidden in the UK Treasury budget, where it was not subject to audit.
Therefore, I am proud to be associated with a welfare change process that is genuinely designed to tackle poverty and inequality.
The two-child limit is about fairness. It is fair that people on benefits cannot have as many children as they like while people who work and pay their way and do not claim benefits have to make decisions about the number of children they can have. Fairness means fairness to everybody, not to one part of the community.
Universal credit might have its flaws, but the thinking behind the system is sound, and that point has been reiterated by all the witnesses who have given evidence to the Parliament on the issue.
Governments cannot address poverty and inequality without improving people’s life chances. The reform process is about making it work better to be in work than to not be in work. Universal credit is an evolving benefit, and the roll-out was implemented to allow issues to be explored and addressed. By its very nature, it is flexible and has the ability to adapt. The roll-out process is designed to allow checks to take place to assess whether issues are policy or operational issues. To date, they have almost wholly been operational.
That means that the flaws that are there can be fixed, which would have been difficult under the legacy benefits system, with its byzantine processes and incomprehensible regulations. It was an important feature of the design of universal credit that a universal support system that would support more vulnerable claimants would be put in place. That is exactly what we have seen in recent weeks with the allocation of £39 million to Citizens Advice to provide support with the roll-out of UC, which shows that the Department for Work and Pensions recognises that there are operational difficulties and has the confidence to address them. Regardless of what others might say, it is a fact that universal credit is working for the many, as are many UK Government employment policies.
Since 2010, youth unemployment has fallen by more than 50 per cent, 1.1 million Britons are back in work, the number of children in workless homes has plummeted by 637,000 and the UK has reached a record employment rate of 75.7 per cent and a female employment rate of 71.3 per cent. All of that has been achieved during one of the worst recessions of all time and at a lower price than Labour could achieve even when the sun was shining. That is why universal credit is a key part of reducing inequality in this country and why I will continue to lend my support to it, as should every member in the chamber.
I move amendment S5M-14406.3, to leave out from “believes that” to end and insert:
“recognises that the Scottish Government has significant new devolved powers that enable it to top up and create new social security benefits if required; believes that educational standards and the economy are contributing factors to inequality, and further believes that, by improving these areas, as well as increasing the quality of public and mental healthcare, inequality in Scotland can be reduced.”
At the start of this month, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned that one in four Scottish children are living in poverty. Highly regressive and aggressive cuts to our social security system are driving increased poverty, including child poverty and rapidly burgeoning food poverty. I inform Michelle Ballantyne that it is my view that the two-child limit is not fair—it is certainly not fair to the third child in a family.
I will not; I have only four minutes.
By 2020, the on-going benefit freeze will have taken £300 million out of the pockets and wallets of our poorest people. Perhaps most cruelly, the introduction of the personal independence payment reduces or eliminates entirely the extra costs entitlement of thousands of disabled Scots. Some people have lost Motability vehicles as a result and they cannot get out to work or visit friends and family. Of course, all that is before we address universal credit, which has cut support to families, despite promises that it would not do so. The full horrendous impacts of that policy are yet to be seen.
The Labour motion is right to call attention to the terrible impact of those reforms. However, it is important to note the progress that we are making in Scotland to establish a fair social security system—a system that offers real security to people and recognises the social bonds between us all.
The social security system involves only a small part of the overall budget but it is based on the principles of dignity and respect. As a result of Green party amendments, of which we are proud, it is a system that is explicitly aimed at reducing poverty. In a system in which £16 billion-worth of benefits are unclaimed every year, Scotland is pursuing an income-maximisation approach. Scotland is also aiming for a significant increase in the uptake of the best start grant, which is welcome. Further, Scotland has taken a stand against benefit sanctions, which no longer operate through Scottish employment schemes, which is another Green party manifesto commitment.
All parties in this chamber have made the social security system stronger—all made changes to the founding legislation. It is important to recognise that progress, but the Labour motion falls short in that regard. Further, Labour is calling for an end to austerity while recklessly pursuing a “jobs-first” Brexit. Brexit is predicted to cause unprecedented levels of economic hardship across almost every sector and region of the UK. We absolutely must stand against austerity, as the Labour motion rightly notes, but a Tory Brexit will also hit the poorest the hardest. We are not content with the Conservative amendment’s attempt to cover up the impact of the decisions of the UK Government on Scotland’s poorest.
The Scottish Government is to be congratulated on taking a stand against the welfare reforms that are causing so much poverty, but it can and must go further. The Scottish Government will not use the powers that are available to it to apply a universal £5 top-up to child benefit, which we know will take tens of thousands of children out of relative poverty. It is too timid to allow local authorities the powers to levy taxes to fund vital local services—it is dragging its feet even on a tourist tax and it will not look at a workplace parking levy. Further, a new system of local taxation to replace the outdated and regressive council tax has to be investigated.
If we are serious about reducing poverty in Scotland, we have some real challenges ahead of us. However, our social security system is a positive step in the right direction. The amendment that was lodged by the Greens would have kept in the motion an acknowledgement of the need to end austerity and stand against falling living standards, rising poverty and inequality, the roll-out of universal credit and the damage that the Tory party is wreaking on our social security system, but we cannot take credibly a bid to end austerity while the Labour Party that is proposing it is supporting an exit from the European Union that will also cause huge damage to those most impacted on by austerity.
We also want the Scottish Government to do much more than it is already doing, take a more radical stance and use the powers that we now have to do all that this Parliament can do to end poverty, inequality and austerity.
I will, Presiding Officer.
By any measure, poverty has increased demonstrably since the crash of 2008. All told, wage packets are 3 per cent lower than they were in 2008, and the situation has been compounded still further by the impact of Brexit, the devaluation of the pound and the incipient rising cost of living that has been a product of that calamitous decision.
Poverty is not just a reduction in or absence of household income; it is manifest also in the health inequalities that we debate in this place, in educational attainment and in arrested social mobility. How we respond to those issues in this chamber and in the corridors of Government, either through investment in education or the deployment of the new welfare powers that we have at our disposal, will be the test by which we are all judged.
I suspect that, for years to come, we in this place will be mopping up the effects of the flawed delivery of welfare reforms by Westminster. I understand the role of my party in that—I am ashamed of aspects of that role. However, the staying influence of the Liberal Democrats in that coalition Government are now evident in the changes that the Conservatives have made with regard to things such as universal credit since they have been unencumbered by our influence.
I wanted to amend today’s motion in relation to the delivery of universal credit by restating the commitment of the Scottish Liberal Democrats to pausing the execution and delivery of its flawed roll-out. That is what our amendment would have spoken to.
The problems with the delivery of universal credit were well described by Frank Field, in his role as chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, when he said that Wonderland visions of welfare reform collapse on contact with real life.
That is absolutely right. The problems stem from the conflicting objectives of universal credit. It was initially about providing a minimum family income, simplifying the system, saving money and incentivising work. The fact is, however, that the saving of money and the incentivising of work have taken absolute precedence over the first and crucial priority of sustaining a minimum family income. That is self-evident in the two-child limit, which we have heard mentioned several times during the debate.
Practical problems have also been ignored. Reasons for delay that were seen in the pilot roll-out have never been resolved. Unintended penalties for self-employed people have not been overcome. We are still using single bank accounts for divided families and those who are affected by domestic abuse, when finances can be used as a tool of coercive control. The list goes on and it is an embarrassing litany of failure.
The conclusion of the Work and Pensions Committee, with which I agree, is that robust safeguards must be in place to stop family incomes falling still further. I absolutely agree with that.
Since the Liberal Democrats left office, the measure of the Tory assault on those families who are dependent on universal credit has been laid bare. A total of £3 billion has now been slashed from the work allowance, and the taper rate—through which recipients keep a larger proportion of their money before benefits are cut—has been hacked to pieces.
As my colleague Stephen Lloyd foretold when he sat on the Work and Pensions Select Committee, half of the families who are in receipt of the housing benefit component of universal credit, which is no longer being paid directly to landlords, are in rent arrears of a month or more. That is why we need a pause. We need to understand the problems, which we have identified many times. We are just at the threshold of this roll-out. I will conclude by saying—
I welcome the fact that Elaine Smith lodged the motion and that we are having this discussion. I would rather try to focus on where we can agree, rather than on where we disagree.
I accept that the SNP will not accept the premise of the Labour motion that more can be done. On the other hand—we need to have this debate in communities across Scotland—we can agree fundamentally that the failure of needless austerity, which, as Elaine Smith said to Aileen Campbell was ideologically driven, sits at the root of the growing level of poverty, deprivation and inequality that we see in Scotland. That has halted the progress that had been made over generations by a number of political parties in trying to tackle the deep-rooted deprivation that exists in far too many communities up and down Scotland.
The Conservative Party is in complete denial: it attacked the fact that tax credits under the previous Labour Government lifted more than 1 million children in Britain—and 200,000 children in Scotland—out of poverty. To attack that is to be in complete denial.
In 2010, when the Conservative-Liberal coalition was elected, I was not aware that there were any food banks in Fife. Now there are food banks in near enough every community up and down Scotland. That is evidence that the direct result of Conservative policy, supported by the Scottish Conservatives, is the unacceptable level of poverty, deprivation and inequality in Scotland. That should galvanise the rest of us to look at where we can agree and work together. We should have this debate across Scotland so that people know what the real consequences of voting Conservative are.
I am saying that, as a direct result of tax credits, a million children throughout the United Kingdom were lifted out of poverty.
“targets to ... eradicate child poverty”.
Let us not forget that the Conservative Party removed the targets for tackling child poverty once it came into power because it knew that, as a direct result of its policies, more and more children in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom were being driven into poverty. We should stand up against that, because it is unacceptable in this day and age that that is the case.
I have argued for some time that we need a national poverty strategy in Scotland. The Poverty Alliance set out a number of areas in that regard. Labour believes that increasing child benefit by £5 a week would have an immediate impact in lifting 30,000 children out of poverty and benefiting half a million children. The SNP Government looks at the options of further top-ups and targeting support. Let us enter into that discussion, because our concern is that an income supplement would be bureaucratic and cost more money. In all those areas—
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. Debating poverty and inequality is one of our fundamental duties in Parliament. That debate taxes us intellectually, because of how challenging the area is, and it taxes us emotionally, because each and every member, through our roles in representing our constituencies and regions, will have come face to face with people who have been at the sharp end of Tory austerity and have had their lives utterly destroyed and shaken, in some cases, as a consequence of their engagement with the welfare system.
I recognise the motion that Labour has lodged. Unfortunately, I cannot support it because of one line that states:
“The Scottish Government has failed to use the devolved powers adequately”.
I am happy to always argue for more powers to be used, for more powers to come to the Parliament and for new and innovative ways of using those powers. However, the Parliament and the Government have delivered in a lot of areas: creating the 2030 targets on child poverty; fully mitigating the bedroom tax; launching the carers’ supplement; extending access to free sanitary products; committing to implementing and recognising all the recommendations of the homelessness and rough sleeping action group; increasing the fair food fund; setting up Social Security Scotland; using the income tax powers progressively to offset cuts from the UK Government; committing £750 million to closing the attainment gap through the pupil equity fund; increasing the provision of free childcare up to 30 hours by the end of this parliamentary session; committing to paying all Scottish Government employees the real living wage since 2011; and introducing the new best start grant, which is coming in imminently, and the baby box. That is what we are doing in a range of areas.
In areas in which we do not have powers, such as employment law, we are taking strong steps, including through the Scottish business pledge and the great carer positive scheme, which I encourage all MSPs to sign up to so that they can become carer positive employers. That will send out a message to all businesses and employers in our constituencies and regions that they can become carer positive employers, too.
I thank the member for her intervention. The issue comes down to the fundamental point and crux of the debate—that there are two views of what this Parliament is for.
There is the view of the Labour Party, which is that it is a buffer. Alex Cole-Hamilton spoke about the Parliament having to mop up the consequences of Tory welfare reforms. That is a view and a philosophy that the Labour Party is entitled to, but it is not the view that I have. I do not want this to be the Parliament that mitigates; I want this to be the Parliament with all the powers, including powers over employment law, so that we can make sure that there is a real living wage and under 25s are not being paid the poverty national minimum wage. I want to have the full range of powers so that we can truly transform Scotland. I want the full powers so that we do not live in a country where colleagues of Michelle Ballantyne get to dictate social security policy.
I have to say that the speech from Michelle Ballantyne was one of the most disgraceful speeches that I have ever heard in my two and a half years in this Parliament—six minutes of pompous Victorian moralising that would have been better suited to the pages of a Dickens novel.
She suggests that poverty should be a barrier to a family and that people who are poor are not entitled to any more than two children—what an absolutely disgraceful position. She should be utterly, utterly ashamed of herself.
Inequality comes in many different forms, some of which we have already discussed this afternoon, sometimes loudly and sometimes softly. One area that I want to pick up in my brief time is education and the early years. The issue has been devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government.
It would be interesting to review how far we have come in the past 25 years—or rather, how little progress we have made for people who come from the most disadvantaged parts of our society, because under different political parties, with different policies, the attainment gap has grown wider and wider.
One of the advantages of being a member of this Parliament is that we get to meet interesting individuals and groups and we get to learn lots. Something that—to be honest—I was unaware of until two and a half years ago is the importance of the first three years of a child’s life. Those three years often set the direction for the child.
The simple issue is that we are failing far too many of our children in those years. Too many children are not getting the opportunities that they deserve or require. Until we can tackle that issue, the attainment gap will not go down. Indeed, it will likely grow larger and larger.
We need to ascertain what is working and then follow best practice. For example, an organisation in my region, Dads Rock, offers fathers of all ages advice on how to parent and bring up their children, giving fathers the techniques that they lack. Dads Rock does that not by simply sitting people down and having academic discussions, but by regularly bringing together fathers and their children, to teach them how to play and about the benefits of play.
For some members, all that seems obvious. However, if parents learn techniques that encourage children to read, sing and talk at an early age, they can set their children up for their education later in life.
If we carry on making progress at the rate that this Government has set, it will be 40 years before the attainment gap is reduced to zero, and several generations will have been failed by this Parliament and this Government. We can talk about other inequalities and disadvantages, but unless we tackle the attainment gap, nothing will change for the people who are being born into our society now.
We need to support the third sector and we need to support the people who work in front-line services, ensuring that they are given the appropriate resources to do their work.
We can have all the warm words that we want, and members of different parties can shout as much as they want in this chamber, but the root cause is clear: we are failing generations of younger children. We have been failing young children for 25 years and we are still doing so, and until we change that, nothing will change.
If Alex Rowley had written the motion and made the opening speech, I think that my speech would have been very different, because he took a much more sensible tone and put the blame where it lies, and he talked about being able to work together to try to solve the problems. Unfortunately, what we get from the Labour motion and what we got from Elaine Smith’s speech was the usual—touching on the Tory party and saying that it is to blame for things in general, and then having a go at all the shortcomings that she sees in the SNP, without ever acknowledging all the work that the SNP and the Scottish Government have done to mitigate the problems that have come from Westminster and from the Tory party.
That is not unusual. Every time Labour members come into the chamber with a motion, all they do is play politics. That is all they do.
No, I cannot. I always like to take interventions from Neil Findlay, but I have only four minutes, so I cannot. I am sorry.
Why should we be surprised? The Labour Party has done nothing. We are the only party that has done anything to mitigate the effects of Westminster decisions. Labour is the party that campaigned to ensure that Westminster stayed in charge of us, despite the fact that it would likely be the Tories in government. It is the party that abstained when welfare cuts came to Westminster, which has meant that we are in the situation that we are now in, and when it was given the opportunity to get those powers devolved to this Parliament, it was the party that said no.
There is nothing in the Labour Party’s recent history that suggests anything but contempt for this Parliament, but why should we be surprised by that? Everything is about opportunism. We saw it last week. We saw a party that had the gall to throw millions of pounds at keeping women in their place then have the gall to pretend that it is the champion of those same women. The action last week was led by the same union, the GMB, in which Labour’s present leader, Richard Leonard, was a highly placed official at the time, that came to the agreement to sacrifice women’s rights to protect male workers. That does not sound like “for the many” to me.
I do not mention that to have a go at the strikers, because I understand their frustration and they are fully entitled to go on strike, but the stink of hypocrisy from the Labour Party this week was quite something. Labour may try to tell me that it will be all right when Jeremy Corbyn is in number 10, but that is just not going to happen. There is more chance of me eventually taking over from Broony in the centre of Celtic’s midfield than there is of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. Just look at the opinion polls. I accept that that they do not have a great record, but when poll after poll shows him behind the worst PM in living memory, he has got nae chance.
For any serious party to want to change things in this Parliament, there is a process that allows it to put forward its proposals for a better Scotland and to combat austerity. It is called the budget. Last time we had one, the Government and other parties took that opportunity to work together to produce a budget that would best serve everyone. Labour’s contribution is here for all to see—nothing. It decided that its role of carping from the sidelines and trying to steal credit for other people’s work was enough.
That is why I find the motion from Labour both distasteful and hypocritical. I wish that I could remember the last time Labour contributed something positive to the chamber, but I have been here in this Parliament only since 2007, so unfortunately I cannot. I urge members to defeat the motion and treat it with the contempt that it deserves.
How do you follow that, Presiding Officer? I thank Labour for bringing this topic to the chamber. I will focus my short contribution specifically on health inequality. We have all seen the diagram of the Glasgow underground and heard how, within a 2-mile radius, life expectancy varies by a staggering 16.9 years depending on which station someone lives in the vicinity of.
I start by saying that the basis of any health agenda is rooted in good nutrition and being physically active, and in inclusivity. I suggest that there are very few conditions that cannot be positively affected by improving those things. If we follow that argument, it leads us to the question of ease of access to, and understanding of, good nutrition and physical activity and the environment in which they take place.
The health conversation has to change. Many levers are available to the Scottish Government that would not require huge budgetary commitments but which would have a significant long-term impact on the health of our nation. The educational environment should be a key battleground in delivering a healthier future for Scotland, from nursery to higher education, and in closing the health inequality gap.
When we are discussing physical and nutritional education, we need to consider not only the learning environment but how we ensure that the learning can be applied outside the school timetable. It is not enough to learn in theory; pupils must be given the opportunity to apply their learning in practice.
Looking outside to the environment adjacent to schools, we need to consider the role of planning departments and to be cognisant of where licences for fast food restaurants and the like are granted. We should consider preventing food vans from parking close to schools, and we should also consider at what age we should allow our children to leave the school premises. I have no problem with fast food, but I have a huge issue when it becomes the staple diet. There are generally more fast food outlets, gambling outlets and places offering access to alcohol in the more deprived areas per capita than there are in the more affluent areas.
In my view, whatever the child’s background is, if it is possible to make a positive impact, we have a duty to do so. As Jeremy Balfour was saying, that starts with an active play framework in nursery, along with good basic nutrition. That early intervention directly tackles the situation where children are reaching primary school age already two years behind in their learning.
No, I will not.
Attainment and, ultimately, productivity are the significant sub-plot in successfully tackling health inequality. In doing that, we open up more opportunity to more of the population.
The Scottish Government has failed to recognise that many of the nation’s health issues are best tackled in the education portfolio. Therefore, if we are truly serious about tackling health inequality, a long-term cross-portfolio strategy must be implemented. Anything less and the Scottish Government is not developing the long-term strategy of sustainability; it is merely managing its demise.
The Labour motion is a hotchpotch of cobbled-together notions, devoid of any original thought or ideas. It is designed to attack both the Scottish and UK Governments on a very superficial level. Labour is desperately grappling for some kind of foothold. It is really poor fare.
As for the SNP, as long as its members can blame someone else, they will not have to take any action themselves. They tinker around the edges and look for headlines instead of being brave enough to make the big changes that would make the big differences.
There is huge inequality in this country—of that there is no doubt. There are solutions available if the powers that be are resolute and brave enough to take the bull by the horns and make the change. From what we have heard today from a tired Labour Party and an entrenched SNP Government, the solutions do not sit with them.
Education is the solution to health and welfare. It should be the SNP Government’s priority, but we know for sure that its focus is somewhere else.
The universal credit project is in crisis. It has been universally condemned and it has fatal design flaws. It is hugely underfunded. It is hurting the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. Members should not take my word for that. The fact that it is underfunded and is hurting people is the admission of the secretary of state, Esther McVey, who contradicted Downing Street by saying that families would be worse off. Do the Scottish Tories not know that? John Major, their former Prime Minister, has said that it will be their poll-tax moment. I suggest that Tory members, who have consistently defended the policy, might want to think a little about how universally condemned the system is. Even Heidi Allen MP says that it is a question of morality.
Let us look to the facts. The Resolution Foundation suggests that, overall, universal credit is set to lose people £3 billion compared with the system that it replaces—the legacy benefits that have been referred to. It will leave families £600 or more worse off per year, on average, and single parents will be even worse off, by about £1,300.
The worst element of the universal credit system is the two-child limit, which is the most draconian element of the reforms. Michelle Ballantyne says that parents should think about how many children they should have, but why should any policy ask the children to pay the price?
Universal credit is not even fully rolled out yet. It is a system that promised to change the face of the welfare system, using benefits to encourage people to work. There have been some positive outcomes but, overall, universal credit has been a key factor in pushing people into poverty and widening the inequality gap It does not end there; it is a problem for many people, particularly women in abusive or coercive relationships.
The tax credit and child tax credit system that Alex Rowley talked about lifted tens of thousands of children out of poverty, but the group of parents in that system, who have not previously been subject to conditionality, will now face the conditionality that is attached to that element of universal credit. They will be poorer under that system, which will undo the work of the last Labour Government, under Gordon Brown, in reducing child poverty. The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that the full roll-out of universal credit will affect at least a third of working households.
Even back when the idea of tax credits was floated by Labour, women MPs quickly saw that the Treasury plan would cause problems. A credit system means that the money is generally paid to main earners, who are usually men. That is why child tax credits were brought in, in addition. They made sure that women—mostly—would have some control over their family’s finances.
We have discussed the subject of abusive relationships in Parliament. The reason why universal credit is a problem for people in such relationships is that it is paid into one person’s or a couple’s bank account. If one partner in a two-income household receives a bonus, for example, universal credit treats that as joint income and the payment is adjusted accordingly. However, there can be issues in cases when one partner refuses to share the bonus that they earned—we can see the impact, particularly on women.
In the end, universal credit does not increase fairness, as lain Duncan Smith claimed it would, and it certainly does not increase simplicity. Women’s Aid and the Trades Union Congress note that 52 per cent of survivors living with their abusers said that financial abuse had prevented them from leaving their relationships. Universal credit is pushing people into poverty. It is creating the deepest social problems. We must scrap it now until we can make fundamental reforms, so that it does what it was meant to.
I welcome the fact that Labour’s motion draws attention to the problem of poverty, but it is a missed opportunity. Instead of taking an honest look at the complex and deep-seated problems that underlie the recent decline in life expectancy, the motion is more concerned with scoring political points.
There is agreement across the chamber. Elaine Smith and Aileen Campbell said that it is not acceptable that persistent and deep-rooted poverty and inequality persist. All of us across the chamber can agree with that. Michelle Ballantyne highlighted that universal credit is a better, modern benefit that replaces an old system that disincentivised work.
The only shameful thing in this chamber is the remarks from Mr Findlay. I completely agree with Michelle Ballantyne and her case, in which she highlighted the fact that, with universal credit, 700,000 more people will get the extra money to which they are entitled and 1 million more disabled households will get more money per month. In fact, 83 per cent of claimants are satisfied with the system and the roll-out. In addition,
Focusing on the motion, the steady rise in life expectancy that we have seen in recent decades is to be celebrated. It is a clear sign of the advance that we, as a country, have made in improving living standards and ensuring that the next generation fares better than the last. It is for that reason that the recent decline in life expectancy is so concerning. Our children must be able to look forward to a bright, healthy and prosperous future—not a state of decline.
Any drop in life expectancy should be a wake-up call to whichever party is in government, and I genuinely hope that the SNP is up for this challenge. Unfortunately, its record in government gives little reassurance of that. The gap in educational attainment and missed healthcare treatment targets, which the Government just yesterday admitted will continue for at least three more years, are evidence of that.
More than ever, Scotland needs a Parliament that will tackle poverty as a key priority. We have the appalling situation in Scotland in which one quarter of children live in poverty. For too long Scotland has been let down and, after all of the years that Labour dominated Scottish politics, Glasgow is still plagued by deprivation.
We need to work together in areas of common ground. We all recognise that ending poverty is a challenge and that we need to drive up standards. Ultimately, my party and I are up for tackling poverty and inequality, and I would like to see that from across the chamber as well.
It has been a passionate debate, and rightly so. As I said in my opening remarks, it is unacceptable that in Scotland—a rich and prosperous country—there continue to be persistent and deep-rooted inequalities. Alex Cole-Hamilton was absolutely right to point out the far-reaching impacts of poverty and inequality that affect life chances, educational attainment and health and wellbeing.
The key, therefore, is to enable people to have their fair chance to flourish and to tackle this deep-seated inequality and poverty. As Alison Johnstone said, we need to be imaginative and cross-cutting in our approach and interrogate where more needs to be done.
Although the debate was passionate, there were areas of agreement. To be honest, if someone is living in poverty and they are relying on food banks, the very least that they can expect is that they have a right to see their elected representatives work together to find solutions in spite of the punitive acts of the UK Government.
All parties bar one in this Parliament recognise the brutal impact of universal credit, such as universal credit claimants being six times as likely to be sanctioned as claimants of any other legacy payment and the income of 3,800 Scottish families being reduced because of the two-child limit.
Pauline McNeill was right that universal credit is hurting people and that its morality is questionable. Tom Arthur was also correct to get angry and call out the Conservatives’ moralising, which seemed to suggest that, if someone is poor, they are not allowed any more than two children. That view is utterly reprehensible. [
.] I am quite willing to go back to the
Official Report tomorrow to review what was said. However, I think that we all heard the suggestion that, if someone is poor, they do not deserve any more than two children. That is something that we need to call out, because it is not right for Michelle Ballantyne to say that. If she did not mean that, that is fair enough. However, I think that it showed us just a glimpse of the Conservatives’ true reasons for pursuing these policies.
The UK Government must halt the roll-out of universal credit and the Conservatives here must face up to the impact of the ideologically driven welfare reforms of their party, including food banks, a two-child limit, a rape clause, and the gender impact of poverty as outlined by Pauline McNeill. That is not a system that I would ever associate with any sense of pride. I think that Michelle Ballantyne mentioned her pride in the system, so I am happy to take an intervention if she wants to tell us how proud she is of it.
Your sarcasm does you no credit.
The fundamental issue is whether you are suggesting that you want to go back to the legacy benefits that existed before universal credit and fundamentally disagree with the principle of universal credit, or whether you are willing to iron out the flaws as we roll it out and make it work.
I do not want to tolerate the brutal impact that universal credit is having here and now. If the Tories do not want to face up to the fact that their decisions are having that impact and will not halt it, you do a disservice to the system that you are trying to articulate is in place. That is not the reality of what people experience in their daily lives. The food banks are a reality; the two-child limit is a reality; the rape clause is a reality. You need to face up to the fact that your party is perpetrating and peddling that misery on people here and now.
Alison Johnstone spoke about the establishment of Scotland’s new social security system and how the Parliament worked together to ensure that the system that emerged from the legislation was based on dignity and respect. It gave a glimpse of what is possible when we have the chance and the powers to shape and hone an approach that seeks to have a positive impact on people’s lives, through supporting people and not stigmatising them.
Alex Rowley was right to point out how the progress that has been made to tackle poverty—whether by the previous Labour-Liberal Executive or through the measures that we have taken forward, which I have outlined—has been halted by the Conservatives and that they continue to be in denial about that.
I recognise that we need to do more if we want to make good on our ambition to make Scotland the best place to grow up. We need to do more than our current plans, which include the £12 million fund to support parents in work and to develop their skills, the £7.5 million innovation fund to support new approaches to prevent and address child poverty and a list of other actions that we are taking forward to eradicate child poverty. We are committed to doing more, which is why, in recognition that poverty is fundamentally about a lack of income, our tackling child poverty delivery plan commits us to work towards the introduction of a new income supplement to provide additional financial support for low-income families.
I was pleased to hear Alex Rowley’s offer to work together to work out where we can find agreement and to collaborate in recognition that what has been said in the debate includes a lot of agreement that the Tories are perpetrating misery on our society, which we need to respond to in a responsible way. I welcome his commitment to work with us to work out what more we can do in a reasonable way. I look forward to working with him and I welcome him to his new post. I want to continue to work with other parties because together—all bar one party—we are in agreement that this country needs to move toward and we need to help children to have their fair chance to flourish.
There can be few more important topics for debate than the aim of ending austerity, poverty and inequality. It is understandable that the debate has been passionate, mostly well informed and, occasionally, animated about poverty and deprivation.
Richard Leakey once said:
“Today we stand with the brains of hunter-gatherers in our heads, looking out on a modern world made comfortable for some by the fruits of human inventiveness, and made miserable for others by the scandal of deprivation in the midst of plenty.”
We do not need to look far to find evidence in Scotland for Richard Leakey’s powerful comments on the human condition. As many speakers have mentioned, in each year between 2014 and 2017, 1 million people in Scotland were living in poverty; 8 per cent of people were in persistent poverty; the poverty rates for single adult women were higher than for single adult men, as Elaine Smith said; and there were particular worries about minority ethnic groups, with higher rates of poverty than among white ethnic groups. Relative pensioner poverty is also a major issue.
Elaine Smith said that no one in 21st century Scotland should have to live in poverty and that it is simply unacceptable that one in five people and one in four children are forced to live in poverty. Many speakers, including Alex Rowley, Pauline McNeill, Alex Cole-Hamilton and Brian Whittle, spoke about health inequalities—when the poor die younger than the affluent. We know that poverty, social deprivation and inequality are significant contributors to poor health expectations and that the least well-off are most at risk.
In 1948, the national health service represented the advance of egalitarianism in our nation. There was great hope for the new future that it heralded. A news article in
The Guardian at the time said that the health service was “designed to offset” as far as it could
“the inequalities that arise from the chances of life, to ensure that a ‘bad start’ or a stroke of bad luck” and the “often crippling ... economic penalty” of the past should be changed.
Inequality in health is fundamental to the debate. The increases in life expectancy in the UK have stalled and, in the past 50 years, the chasm between the health outcomes of the rich and those of the poor has widened. [
] For those who are listening, I say that it is an outrage that, in our 21st century society, individuals’ health expectations are intrinsically linked to their postcode. However, I believe that health inequalities are just a symptom of the problem and that we have to look at the wider issues.
I apologise that I cannot mention all the speakers. In the brief time that is available, I will make a final few comments. The greatest enemy that we face is not some distant foe, hiding in foreign fields. It is here today and every day in Scotland, hiding in plain sight. It is poverty, discrimination, inequality, ignorance and want. Those are different creatures in size and scale from the five giants of the Beveridge report of 1942, but they have the same roots. Too many people are living below the poverty line, the poor are dying younger than the affluent and we have a dysfunctional and inadequate system of welfare protection and a postcode lottery of healthcare. The root cause is a fundamental inequality of power, rights and wealth in society. We will slay the five giants only when we win the battle against austerity and the war against inequality. All that we need is
“the will to do and the soul to dare.”