2. In 2013, the First Minister said:
“We set up the Scottish welfare fund ... to ensure that we are doing everything we can for the most vulnerable across Scotland.”—[
, 23 April 2013; c 18827.]
I repeat: “everything we can”. Can the First Minister tell us how much is in the Scottish welfare fund this year, in comparison with 2013, when it was first launched?
If memory serves me correctly, we fund the Scottish welfare fund to the tune of around £38 million a year, I think. Since 2013, through the welfare fund, more than 600,000 crisis grants have been awarded. From 2013 to December 2018, almost 240,000 community care grants have been awarded. We will continue to do what we can to provide support for individuals and families in need through the welfare fund and through the money that we are spending to mitigate the impact of Conservative Government welfare cuts.
As Richard Leonard and I have spoken about previously, much of the driver of increased poverty in our country comes from those welfare cuts. With every day that passes, it becomes more urgent that we join together to get those powers out of the hands of the Tories and into the hands of this Parliament.
The answer to the question that I asked is, “Not a penny more.” It was £33 million in 2013, and it is £33 million today.
Members should not just take my word for it. A new report out today—“The Scottish Welfare Fund: Strengthening the Safety Net” by the menu for change campaign—concludes that:
“The overall SWF budget ... including both the administration budget ... and programme budget ... has remained unchanged since 2013/14 when it was first introduced. This represents a real-terms cut”.
In fact, the Scottish welfare fund has suffered a real-terms cut of £3.5 million since it was introduced. Just last month, the Scottish Fiscal Commission revealed that the Scottish Government has no plans to change the level of funding over the next six years. At that rate, by 2025, that would mean a real-terms cut in the Scottish welfare fund of more than £7 million. Remember: this is a fund that helps some of the most vulnerable people in Scotland.
At a time of rising poverty, what is the First Minister’s justification for year-on-year cuts to the Scottish welfare fund?
For the period in advance of us and the budget for the year that we are now in, Richard Leonard and the Scottish Labour Party did not raise the issue of the Scottish welfare fund with the finance secretary on even one single occasion. In fact, the only submission that was made to the finance secretary was from Alex Rowley. To his credit, Mr Rowley made a submission. In it, he suggested that there should be an across-the-board cut in budgets of 3 per cent in order to protect local government services.
We have protected the welfare fund in the face of cuts to our budget from the United Kingdom Government. In addition to the welfare fund, we are investing £125 million this year to mitigate welfare cuts from the Tories. We are investing £350 million in our council tax reduction scheme, £64 million in discretionary housing payments to mitigate the bedroom tax that was imposed on us by the Tories, an additional £2 million in our fair food fund and £1.5 million in our financial health check service, and we are investing in a range of other initiatives, including the best start grant, to help families in poverty. We will continue to do that, because that is our obligation.
However, the sooner this Parliament is able to attack poverty at source and to take into its hands and out of the hands of Westminster the ability to tackle the causes of the increase in poverty, the better. The sooner Richard Leonard supports that, the better it will be for families all over this country.
Members should not just listen to me; today, Oxfam, the Poverty Alliance and the Child Poverty Action Group all recommend that the fund should be increased. Although the Government has reformed the formula, it does not address what today’s report calls “fundamental under-resourcing”. In fact, the fund is so fundamentally underresourced that local authorities do not even advertise it, for fear of being unable to cope with demand. We are talking about the fund that hands out crisis grants to families in emergency situations.
Will the First Minister do everything she can? Will she listen to today’s report? Will she provide additional lifeline support? Will she, at the very least, finally increase in real terms the Scottish welfare fund provision?
We have protected the Scottish welfare fund in the face of cuts to our budget from the Conservatives. I stand to be corrected if I have got this wrong, but I am not sure that Labour in Wales has a national welfare fund. Perhaps Labour should look to its own record where it is in government.
I again make a genuine offer to Richard Leonard. Every penny of this year’s Scottish budget is accounted for. Richard Leonard wants us to give more money to the Scottish welfare fund this year. If, later today, tomorrow or even next week, he wants to bring me proposals on where we should take that money from within the already allocated Scottish budget, I will listen to what he has to say. I am prepared to have that discussion. However, the problem is that we never hear that from Richard Leonard.
We will continue to protect the poorest in our society. I look forward to making a statement to Parliament next week setting out our plans on the income supplement.
However, I say again that Richard Leonard will have little or zero credibility on these issues for as long as he is prepared to defend the powers that determine all these things lying not with this Parliament but in the hands of a Conservative Government at Westminster.