4. I, too, send my most sincere sympathies to all those who have lost a loved one during the pandemic, and my most grateful thanks to all those who are working on the front line.
The link between poverty and educational attainment cannot be overstated. One of the most important moments of this parliamentary session was in 2017, when we unanimously agreed targets to tackle child poverty. Of course, targets need action, and I am proud that the Scottish Greens have played our part. For example, this month’s budget deal will extend free school meals to all primary school children, which will benefit 200,000 children, and £100 million in pandemic relief payments will be paid to the poorest households across Scotland between now and Christmas.
The pandemic is hitting the poorest families the hardest, and the Tory Government’s callous decision to scrap the £20 uplift to universal credit from September will, according to experts, push another 20,000 children in Scotland into poverty.
We need to do more. The Scottish child payment will make a difference, but it is not enough. Will the First Minister join the Greens and commit to increasing the Scottish child payment at the earliest opportunity?
I will publish a manifesto in a few weeks’ time, when I will set out the plans that my party will take into the next parliamentary session if we are re-elected. We are, of course, the party that introduced the Scottish child payment, which is “game-changing”, in the words of campaigners against child poverty.
Alison Johnstone is right that although setting targets to reduce child poverty is important—I think that Scotland is still the only part of the United Kingdom that has such targets, but I will be corrected if I am wrong about that—actions to back up those targets are what matter most. We are certainly the only part of the UK that has a child payment that puts money into the pockets of the poorest families in order that they can give their children a better start in life, which then helps with their education.
We have also made a commitment to extend the provision of free school meals to all primary school children all year round. Of course, at an earlier stage in the pandemic, we made payments to the poorest families, and we have agreed, as part of the budget negotiations, to continue those payments.
The Government’s record is strong. There is more to be done on all such areas, particularly in the light of Covid. One thing that makes the decision and the debate about Scotland’s future so important in the next parliamentary session is that we should not have to face up to such challenges with one hand tied behind our back. As we put more money into the pockets of the poorest families, the Tory Government at Westminster takes that money out of their pockets. That is why we need to complete this Parliament’s powers through independence, so that we can genuinely build the kind of country that we want, based on the values that we want it to be based on.
We will miss another target that the Parliament passed—our climate target—unless we choose a different future. This week, Scotland’s Climate Assembly, which was established under a Scottish Green Party amendment to what became the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Act 2019, showed a clear appetite for more ambition from the Government. The assembly said:
“If we fail to act now, we will fail our current and future generations, in Scotland and across the world ... Politicians ... must have the courage to act now”.
For two years in a row, climate targets have been missed. Transport emission levels keep on rising. Last week, the First Minister would not even speak out against the continued exploration for new fossil fuel reserves in the North Sea, even though we already have far more fuel than we could burn within the terms of the Paris Agreement. Will the First Minister find the courage to act now and make a clear statement that our future depends on leaving such reserves in the ground and issuing no further licences?
First, we will not fail to act now and are not failing to act now. Our climate change plan sets out the range of policies across all our responsibilities that are necessary to take now, not just to get to net zero by 2045 but to meet our very ambitious interim targets along the way. We are already a world leader in that; other countries recognise us in that position. We have made substantial progress but, as with all such things, there is much work still to do.
On the comments about oil and gas, I spoke up last week for a just transition—a transition to net zero that does not leave people behind and does not leave people on the redundancy scrapheap but instead supports people who work in sectors that we want to leave behind to move into the sectors of the future. Our continued support for the oil and gas sector in north-east Scotland is conditional on a sustainable, secure and inclusive energy transition.
There is no dubiety or disagreement about the destination, but how the journey is made matters to people’s jobs, their quality of life and their living standards. That is important. The Scottish Government will not ignore such issues.