Low-income Households (Support)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 30th September 2021.

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Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

2. We are facing a cost of living crisis. Today, furlough, a lifeline for so many, comes to an end; next week, universal credit will be cut for millions of people across the country—I am sure that the First Minister and I agree that that is a shameful mistake by the Tory Government; and, tomorrow, the energy cap will rise by £139, meaning that many people will face a choice between eating and heating this winter. Even before this cost of living crisis, that was an unacceptable choice faced by too many people in our country, particularly our elderly. Will the First Minister tell the chamber, right now, how many people in Scotland are living in fuel poverty and how many of them are pensioners?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

Far too many. With apologies to Anas Sarwar, I do not have the precise figures in front of me right now, but I know that it is too many. The Government is, of course, taking action to help people on the lowest incomes with the cost of living crisis, because I absolutely agree that that is what we are facing. For example, by the end of October, we will make a £130 support payment to every household that receives council tax reduction—an investment of up to £65 million that will benefit more than 500,000 households—and we have introduced the Scottish child payment, which is also intended to help those who are living in poverty.

I suspect that Anas Sarwar’s next question will be to ask us to make additional payments to people who are living in fuel poverty. I hope that we can agree between us that, if the Government had the wherewithal to do that, we would do it, because we all want to help those on the lowest incomes. However, we come again to the nub of a matter. The Scottish Government—any Government in the Scottish Parliament—is simply unable to continue, week after week, month after month and year after year, mitigating the impact of reserved policies from within a limited and finite devolved budget. It is simply not possible to do that without hitting our devolved responsibilities hard.

I come back to this point: if we want, as I do, the Parliament to be able to do all the things that no doubt Anas Sarwar is going to ask me to do, we cannot just wish the ends; we have to give the Parliament the means. We have to give the Parliament the powers, and we have to ensure that it is this Parliament that holds the resources. Anything short of that from Anas Sarwar is, I am afraid, just an empty sound bite, and what we face now is far too serious for that.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

The matter is indeed far too serious, which is why the soundbites are coming from the First Minister.

We have the means, and we should use the means that we have. We have the power to have a winter fuel payment from the Parliament, but the First Minister has chosen to give that power back to the very Tory Government that she rightfully criticises. Let us use that power to make a difference.

On the question that I asked the First Minister, the answer is that 613,000 people live in fuel poverty, of whom 200,000 are believed to be pensioners. One in four households across our country are unable to make ends meet and are forced to make heartbreaking choices right now.

This week, we heard that Scotland had recorded the first death by starvation of an older person in a decade. An older person in our country, which is one of the richest in the world, starved to death in their home. Words cannot describe how tragic and awful that is, but words will not keep people warm this winter. The Scottish Government can, and must, take action now.

Earlier this week, we called for a £70 increase in winter fuel payments to help the poorest pensioners this winter. Today, we learned that the Scottish Government would receive an additional £41 million to support hard-pressed families over the coming months, so now we can go even further. Will the First Minister enhance the winter fuel payment, and not just for the poorest pensioners? Will she also give targeted support to struggling families, such as those with a child with a disability or those that are in receipt of council tax reduction? We have the means, so let us use them.

The First Minister:

First, the £41 million to which Anas Sarwar refers is, I assume, what will flow from this morning’s UK Government announcement of a UK-wide £500 million fund for low-income families. I am surprised to hear Anas Sarwar talk about that fund positively. It was announced by a Tory Government that is taking £6 billion out of the pockets of the lowest-income families through the universal credit cut and expecting praise—which it seems to have got from Anas Sarwar—for putting £500 million back. It is an absolute disgrace and an insult.

I give the absolute commitment that every penny of consequentials that we get from that fund will go to support low-income families. That will be in addition to the support that I have already talked about—a £130 support payment by the end of October that will go to every household that receives council tax reduction, supporting more than 500,000 households across the country.

We are also doubling the carers allowance supplement in December to try to help carers with the cost of living increase and, as I have already said, we have introduced the Scottish child payment. Only yesterday, I visited Social Security Scotland in Dundee, which is delivering 11 benefits already, seven of which do not exist anywhere else. That is how seriously we are taking the obligation to help those most in need.

I come back to the point that our resources are finite. Anas Sarwar is asking me to find money from within a devolved budget that has already been allocated in order to mitigate—again—the impact of reserved policies. Would it not make more sense for us to have the powers here, in this Parliament, with the accompanying resources, so that we can take different decisions?

I make Anas Sarwar two open offers. First, I ask him to back the Scottish Government in its call to devolve all, and not just some, of social security to this Parliament. Secondly, if he wants us to make another payment, he can, by all means, tell me from where in the already allocated Scottish budget he wants me to take over and above the £41 million that he has mentioned, which, as I have already said, will be fully allocated. If he wants anything over and above that, he should come and tell me where from within the Scottish budget he wants me to take that money. I am happy to listen to him if he is prepared to do that.

The Presiding Officer:

I am conscious of time, so I would be grateful for shorter questions and responses.

Photo of Anas Sarwar Anas Sarwar Labour

The problem is that the First Minister wants to shout pre-prepared attack lines rather than listen to what I am saying. I was not welcoming the new money as some kind of relief for universal credit; I was taking seriously what the First Minister often says, which is that, if we have a proposal, we should tell her where the money is coming from. I quite clearly told her that we should use that £41 million to make a difference.

The First Minister gave examples, and I welcome them, but they were announced before we had a cost of living crisis. We can shout about the new powers that we want, but let us use the powers that we have to change people’s lives in the here and now. This is urgent: people are facing rising costs today, energy bills will rise tomorrow and people need help now. We cannot dither and delay when families need that reassurance.

The Scottish Government has the power to do something about it. We know that the additional £41 million is on its way, and families need to know that support is also on its way. Warm words will be cold comfort for people who are at risk of suffering this winter.

Will the First Minister guarantee that the Government will act, that she will back our plan, and that she will make sure that the £41 million gets into people’s pockets before it is too late?

The First Minister:

People who are watching this will have heard me say that every penny of the £41 million will go directly to help low-income families.

Anas Sarwar said that that is where the funding for his proposal should come from, but he announced his proposal before we knew about the £41 million. Maybe I am getting his proposal wrong, but I assume that the £70 increase that he wants is over and above that. All that I am saying to him is that he should tell us where the money should come from.

Sometimes, consequentials do not turn out to be what they appeared to be, but, on the assumption that the £41 million does come from the UK Government, every single penny of it will go to help low-income families. That will be in addition to the other sources of support that I have just outlined, such as the £130 support payment and all the other steps that we are taking: the doubling of the carers allowance and the seven benefits that do not exist anywhere else in the UK that Social Security Scotland is already delivering.

We act to use our powers and our resources, but the cost of living crisis is caused by the decisions that the UK Government is taking within its reserved powers. We cannot go on raiding a finite devolved budget to mitigate the impact of those decisions. We need to get those powers out of the hands of UK Governments and into the hands of this Parliament. As long as Anas Sarwar prefers to leave those powers in Boris Johnson’s hands, he will not have the credibility that he wants to have before this chamber.