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Child Poverty in Scotland — [Sir David Crausby in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:27 pm on 30th October 2019.

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Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland) 3:27 pm, 30th October 2019

It is ridiculous. The scourge of things such as people having no recourse to public funds is a particularly horrific example of that. A couple of weeks ago a lady came to my surgery. She looked emaciated. I asked if she was all right, because she looked as if she was going to faint. I brought her in, sat her down, and we gave her a plate of shortbread. She scoffed it in front of us in a couple of minutes in a way that otherwise would have been impolite, but under the circumstances we were horrified that she could be so hungry that she was grabbing food in front of us. I could not believe that someone was in that situation because of having no recourse to public funds. She was destitute; she had left an abusive relationship with her child, and she was trying to find somewhere to shelter. There was no availability of homeless accommodation in Glasgow at that point. She was being helped by a women’s refuge charity, but it did not have long-term accommodation. That she was driven to that sort of desperation is just one example of the circumstances in which people find themselves.

The case of Alison in the report that I mentioned is typical. Dr Whitford mentioned the concept of social security as a system that would save everyone, and the change from that to a welfare system—it is almost like a return to the poor laws of the Victorian era, with the idea that this involves some sort of virtue and vice.

My constituency has seen the biggest loss of anywhere in Scotland resulting from the change from the disability living allowance to the personal independence payment—£1.9 million a year out of the pockets of my constituents, and behind that figure is a lot of pain. This is about how fragile people’s lives are, not just about immediate need. Most people’s finances are delicate, and one unexpected crisis in their life—a failed relationship or job, an unexpected cost because their central heating has failed, or whatever it might be—could push them into relying on welfare. The truly horrendous thing is when they get into that spiral. Alison says,

“I vowed I wouldn’t take out credit cards or loans. But you find you get gobbled up, you have to do it because there’s no other way”.

People end up in the debt spiral, compounded by this Government’s universal credit policies. Instead of focusing on the immediate need for cash and income and the ability to bridge finances, there is the initial loan, which creates a spiral of decline as people dig themselves into compounded debt. That is the biggest tragedy.

In the case of Alison, we can see the build-up of debts. The milestones are indicated in the report. She is a lone parent with two sons, both of whom have disabilities. Alison loses her personal independence payment. Her son’s DLA is downgraded. Alison loses the carer’s allowance. Her son attempts suicide. As we all too often see, after she went to her Member of Parliament for help, the PIP and the higher-rate DLA were both reinstated—so it was an injustice from the start. But where was the pain? The pain was that her son tried to take his own life.

That is someone in Dundee. I cannot believe that it is happening in 2019. This is what we are up against, and it is seen as socially acceptable. All of it has been clouded out and displaced by the squabbling over Brexit and the high-level stuff that we have been consumed by. Going into this election campaign, I think most of us want to get down to saying, “This is a choice between death and life for so many people in this country.”

That is what is on offer here. It is not about what flags are where, what borders are where or what is going on in the constitutional sense; it is about whether we can get money into people’s pockets quickly through political decisions made here and elsewhere in this country, to improve lives. That is the priority for us all, I think; let us hope we can achieve that as best we can and make those arguments out there.

There is a multifaceted approach. Many hon. Members have talked about different aspects of child poverty. It is fair to say that it mostly tracks decisions made at a UK Government level, because the primary driver of the social security system, the dynamic in this country, is the Department for Work and Pensions. That is the primary driver, and the behaviour of incomes will track the decisions made there.

I will point out that there is a big opportunity in Scotland now, with the changes in devolved policy. I welcome the measures that have been taken. There has been a divergence between Scotland and the rest of the UK in terms of poverty after housing costs, but there is an interesting aspect to that. The reality is that that happens because more people in poverty in Scotland live in the social rented sector than in the private rented sector, and the larger social rented sector has long been considered a key reason why poverty after housing costs is lower in Scotland than in the rest of the UK.

We can see why that would happen. It is all about income. The rents are lower in social housing because there is more opportunity to control them—but that is still not going far enough. My hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill mentioned house building; I do not want to get into the quibbles over it, because I find them a bit tedious, but I point out that the records have been fairly consistent. If we look at completions per year, it was 3,617 units per year over the eight years of the Labour-Lib Dem Government in Scotland under the devolution. Since then, it has been 3,316 per year under the 12 years of the SNP Administration from 2007.

However, there has been a significant drop-off in the rate of completions since 2010-11, which we need to address. Let us work together on this, because there is an opportunity to recapitalise Scotland’s social housing capacity, which is a key driver of bringing down poverty. Not only must we do that, but we must focus on rent controls. I am very proud of the idea of a Mary Barbour Act. Putting rent controls on not only the social rented sector, but the private rented sector is a huge opportunity to reduce the overall cost burden on families living on the breadline. That is a major impact and we can make it now. Those policies are devolved. We can have an impact on that front. We can also improve aspects of poverty and access to work through transport improvements; removing the costs of transport and commuting can help families. However, we must also utilise the great capacity of financial powers to top up and enhance welfare benefits wherever we can.

The introduction of certain benefits has been positive, but we are seeing some teething problems. We know that the Scottish child payment is generally a great thing—it is a good idea and I congratulate the Scottish Government on it—but we also know that 58,000 children face losing out on the £520-a-year benefit on their sixth birthday, because their low-income families will stop getting the payment.

I know that that is to do with the transfer of information and so on between the DWP and Social Security Scotland, but we need to get a grip of it quickly. We need better management and better collaboration between the two Governments to get that sorted out, to ensure that we can lift another 30,000 children out of poverty more rapidly. I hope that that can be achieved, and that we can really make some inroads on it.

We must also look at the aspect of childcare—I will finish on this issue. One of my constituents, who I went to school with, wrote to me and said:

“My second child arrived in April this year. He is a very healthy child who I hope will go on to great things when he is older. However for the moment he is only 6 months old and when he is 9 months old my wife is to return to work after 9 months on maternity leave.”

They are a typical working-class Glaswegian family, with only relatively modest incomes. His wife is currently receiving the bare minimum statutory maternity pay, so as a family they are struggling financially, and have been since their first child was born. He states that he is,

“extremely dissatisfied with this mediocre maternity pay amount in what is supposed to be 5th largest economy in the world”.

My constituent’s main issue is how this new 30 hours of free child care scheme is being applied. His argument is that it is essentially

“robbing Peter to pay Paul”,

as resources for nursery are being pulled from the baby stage, from nought to two years, and reallocated to the toddler stage at two years-plus. He goes on to say:

“For a long time this government have been woefully inept at providing sufficient support to families, who particularly during the 9 month to 3 years stage…where the mother is required to return back to work as state/employer benefits stop at this point. How this 30 hour free scheme is being applied is just the icing on the cake.”

My constituent’s argument is that we cannot continue to allow this gap of nearly two years to continue. As it stands, his boy cannot get a place in nursery, because the cheaper ones are full and cannot take more, and the ones that are available charge a hefty day rate of £50 a day. It is completely unfair, and certainly does not make work pay for his family, so he wants that looked at. Access to childcare liberates people to get to work as well, so that is a critically important point in tackling this, and it cuts across Government, so let us hope something can be done.

I will not take any more time, but I think we can see that the problem is multifaceted. I hope that all Governments can work in collaboration to solve this intractable problem in our society. We know it can be done through political action, political agency and political choice, so let us make it a priority in this election campaign.