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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid)

Meeting date: Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Cost of Living (Tenant Protection) (Scotland) Bill, Topical Question Time, Cost of Living (Tenant Protection) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Cost of Living (Tenant Protection) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Cost of Living (Tenant Protection) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Cost of Living (Tenant Protection) (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Health and Care Recovery (Winter Planning), Point of Order, Committee Announcement (Finance and Public Administration Committee), Decision Time, Challenge Poverty Week 2022, Correction


Contents


Challenge Poverty Week 2022

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-05778, in the name of Elena Whitham, on challenge poverty week 2022. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises Challenge Poverty Week 2022, which runs from 3 to 9 October; notes that activities, events and actions are taking place across Scotland aimed at highlighting the realities of, and solutions to, poverty, as well as increasing public support for tackling poverty; understands that over one million people in Scotland are living in poverty and that the cost of living crisis is pushing even more into hardship; notes the view that governments, politicians, civil society and communities all have a role to play in solving poverty; understands that particular groups of people, including low-paid women, lone parents, disabled people and people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, are disproportionately more likely to experience poverty; notes the view that poverty in Scotland can and must be solved, by boosting incomes and reducing the cost of living; considers that people in Scotland believe in compassion and justice, and support action to end poverty, and celebrates the work undertaken by organisations and communities across Scotland to stem the rising tide of poverty.

18:17  

Elena Whitham (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley) (SNP)

Thank you, Presiding Officer. Thank you, too, for pronouncing my name correctly—every time that is done in the chamber, I get very excited.

I thank all the members, across most parties, who signed my motion, to allow us to debate the important yearly event that is challenge poverty week. I express my sincere thanks to the Poverty Alliance—a couple of its staff members are in the gallery—and all organisations, across all sectors, that work so hard to challenge the insidious, pernicious, anxiety provoking and hugely damaging social and economic construct that is poverty.

Since 2013, #ChallengePovertyWeek has acted as a platform for sharing ideas about how we as a country—across all spheres of government, all sectors and civic society—can turn our shared values of justice and compassion into concrete action to release people from the grip of poverty.

Since its inception, challenge poverty week has grown year on year. In 2021, more than 350 organisations took part and there were more than 900 separate activities. This year, there is a clear focus on the current cost of living crisis and the threat that it poses to people who live on low incomes. It is hoped that this week will bring attention to the support that exists for solving poverty, including support for policies that aim to ensure that no one in Scotland has to live in the grip of poverty.

I have worked in the third sector directly with people who were experiencing the worst of multiple disadvantage and I have seen the most extreme poverty up close, in all its horrific technicolour. I helped women and children who fled domestic abuse taking only what they stood up in. I supported people who were in the grip of trauma-induced addiction as they tried to navigate a hostile benefits system that was all too often ready to fling a punitive sanction at their feet, and a criminal justice system that all too often neglected to look at the underlying trauma that precipitated offending behaviour or at how incarceration causes and exacerbates homelessness and family breakdown, further entrenching poverty in communities. The situation was always made worse by systems that do not speak to each other and leave folk trying to join up the pieces themselves at a time when their resilience is at its lowest.

When I was a child in Canada, my family relied on food banks and voluntary agencies for a time, after my dad was paid off and we had no support network around us to help to pick up the pieces that sudden poverty brings. My relationship with food is, to this day, coloured by that experience. What a difference something like the Scottish child payment would have made to little eight-year-old me and my wee brother. Perhaps my mum would not have had to forgo food herself to eke out the sustenance that was available for her kids.

As an adult here, in Scotland, I have been in receipt of social security at several points and have found myself—to quote part of the title of our Social Justice and Social Security Committee’s recent inquiry report—

“Robbing Peter to pay Paul”.

I have even hidden behind the sofa lest the door-to-door loan operative from Provident see that I was at home with nowt but coppers in my purse and no way to cover the week’s instalment. When my son was small, I used charity shops and clothing banks to ensure that he was kitted out and that my money stretched.

I know from my lived and work experience that the people who are in entrenched poverty at this time—and the people who have just been tipped into poverty—will be facing sleepless nights and suffering an exponential decline in their mental and physical wellbeing.

Challenge poverty week’s theme this year is #TurnTheTide, and it involves a range of asks. The first is that we

“Redesign our economy to make jobs work for people through being flexible, secure, environmentally minded and paying at least the real Living Wage; affording everyone enough to live a dignified life.”

The second ask is that we

“Ensure our social security system provides a strong and adequate lifeline for all of us, when we need it.”

We need to uprate benefits in line with inflation. We need to scrap the cap, including the hated rape clause. We need to scrap the five-week wait and the dreaded sanctions regime.

The third ask is that we

“Accelerate actions to tackle both the climate crisis and poverty.”

The recent cap on energy prices will not be felt equally by all. I watched a wee video today about Carolyn Hunter, a carer who provides unpaid intensive care to her daughter Freya. The family has lived with fuel poverty for years, because Freya’s needs are such that the family has to use a lot of energy. Despite the additional measures from Social Security Scotland, the family is experiencing unrelenting and crushing fuel poverty. More must be done to protect people who are in such a situation.

The fourth ask is for

“Communities most affected by poverty in Scotland to have more power and resources to bring about change.”

Real and lasting change is needed. It is vital that we mainstream participatory budgeting, provide communities with the support that they need to realise their goals and roll out the principles of community wealth building.

The links between poverty and poor health are profound and significant. The fifth ask is that we

“Ensure all of us have access to good quality, timely health and care services that meet our physical and mental needs.”

We should strive to embed community link workers and mental health workers in health centres across the whole of Scotland.

The sixth ask is that we

“Redesign our public services so that they are affordable, accessible and work for everyone.”

Services such as transport, childcare and digital inclusion are vital to successful participation in society and crucial in supporting us all to live decent lives. The ask extends to ensuring that our housing system is such that homes are affordable and warm for all, that homelessness is eradicated and that rents are at a level that does not entrench poverty.

We must also recognise and act purposefully to address the gendered nature of poverty and structural inequality.

Free school meal provision should be increased and rolled out at pace. School meal debt should be written off, as is happening in more and more council areas across the country. Weans need to eat.

Last week’s announcements rocked the very foundations of our economy. We must work together to ensure that the people who have the least do not bear the brunt of decisions that are made by those with the most. Let us all challenge poverty and work to turn the tide.

18:24  

David Torrance (Kirkcaldy) (SNP)

I thank my colleague Elena Whitham for securing this important debate.

It is not surprising that the clear focus of this year’s challenge poverty week is the current cost of living crisis and the threat that it poses to people on low incomes. The campaign shines a light on the support that exists for solving poverty, through policies that ensure that no one in Scotland has to live in the grip of poverty.

Poverty is widely considered to be not having enough money to meet basic needs, including food, clothing and shelter, with a household being considered to be in poverty if its income is less than 60 per cent of the average income for that household type. However, it is about more than not having enough money; it is about a lack of choices and a lack of options. It is about the uncertainty, the insecurity, the exclusion from society and living one day at a time. It is about being so completely consumed by hardship that it affects every single decision that a person makes. It is about the lack of resilience and fearing for the future.

In modern-day Scotland, no one should have to experience poverty, but the stark reality is that it impacts the daily lives of more than 1 million people in Scotland and one in five people across the United Kingdom, with many families being only one wage, one disaster or one missed bill away from crisis. We all know that there is no one cause and no one solution—the results are different in every case. That is why this week of awareness and the opportunity that it presents to champion the work that is being undertaken by organisations and communities across Scotland to alleviate hardship continue to be so important.

In addition to the many national groups, local organisations and volunteers do amazing work to mitigate the worst effects of hardship. We are fortunate to have a Government that cares about community and families and is committed to tackling the root causes of poverty and child poverty. With a particular focus on three main drivers of poverty reduction—work and earnings, social security and household costs—Scotland has seen record investment of almost £8.5 billion committed to support low-income households between 2018 and 2022, with almost £3.3 billion benefiting children.

Measures such as the introduction of the Scottish child payment, an increase in the number of real living wage-accredited employers, more funded hours for early learning and childcare, the delivery of 35,000 affordable homes and the expansion of universal free school meals have all helped to support families both immediately and in the long term. In total, the Scottish Government’s package of five family benefits for low-income families will be worth more than £10,000 by the time the family’s first child turns six, and worth £9,700 for second and subsequent children. That compares with less than £1,800 for an eligible family’s first child in England and less than £1,300 for second and subsequent children.

In its 2022 UK report, it was recognised by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that the benefits system in Scotland is increasingly different from that in the rest of the UK, with mitigation of some of the most poverty-increasing UK Government welfare reforms of the past decade. The two child limit on income-related benefits, the benefit cap and the five-week wait for the first universal credit payment are just some of the elements that have caused untold damage to families. Figures show that, if the UK Government was to reverse its reforms, that would put an estimated £780 million in the pockets of Scottish households in 2023-24 and help to lift 70,000 people, including 30,000 children, out of poverty.

Those figures are astounding but, for me, it is real-life experience that makes the reality hit home. Before I conclude, I will highlight a conversation with a constituent that took place last month. An elderly woman visited my constituency office to discuss her anxiety about the current cost of living crisis. While we were discussing the impossible task of balancing her pension against exorbitant energy prices and rocketing food costs, she told me that when she is at home, she would normally have the television on in the background for most of the day as she lives alone and it is company for her. However, now, she looks ahead and plans which programmes she really wants to watch, and she will only turn on the television then, for fear of being unable to afford her electricity bill. That elderly woman is sitting at home every day with no heating, no light and no company. How many more of our older people are sitting in a cold and dark home, feeling lonely as they desperately try to avoid being dragged into poverty, all because of the actions and policies of a callous and uncaring UK Government?

That is not acceptable. We all have a duty to work together to ensure that no one is left behind, but that is not happening. The UK Government must act now to address the crisis that is crippling the entire country before even more people find themselves in financial distress.

18:29  

Jeremy Balfour (Lothian) (Con)

I congratulate Elena Whitham on securing time for this debate. I know that she is deeply passionate about the subject, and she keeps us focused on the committee that she convenes.

It is essential that we have an on-going conversation that involves everyone about how we alleviate and eradicate poverty.

I thank the organisations that put in written submissions before the debate. I highlight, in particular, “A Fairer Share: How Rethinking Income Tax Can Free Families From Poverty”, which CARE for Scotland sent to me.

I pay tribute to the amazing work that the third sector does. Having worked in that area for part of my life, I know that those organisations are on the front line in doing important work to lift people out of poverty. For example, Christians Against Poverty works tirelessly to help people to organise their finances and get their debt under control. Government and we in the Parliament must never forget that one of Government’s primary responsibilities is to support those heroes in their work.

I was slightly concerned that, during one of our committee evidence sessions a couple of weeks ago, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations reported that there had been no conversation between it and the Scottish Government about the agreement that there should be a three-year funding proposal. I urge the cabinet secretary to commit herself and the finance team in the Scottish Government to arranging meetings on that, so that we can see progress.

I am still concerned that, within local authorities in particular, there is a silo attitude to dealing with the issues. Education does not speak to transport, and transport does not speak to health and social care. We need to work to make sure that that no longer happens.

In the time that I have left, I will talk about the impact of poverty on the disabled community. I appreciate that the motion that we are debating references the fact that the disabled community is

“disproportionately more likely to experience poverty”.

Will the member take an intervention?

Jeremy Balfour

I will just finish the point.

Disabled people are among the most vulnerable in our society. They experience poverty to a higher degree than other people in our society, and they are affected by the economic crisis that is gripping our world more than other people in our society. Both Governments—the Westminster Government and the Scottish Government—need to seek to provide aid for those in need. There should be special consideration of those who are disabled.

I hope that the Westminster Government will commit to raising all benefits by the rate of inflation when it brings forward its proposals. However, the Scottish Government has a responsibility as well.

Siobhian Brown

A press release from Inclusion Scotland this morning said that a lot of disabled Scots are worried about dying this winter because of the cost of living crisis. In fact, 75 per cent are not eating or not heating their homes at the moment. Does Jeremy Balfour acknowledge that his party’s policies—Brexit and the recent chaos down at Westminster—are to blame for what is a broken UK?

Jeremy Balfour

I do not recognise that. If Siobhian Brown looks at what is happening across the whole of western Europe, she will see that those inflationary costs are going through in every country. I do not accept the premise that she has set out.

I have said that, because of what is happening, the UK Government needs to commit to raising benefits above the rate of inflation. We should all welcome the fuel interventions that the Government has made over the past two weeks. All of that will make a difference.

However, things can be done here, as well. Last year, there was an announcement that all primary 7 pupils would get free school meals. That was delayed, and that is causing problems for people in my area and across Scotland.

There are a number of ways in which the Government’s response needs to step up. Covid has left disabled people behind. Many people will be concerned by the response to the cost of living crisis. The Deputy First Minister’s announcement that £55 million would be cut from the budget for disabled employment is deeply regrettable.

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison) rose—

Jeremy Balfour

I will finish the point. I know that the cabinet secretary often says that we, as politicians, have to make decisions. Her Government has gone for one of the most vulnerable groups in our society. At a time when vulnerable people are struggling, we should not be cutting budgets; we should be ensuring that they have as easy access as possible to work opportunities rather than taking them further away.

I ask the cabinet secretary to be brief, as Mr Balfour is well over his time.

Shona Robison

Does Jeremy Balfour share my deep concern about the prospect of £18-billion worth of public expenditure cuts to fund the tax cuts? That is the level of cuts that his Government suggests may happen, and that will have a direct impact on Scottish budgets.

Jeremy Balfour

As the cabinet secretary knows, we do not know what will happen—that will be announced by the chancellor in the near future—but we know that her Government has cut £55 million. That is in black and white—it is clear. Let us see what the UK Government will do over the next few months.

Mr Balfour, you are a wee bit over your time. Could you bring your remarks to a close, please?

Jeremy Balfour

Poverty hits all groups but, as with many things, it is felt disproportionately by those in the disabled community. I implore the Government not to make disabled people once again pay a disproportionate price simply because they are disabled.

18:35  

Pam Duncan-Glancy (Glasgow) (Lab)

I, too, thank Elena Whitham for bringing this debate to the Parliament. I hope that I pronounced her name correctly. If I did not, she can correct me during our committee meeting on Thursday, and I will not get it wrong the next time.

Poverty is a moral failure and a human rights catastrophe. It is bad for our health and it is bad for the economy. I pay tribute to the Poverty Alliance for fighting poverty every day and for pulling together another challenge poverty week that demonstrates the problems and also highlights the solutions. That organisation is often at the forefront of the fight against poverty in Scotland. It works hard to bring lived experience to the heart of its work and, in doing so, it makes recommendations that are based on what people who are living in poverty say that they need. So far, we have seen a failure from both Governments to properly act on that expert advice and to value lived experiences.

As the costs of fruit, vegetables and all other weekly groceries continue to skyrocket, more families struggle to afford the resources that they need to eat a balanced and healthy diet. They are scared to put the heating on because that might mean that they cannot afford to put food on the table. That risks ill health and lack of nutrition. People are hungry and freezing, and things will only get worse over the winter. Families in the Wyndford estate have been told to hug their dugs to stay warm. Meanwhile, the Tories are taking a wrecking ball to the economy.

The cost of living crisis that we are experiencing now will have longer-term impacts. It is proven that those who come from poorer backgrounds are more likely to have a shorter life expectancy and to suffer from more health problems than those from wealthier backgrounds. They are also more likely to have to turn to the national health service, and that comes at a price. Quite simply, failing to tackle poverty is bad economics.

There is a longer-term impact on social security spending, as well. The deeper people fall, the harder it is and the longer it takes to pull them back above water. The welfare system must be a safety net, but it cannot be used as the only weapon that we have in the fight against poverty. It is one lever, and it has to be used alongside all the others that are available to us.

That is why I share colleagues’ concerns about employability cuts in Scotland. If the system has to pay out to hard-working people, it is not working properly. The reality is that poor conditions, precarious work and low wages mean that that is exactly what it has to do. The social security system cannot be expected to keep filling a gap that is created by an absence of progressive policy choices. The economically viable thing to do would be to begin to reduce poverty and, in doing so, to divert spending from battling the longer-term consequences of inequality. To do so, we must tackle the causes of poverty at their root. The themes of this week’s campaign to turn the tide on poverty illustrate some of those causes clearly.

Beyond only steering us through the current rocky economic climate and tackling rising energy bills that are leaving more and more people battling fuel poverty, there needs to be strong action on healthcare, housing, transport and employability. People must be supported to enjoy their right to good work, including by taking real, tangible actions to close the disability employment gap and ensure that everyone who can work has the opportunity to do so and, in turn, to grow the economy for the future. Ending all non-residential care charges, reforming the carers allowance and paying care workers £15 an hour would ensure that those who require care are able to receive it and that those who provide it are valued and encouraged to stay in the profession.

When the going gets tough on the economy and in other areas, support for disabled people, women, poor people, black and minority ethnic people and the third sector usually goes overboard. We know that people in those groups lose their jobs because they are more likely to be in precarious work in the first place. Those groups will be disproportionately impacted if both Governments do not move quickly.

Money advisers are going to bed with the same money worries that they spend their days advising their clients about. Third sector support, which many are forced to rely on, is being cut and, in some cases, it has been pulled almost overnight. Those services provide a lifeline, but they, too, are dealing with rising bills as well as increasing demand. That is unsustainable.

A Labour-led Government would increase funding for money advice services and commit to long-term, multiyear funding models for third sector organisations, to give them the certainty that would allow them to focus their resources on service delivery. I echo Jeremy Balfour’s request to the cabinet secretary to set out whether she will meet the SCVO to discuss that in detail.

The situation could not be more urgent, so all layers of government must act. Labour is ready to step up and do so at the UK level and in Scotland. For a start, we would overhaul and replace universal credit and ensure a truly fair and dignified system. In Scotland, we would use all the social security powers that we have to ensure that everyone has a guaranteed minimum income that they will not fall below. That will mean reassessing the rates of disability and carers benefits and making sure that the system is automated where possible. We would cancel school meal debt, as the Labour-led partnership in South Lanarkshire Council has already done. We would top up the welfare fund to make sure that anyone who falls through the cracks of targeted support can be identified by local authorities in order to access critical funding. We would halve the cost of rail fares and cap bus fares.

I stress that delivering those policies cannot wait. We must not stop or waste any time. I urge both Governments to listen to all organisations—and even to those of us in Opposition—and to work relentlessly to wring dry every lever that we have and turn the tide on poverty.

18:41  

Marie McNair (Clydebank and Milngavie) (SNP)

I thank my colleague Elena Whitham for securing the debate. It is much needed and I congratulate the Poverty Alliance and all anti-poverty campaigners across the country for promoting the event. I also take the opportunity to thank the many support groups, food banks and advice agencies in my constituency. I praise them all, including the Dalmuir community food pantry, the Recycle Room, Old Kilpatrick Food Parcels, Faifley food share, East Dunbartonshire Foodbank, West Dunbartonshire Community Foodshare, Clydebank Asbestos Group, the Big Disability Group, the East and West Dunbartonshire citizens advice bureaux and both councils’ advice staff. As a constituency MSP, I see what those organisations do to provide much-needed help and support and I am firmly on their side.

The debate is timely, given the scale of the challenge that faces many of our constituents. Just yesterday, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in Scotland published its report “Poverty in Scotland 2022”. The report states that

“Nearly one in five households on low incomes in Scotland have gone hungry and cold this year, even before we enter the winter months”.

The report says this about the UK Government:

“their wilful abandonment of low-income households in last month’s budget is outrageous. Meaning without further intervention by them the situation described in this report will be worsened from an already terrible position by the oncoming winter.”

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation correctly asserts:

“This cost of living crisis is not just caused by increasing costs. The incomes of low-income households have been intentionally reduced by a decade of reductions in social security support”.

Surely it is obvious to all that that needs to change. But also, yesterday, we instead got a speech from the chancellor that shows he has no shame. His speech made little reference to the screeching U-turn, and there was no hint of apology.

At the same time as condemning the UK Government, would the member also condemn her Government for cutting £55 million for disabled people at a time when they are at their most vulnerable?

Marie McNair

I take on board Mr Balfour’s point, and we will consider everything. However, maybe the member should look at carers allowance, which his Government could have upgraded but did not. We will take no lessons from the Tory party.

The cost of living crisis is caused not just by increasing costs but by decades of intentional reductions in social security support. Surely it is obvious to all that that needs to change.

The UK Government explained its U-turn by saying that the policy was a distraction, but it was not a distraction—it was a disgrace. That budget plan chooses to reinstate bankers’ bonuses but not the £20 uplift to universal credit, and it continues the austerity and welfare cuts that are leaving so many behind. There is no commitment to increase the benefits by inflation; I hope that what the member said earlier will happen, but we will see. There is no commitment to scrap the five-week waiting time for universal credit, to abolish the two-child policy—with its abhorrent, disgusting rape clause—or to U-turn on plans to increase benefit sanctions instead of filling bankers’ pockets. It is a missed opportunity to provide the help that people need to get through this crisis, and that will not be forgotten.

In Scotland, our focus is different. Although 85 per cent of the social security budget remains under Westminster control, we are working to maximise our interventions. We are building a system led by dignity, fairness and respect—no unjust sanction regime and no pointless private sector assessments.

The Scottish child payment is being increased to £25 per week, and eligibility is being extended to under-16s. Taken together, the Scottish Government’s five family payments are worth more than £10,000 by the time the first child reaches six and about £9,700 for subsequent children. There is no restrictive two-child policy here.

We continue to mitigate the effects of the bedroom tax and, now, the benefit cap, when we could be investing those resources elsewhere in our social security budget. We have introduced the Scottish carers allowance supplement, righting a wrong that was continued by Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat Governments at Westminster. And we move at pace to roll out all disability benefits and further support to carers.

Those interventions, along with the rent freeze, the evictions moratorium and other support such as the Scottish welfare fund, are essential from a Government that gets the priorities right, and we should continue to look at what else can be done with our budgets and powers. But it is absolutely obvious that this Parliament needs the full powers of independence to cut out the cause of this crisis at its core—an arrogant Westminster Government with no compassion and no understanding of its impact on our constituents.

18:46  

Carol Mochan (South Scotland) (Lab)

I thank Elena Whitham for bringing the debate to the chamber. This year’s challenge poverty week has a clear focus on the current devastating cost of living crisis and the threat that it poses to people living on low and—because of the brutal nature of the crisis—average incomes. It is hoped that this week will bring attention to our strategy and resources for eradicating poverty, including support for policies that are aimed at ensuring that no one in Scotland lives in the grip of poverty.

I have made it clear before, and I make it clear once again, that I deplore the Tory Government’s attack on working-class people. The Tories are the friends of the rich and show no interest in redistributing wealth to those who are most in need. That is the opposite of what people are crying out for right now. Little interest is being given to working people as the Tories fight among themselves and act only in the interests of the rich. The impacts of their actions are felt across the UK, including here, in Scotland, so I ask Elena Whitham and her colleagues to work progressively with Scottish Labour to ensure that we rid the entire United Kingdom of the policies of the current UK Government.

Grass-roots campaigners, trade unionists and socialists are organising right across the UK, including here in Scotland, to fight those injustices. Scottish Labour colleagues and I are out day in, day out in solidarity with trade union striking workers, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and campaign groups, and we are now collectively saying that enough is enough.

I thank the Poverty Alliance for its briefing, which reminds us again of the need for immediate action from both our Governments in Scotland. Twenty-four per cent of children in Scotland live in poverty. I will say that again: 24 per cent of children in Scotland live in poverty. The figures for people with a disability and for those from ethnic minority communities are even worse. It is a disgrace.

There is need for urgency in our approach to fighting poverty here in Scotland, and it demands that we in the Scottish Parliament accept that there is an emergency and that, to save lives, we must do all that we can.

Monica Lennon (Central Scotland) (Lab)

If I had been able to intervene on Marie McNair, I would have said that I am pleased that Scottish National Party activists have lodged a motion at their party’s conference that says that we should do all that we can to end child hunger by introducing universal free school meals for secondary school pupils. Does Carol Mochan agree that the Government needs to get on and deliver that measure as soon as possible?

Carol Mochan

I thank my colleague Monica Lennon for that intervention. She has worked tirelessly to support interventions to address child hunger, including universal access to free school meals. The Government’s intention is to provide such access, but we would like those policies to be introduced urgently.

The Poverty Alliance has set out key asks of the Scottish Government, and I ask the SNP back benchers who are here tonight to push those on the front bench to deliver those asks. I mention, in particular, the Scottish child payment, which the Poverty Alliance says should be increased to £40 per week. I applaud the Scottish Government for what it has done, but it needs to go further. Amid a cost of living crisis, and with a brutal Tory Government the likes of which we have never seen, it is pivotal that people who are most in need are supported financially to put food on the table, and that the Scottish Government’s targets on child poverty are met.

Indeed, we know that the Scottish child payment contributes massively towards tackling child poverty, and that it alleviates pressure on families who receive it. I again commend the Scottish Government for the progress that it has made, but now is no time for complacency—we must speed up the roll-out of the payment and constantly look at ways to increase it. Many organisations believe that failure to deliver that will likely lead to the Scottish Government failing to meet its interim targets for child poverty, but I do not believe that the Government or SNP back benchers want that. There is no chance that the Scottish Government would do that willingly. Tackling child poverty is the best hope that we have of changing the trajectory of this country.

In conclusion, Presiding Officer, I thank the member again for bringing the debate to the chamber, and I reach out to her and her colleagues to join us with grass-roots campaigners on the streets of Scotland to make our voices heard in communities, and join us in this chamber in demanding that the Parliament and the Government do everything that they can to prioritise the eradication of poverty, so that lives are saved.

18:51  

Natalie Don (Renfrewshire North and West) (SNP)

We can all talk in the chamber about poverty, but the most important voices on the matter come from the people who are experiencing it right now, and, honestly, their testimonies are heartbreaking. One woman told the Joseph Rowntree Foundation:

“‘I am scared to wean my baby when I look at the cost of food, I know I should be introducing food but I am delaying that as long as possible.”

The Scottish Women’s Budget Group quoted another woman:

“I feel forgotten about. I cut my own hair, I skip meals, I scrimp on heating etc so I can pay the mortgage. There is no support for us from anyone.”

Inclusion Scotland quoted a respondent to a survey:

“Not being able to afford heating. Part of my condition means I struggle to regulate my body temperature I can be prone to hypothermia. I also rely on hot showers and hot water bottles to manage pain and am worried about how to afford that. I could die.”

That is the reality of life in 21st century Britain.

We talk about poverty a lot in the chamber, and rightly so, but it strikes me that, during every debate, Tory members gaslight us by giving speeches about how they are the ones who want to solve child poverty and that the SNP needs to do more, which I find hard to believe when only one Tory member has chosen to take part in the debate.

I am interested in knowing whether the member would make the same criticism of her Green colleagues and partners. They have nobody taking part in the debate.

Natalie Don

If the member was listening to my speech, he would know that the main reasons for poverty fall at the feet of the United Kingdom Tory Government, which is why I decided to pick out the Conservatives.

Let us take a step back: the Scottish Government has done and continues to do what it can with the limited powers that it has. Members have already given a rundown of many of the steps that the Scottish Government is taking to eradicate poverty and work towards our poverty targets, but how can we possibly hope to eradicate poverty in this country when we are dependent on the Tories down south and their mad spending decisions? The Tories have been in power for 12 years now, but what has improved? They are destroying the economy with tax cuts for the rich and increased bankers’ bonuses—it is not good enough.

This week, we have seen a U-turn on the top rate of tax, but the damage has already been done, and the markets are already in chaos. Over the past two weeks, Douglas Ross and the Tories have defended that policy, but they now want us to believe that they are reversing it because they care about people. No—they are doing it because they can see the chaos that they have created and could not find a way to defend the policy any more.

As important as this week is, we should not need challenge poverty weeks in Scotland or in the UK. Poverty should be challenged every day of the year, because no child in this country should be going to bed hungry or cold.

A few months back, I visited a toy bank in Renfrewshire. Energy prices were rising, but it was still early days. I was looking around at the toys that were sitting there ready to get packed up for birthdays or waiting on Christmas day and thinking of the joy that would spread across the kids’ faces when they got them, but that thought was coupled with a wave of sadness that it would be under such circumstances. It should not be a case of prioritising gas over a child’s toy this Christmas, but that is the hard reality for many families.

People must be sick of working to be in debt; for so many people right now, being in employment is not benefiting them. People are only just surviving and every day is a struggle to figure out what to prioritise.

I want to live in a country where everyone thrives and people get to enjoy life and be happy, as opposed to scraping by and waiting for the trickle down that never comes. I want to live in a country where children have opportunities, where young people are positive about the future, where parents can have a proper work-life balance and get to spend time enjoying life with their kids, and where people are not thinking at every turn about how they are going to get through the next day.

We can have a better future as an independent country. I have previously highlighted in Parliament how, as a Scottish Government, we can use all the levers at our disposal to eradicate poverty in this country. We do tremendous work here to help those who need it the most, but, while powers remain reserved to Westminster, I fear that we will never see poverty in Scotland come to an end.

Just to finish, we often use the phrase “heating or eating” as though it is a nifty wee rhyme, a soundbite or a punchline from the establishment, but it is not just a saying—it is the reality for many people. In 2022, people are having to choose between having a warm meal and having a warm house—that is disgusting. I fear that it is only going to get worse if the unionist parties continue to play at trickle-down economics, which does nothing to improve the lives of my constituents and harms those across Scotland who are living in poverty.

18:56  

Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

I congratulate Elena Whitham on securing the debate.

Challenging poverty is a decades-long fight that became more acute in the 1980s, after the election of the Margaret Thatcher Government, and has become so again in recent years. I agree with Jeremy Balfour on one point: he spoke about the third sector and the hugely important role that it plays—it does, indeed, play such a role.

Pam Duncan-Glancy

Will the member join me, Jeremy Balfour and Paul Bradley from the SCVO in asking the cabinet secretary to meet the SCVO to talk about the potential for multiyear funding and what that could look like, so that it can be delivered in Scotland?

Stuart McMillan

I have said in the Parliament before that I think that multiyear funding is the right way forward. However, when we have a chaotic situation as a result of the budget that comes from Westminster to this Parliament, it is very difficult—it is nigh on impossible—for any Scottish Government to produce longer-term budgets.

Will the member give way?

Stuart McMillan

In just two wee seconds.

I believe that longer-term budgets would genuinely be better for Scotland. If we did not have to rely on Westminster to get the money and were an independent country, we would not have that problem.

Jeremy Balfour

I understand where the member is coming from, but does he recognise that, like lots of other people, he and I will be paid for the next three years, as will the civil service in Scotland and NHS staff? Why is the voluntary sector the exception to the rule?

Stuart McMillan

As I said a few moments ago, if we did not have to rely on that funding—[Interruption.] It is a fact, as Mr Balfour knows. If we had all the powers of independence, we would not have that situation.

I am a board member of a local organisation and I have heard from people within that organisation about the issues of poverty that they have faced.

The cost of living crisis and political decisions by Westminster are not helping the situation. The two-child limit, the five-week universal credit delay, the removal of the £20 uplift to universal credit and the bedroom tax are just four examples of such decisions. Austerity measures from Westminster are not something that anyone can be proud of. Whether we are talking about Tory cuts or the beginning of austerity cuts under the last Labour UK Government, it is clear that Westminster does not work for the working class or working-class communities.

Energy is one of the most important parts of the cost of living crisis. No one in energy-rich Scotland should be worried about putting on their heating in their house. Regulation of energy in Britain is broken and does not work for Scotland. Scotland pays to generate the energy that goes into the grid, but in the south of England, those who generate energy are paid to do that. That is patently unfair. In reality, Scotland has the energy but it does not have the power.

Pam Duncan-Glancy spoke about the Labour Party’s political ambitions. We have heard those claims before. Nothing will change under a Labour UK Government if it is elected. The party is joined at the hip with the Tories, as will be proven in many local authorities in Scotland.

Will the member take an intervention?

Stuart McMillan

I am sorry, but I have already given way.

David Torrance spoke about a constituent. Yesterday, I held a heating surgery jointly with my local MP, Ronnie Cowan. I thank Home Energy Scotland and the Oak Mall shopping centre in Greenock for their assistance with the surgery. A number of constituents were there, and one constituent who came to speak to me told me that she spends most of her time in one room of her house. When she leaves that room to go through the rest of her house, she does not put the lights on; she uses a torch. She does not want to put the lights on because she is worried about the cost of energy.

Will the member take an intervention?

The member will be concluding his remarks shortly.

Stuart McMillan

My constituent is very careful about what she does and about the amount of energy that she uses. No one in energy-rich Scotland—whether they are in my constituency or elsewhere—should be living like that. If we want to tackle poverty fully in Scotland, we need to have powers over energy regulation, financial powers and, ultimately, independence, so that we can help our constituents and communities.

I again thank Elena Whitham for securing the debate.

19:01  

The Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government (Shona Robison)

I am grateful to Elena Whitham for lodging the motion and securing this important debate, and to members who have spoken so passionately about challenge poverty week. The week is being recognised across the Scottish Government, with ministers meeting grass-roots organisations and local authorities that are taking innovative action to tackle poverty. When I attended the launch of the “Poverty in Scotland 2022” report yesterday, I was struck by the strength of our commitment as a country to tackling poverty and, as ever, by the importance of listening to those who have real-life experience of living on a low income.

Making the country fairer and more equal is at the heart of the work that we do every day to help those who are struggling today; it is also at the heart of our work to invest in the changes that will prevent poverty in the future. This year’s challenge poverty week could not be more important, given the cost of living crisis and the decisions that the UK Government has made, which are reducing the choices that each and every household can make.

In March, I stood before the Parliament to present “Best Start, Bright Futures”, our second tackling child poverty delivery plan. I was clear then, as I am now, that tackling poverty requires a collective effort across society. It requires public, private and third sector organisations to work together to tackle child poverty and to deliver the change that is needed.

I asked officials two weeks ago to begin to make more rapid progress with third sector organisations on moving forward with multiyear budgets because I recognise the importance to the sector of knowing what their budgets will be going forward, particularly when finances are tight. I will update the Parliament as progress is made on that matter.

I thank the cabinet secretary for giving way. Would she be prepared to meet with the SCVO, as requested, to discuss the matter in more detail?

Shona Robison

Officials regularly meet the third sector, the SCVO and other organisations, and I have met the SCVO fairly recently. We discussed a number of issues, including multiyear budgets. That discussion is already under way.

The UK is facing the most severe economic upheaval in a generation. Families are feeling the strain of alarming rises in costs, which we can all see in our energy bills and in the supermarket aisles. Over the past two weeks, since the UK Government’s so-called mini-budget was announced, we have seen another economic wave that will hit everyone. The challenges that are being faced by so many people can feel utterly overwhelming.

Although finally reversing the scrapping of the 45p tax rate for the highest earners was the right thing to do, the UK Government should never have made that decision in the first place. I think that the decision was more down to parliamentary arithmetic than to a change in values. That shows how absolutely not in touch the UK Government is with the everyday challenges that households face right now, particularly those in poverty.

I will illustrate that point with an example. The idea that the UK Government might focus on and potentially sanction working people who are on universal credit if they do not secure more hours or a better-paid job shows how out of touch that Government is and that it does not understand the power relationship between someone who is in a low-paid job and their employer. It is not like the situation for someone in a high-paid job who negotiates their salary and a promoted post. People are literally hanging on to jobs by their fingernails, and do not have the power to ask for more hours or money. The UK Government is so out of touch. To sanction the working poor at this time is just unbelievable, and the UK Government should absolutely think again.

Elena Whitham made important points about the need for flexible working. As well as the need for jobs that at least pay the living wage, there is a need for flexibility to take account of childcare requirements, for example. Of course, she was right to call for the scrapping of the universal credit five-week wait, the rape clause and the two-child limit.

Members made a number of other points. On Jeremy Balfour’s point about the employability budgets, it is a misrepresentation of the facts to say that £53 million has been cut from disabled people—that is just not the case. The Deputy First Minister has said that he will consider what can be done to protect employability support. There is £24 million in the budget for 2022-23 for the fair start Scotland service, which provides intensive and personalised support to unemployed disabled people and those with health conditions or other barriers to getting into work. I do not want the situation to be presented as there being no employability support for people with disabilities, because that is far from the case.

Will the cabinet secretary take an intervention on that point?

Shona Robison

In a minute.

I go back to the point that potentially £18 billion-worth of cuts are coming down the line, which will put the Parliament and the Government into uncharted waters.

On that point, I will take an intervention from Jeremy Balfour.

Jeremy Balfour

I absolutely recognise the cabinet secretary’s point but, at the Social Justice and Social Security Committee last week, the Deputy First Minister said that those who are not part of the disability employment scheme at the moment will probably not be able to benefit from it in the next six months. Those who are in it will benefit, but the Deputy First Minister made clear that, if somebody wants to join the scheme, they might not get in, because of the cut that the cabinet secretary’s Government has made.

Shona Robison

We will continue to do what we can, particularly for the most vulnerable. Our employability support has been pivoted to the most vulnerable, and particularly to support parents and the six priority family types. We will continue to do that, but Jeremy Balfour cannot escape responsibility for the fact that the value of the Scottish Government’s budget has gone down by £1.7 billion because of inflation, and for the tsunami of £18 billion-worth of potential cuts, which would impact severely on the Scottish budget.

Will the cabinet secretary take an intervention?

I need to make some progress, because I do not have much time.

A brief intervention is probably in order, if you wish, cabinet secretary.

Is the cabinet secretary content that a proper equality impact assessment of the cuts to employability support holds up the assertions that people will still get the support that they need?

Shona Robison

The Deputy First Minister made it clear that we do not want to make those changes but, if budgets to the Scottish Government are reduced and the value of the budget goes down, difficult decisions will have to be made. However, we have been clear that we will pivot employability resources towards those who most need support. In particular, we will ensure that the commitments in the tackling child poverty delivery plan will go ahead, through the parental transitions fund. We need to ensure that people get into work.

On a number of occasions, we have laid out the support that we have provided—it is almost £3 billion this year—for those who are on low incomes and households that are under pressure. Almost a third of that—it is more than £1 billion—is available only in Scotland, with the remainder being more generous than the support that is provided elsewhere in the UK. With a fixed and pressured budget, that has required us to take hard decisions, but it is important that those decisions are focused on supporting the people who most need support.

As, I think, David Torrance outlined, by the end of 2022, our package of five family payments will be worth more than £10,000 for eligible families on the lowest incomes by the time that their first child turns six, which is way in excess of anything else anywhere in the UK. Carol Mochan asked about the Scottish child payment. We have brought forward the changes to 14 November so, next month, everyone with a child under 16 who is eligible will be able to apply for the Scottish child payment, and it will be backdated to the point of application. That is huge support for families at a time when they need it the most.

Through our emergency budget review, we will continue to look at what more we can do to add to the bedroom tax and benefit cap mitigation, the £129 million through the Scottish welfare fund and discretionary housing payments to help people to stay in their homes.

There is always more that we need to do, and we will continue to look at what more we can do. People and businesses have been deeply impacted by the cost of living crisis. The Government has vowed to do everything that it can to mitigate the situation as far as possible while meeting the increased costs of public sector pay and, of course, balancing our budget, as we are required to do. We will continue to work closely with partners in local government, the third sector, businesses, communities and people with direct experience, and to make every effort possible to ensure that every household in Scotland is able to weather the storm and that we can turn the tide together.

Meeting closed at 19:12.