Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]
Meeting date: Tuesday, April 18, 2023
Official Report 1073KB pdf
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Government Priorities for Scotland, Cost of Living and Child Poverty, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Wear a Hat Day 2023
- Time for Reflection
- Topical Question Time
- Government Priorities for Scotland
- Cost of Living and Child Poverty
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Wear a Hat Day 2023
Cost of Living and Child Poverty
The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-08589, in the name of Shirley-Anne Somerville, on supporting Scotland with the cost of living and reducing child poverty. I call the cabinet secretary to speak to and move the motion.15:33
Addressing the cost of living crisis, tackling poverty and working towards our statutory targets to reduce child poverty are central to the Government’s priorities. They are central not just for me, as the new Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, but for the First Minister and all my Cabinet colleagues. That is, of course, reinforced in the policy prospectus that has been published and has just been discussed. The prospectus confirms that equality, opportunity and community will be the three critical and interdependent missions for the Government in 2026.
That is why, in his first days in the job, the First Minister focused on delivering for the people of Scotland by providing £15 million of funding to help low-income households with childcare, tripling our fuel insecurity fund to £30 million and announcing additional funding for our national health service to tackle health inequalities in our healthcare system.
The poverty and income inequality statistics that were published last month show that poverty levels remain too high. Although, in Scotland, they continue to be lower than the United Kingdom average, with relative child poverty six percentage points below that for the UK as a whole, they must be reduced further.
Of course, the analysis that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published today on rises in deep poverty further reinforced the devastating impact of the United Kingdom Government’s decade of austerity, welfare cuts and economic mismanagement. Analysis that the Scottish Government published last year highlighted that, were key welfare reforms introduced by the UK Government since 2015 to be reversed, that would lift an estimated 70,000 people, including 30,000 children, out of poverty this year.
Household finances are under strain, with soaring energy bills and food costs disproportionately hurting those on the lowest incomes. High inflation is heaping more pressure on to our public services, with the Scottish Government’s block grant being 4.8 per cent lower than it was in 2021-22. However, the Scottish Government recognises the pressure on household budgets, which is why last year and this we have allocated almost £3 billion to support policies that tackle poverty and protect people as far as possible during the on-going cost of living crisis.
I know what a challenge reducing poverty is, particularly without the full powers of a normal Government, but we will ensure that we use all the powers that we have to tackle poverty and inequality, build a fairer Scotland and support those who are most in need during the cost of living crisis, and we will build the case for further powers so that we can have all the levers that we need to tackle the deep-seated and multigenerational child poverty that has blighted our country.
The second tackling child poverty delivery plan, “Best Start, Bright Futures: tackling child poverty delivery plan 2022 to 2026”, reaffirms our sharp focus on working with partners to support those who are at greatest risk of poverty, with 90 per cent of all children in poverty in Scotland living in the six priority families that were identified in our first plan. The second plan commits to wide-ranging and ambitious action to provide immediate support to families and deliver the transformational change that is needed in the longer term to break the cycle of child poverty that we have.
One clear example is the significant investment and increased support that we provide to families through Scottish Government benefits. Twelve of those benefits were upgraded by 10.1 per cent this month. Over 2022, the Scottish child payment, which is the only tackling-child-poverty benefit in the UK, was increased from £10 to £25 per week per child and extended to eligible children under 16. That represents an increase of 150 per cent in less than eight months and, in its first full year, it will be an investment of £442 million.
The Scottish Government has had to make hard choices and decisions with a limited budget and in some of the toughest financial circumstances imaginable. We have taken the political decision to prioritise increasing the child payment because it is a vital tool in tackling child poverty. The Scottish Fiscal Commission forecasts that around 387,000 children will be eligible for the payment in 2023-24 and, based on modelling from March 2022, it is estimated that the payment will lift 50,000 children out of poverty this year.
I welcome the cabinet secretary to her new role and I look forward to working with her.
I absolutely agree with what she has said, but I am still being contacted by constituents who have not been able to get the child payment, due to the lack of resources in Social Security Scotland. Will she at least investigate that to find out why payments are not being made and why big delays are still happening, not only with the child payment but with the best start grant and other benefits, which are taking longer to be paid than they should?
It is a pleasure to work with Jeremy Balfour again. It is like the good old days, when I had responsibility for social security previously, and I am sure that we will pick up on some of those discussions.
He raises an important point about the challenges that Social Security Scotland has had following the expansion of the Scottish child payment. Of course, we have undertaken a massive expansion to ensure that everybody under 16 is included. The backlogs are being dealt with, and I have already had discussions with Social Security Scotland, which has reassured me that work is continuing on that. However, I am happy to have further discussions with Mr Balfour on the issue, because we all want the benefit to be a success and to get to people as soon as possible. I reassure him that the issue already has my attention and that of Social Security Scotland.
Our five family payments, which include the child payment, together with our best start grants and best start foods payment, could be worth around £10,000 by the time an eligible child turns six, compared with the figure of around £1,800 that is available for eligible families in England and Wales.
It is therefore no surprise that poverty campaigners have called on the UK Government to introduce a similar benefit and match our ambitions on tackling child poverty. I echo that view, just as I agree with the calls that the UK Government should be doing much more to support people during the cost crisis, in which they face soaring inflation and spiralling energy bills. We have argued that the UK Government should be doing that but, unfortunately, it is not.
Will the cabinet secretary give way?
I will make slightly more progress, and then I will try to take another intervention.
We have already started delivery of our new winter heating payment to replace the cold weather payment provided by the Department for Work and Pensions, thereby providing a stable and reliable annual £50 that will help around 400,000 low-income families with heating expenses each winter. Our new benefit is expected to reach more than twice the number of people than did the DWP benefit that it replaced. It will be backed by £20 million every year and will provide vital support for energy costs. We also continue to recognise the vital contribution of unpaid carers in our society through our carers allowance supplement.
Important actions are being taken elsewhere in the Scottish Government that also impact on our mission to tackle child poverty. Scotland already has the most generous funded childcare programme in the UK. All three and four-year-olds and around a quarter of two-year-olds are eligible for 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare, which is backed by investment of around £1 billion per year. If families paid for those hours themselves, it would cost them around £5,000 per child per year. We are working with partners to progress our childcare offer even further, with plans to expand early learning and childcare to one and two-year-olds. We have also committed £15 million this year towards building a system of year-round school-age childcare that is fully funded for those who need it most.
The cabinet secretary has my party’s support on efforts to extend funded childcare, but does she share my concern about the lack of uptake, particularly among vulnerable two-year-olds? What does her Government plan to do to address that lack of uptake?
Alex Cole-Hamilton raises an important point. That is why we have worked with the DWP to ensure that, for the first time, we can use the information about who is eligible to contact people directly. That will be a very important stage for us and for local authorities in having the ability, for the first time, to be much more proactive about that. I am more than happy to work with the member on the issue, which I know that he and Willie Rennie have had discussions on in the past.
Moving on to travel, we continue to provide free bus travel for more than 2 million people, including all children and young people under 22, disabled people and everyone aged 60 or over. More than 50 million free bus journeys have been made by people under the age of 22 since our expansion of concessionary travel in January last year. That is another important saving for those with children.
Will the member give way?
How could I forget Stephen Kerr?
I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for giving way. She makes a lot of very valuable points, but most of the things that she has talked about are mitigations of the effects of poverty. [Interruption.]
Can we hear the member, please?
I do not think that you can intervene on—
As in, the things that the cabinet secretary has talked about deal with the symptoms of poverty, but we should focus on dealing with the root causes of poverty. [Interruption.] In respect of the root causes, how does curbing the number of apprenticeships, squeezing funding to Scottish training companies or making real-terms cuts to Scotland’s colleges and universities in any way create more opportunity and deal with the root causes of poverty?
Well, well, Presiding Officer. Perhaps the gasps of disbelief from back-bench members were at a Tory member saying that we are dealing with mitigating the effects of poverty. Yes, we are, Mr Kerr. We are dealing with the UK Government’s economic mismanagement and its contempt for a minimum wage at genuinely real living wage standards. We are dealing with a UK Government that is not interested in dealing with the causes of poverty, as amply demonstrated by its welfare policies. [Interruption.] If Stephen Kerr is not interested in my view on the issue, perhaps he could listen to stakeholders’ views on it. We will continue to do everything that we can do within our limited powers; I only wish that his colleagues down south would do something remotely similar as well.
Housing is also vital in the fight against poverty and will be a focus for the Minister for Housing and me in this portfolio. An estimated 3,200 households with children have been helped into affordable housing in each year to March 2022. We will also, of course, continue working towards our target of providing 110,000 affordable homes by 2032.
Our next steps are very important in ensuring that our immediate priority is protecting people as much as possible. We have already tripled the fuel insecurity fund to £30 million. We know that food banks are not an appropriate or long-term solution to poverty. That is why we will soon publish a plan, grounded in human rights, that sets out further action that we will take towards ending the need for food banks. We recognise that employment can offer a route out of poverty for families. That is why we will continue to ensure that we invest in employability packages, too.
The Government is taking and will continue to take action that puts more money into the pockets of families and helps to turn the tide on poverty. We will do everything that we can within our powers and resources to substantially reduce child poverty. We have already delivered a range of measures that will help people right across Scotland. However, the key powers—including those on energy, employment and, still, much of social security—remain reserved to the UK Government, which must match our ambition.
Only with the full powers of a normal, independent nation can we eradicate child poverty fully. However, I look forward to hearing members’ contributions and their suggestions about how we can use the powers that we have now in our joint mission on child poverty.
That the Parliament commits to continuing the national mission on tackling child poverty; acknowledges that the most recent poverty statistics remain too high and that all levels of government must take action to reduce poverty and inequality in society; recognises the pressure being placed on household finances due to rising inflation, high energy bills and soaring increases to food costs, and that this cost of living crisis disproportionately impacts households on low incomes and is likely to exacerbate unacceptably high levels of child poverty; welcomes plans for an anti-poverty summit to guide future action on tackling poverty; acknowledges the significant action that the Scottish Government has already taken to tackle the cost of living and child poverty, including the tripling of the Fuel Insecurity Fund, expanding and increasing the value of the Scottish Child Payment and introducing new family benefits, mitigating the benefit cap as far as possible within devolved powers, the provision of 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare, and offering universal free school meals to all pupils in P1 to P5, and calls on the UK Government to match the ambition shown by the Scottish Government and reverse the harmful welfare reform policies implemented since 2015, which would lift an estimated 70,000 people, including 30,000 children, out of poverty in Scotland in 2023-24.
I advise members that there is no time in hand. Therefore, I urge them to stick to their speaking allocations, including if they take interventions. I encourage colleagues to keep their interventions as brief as possible.15:47
I welcome Shirley-Anne Somerville to her new position in Government. I am sure that she will be delighted that she now has two Mileses in her life. In a few weeks, I will ask her who is the most annoying.
I also welcome Paul O’Kane to his role on the Labour front bench.
A number of organisations and charities provided useful briefings ahead of the debate, for which I thank them. I also thank them for the work that they undertake across our communities to support some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
This debate is an opportunity to reaffirm the cross-party consensus and objectives that were set out in the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017. The act was passed unanimously by Parliament and set an important target for us all for reducing child poverty rates across our country. Eliminating child poverty must be a priority for all of us. I hope that, as the new cabinet secretary starts work in her new role in Government, she will genuinely reach out across Parliament to develop the next steps and listen to the new and fresh ideas that many of us are trying to ensure that the Scottish Government takes forward.
New pressures on the cost of living aggravated by the effects of the pandemic—such as rising food and fuel costs—and the war in Ukraine have had a negative impact on families across the country. We need a critical focus on the powers that we have to help to support those families.
I return to an issue that I have raised consistently in the Parliament: children who are homeless and living in unsuitable and temporary accommodation. The housing emergency in Scotland is contributing to levels of child poverty. None of us wants children and families to be stuck in unsuitable, unaffordable homes or temporary accommodation or believes that it is appropriate in this day and age.
Last March, we debated the issue and I pointed out that Scotland had more than 7,500 children living in temporary accommodation. For many families, a typical stay was more than 58 weeks. Such families are housed in hotels, former guesthouses and bed and breakfasts. Often, they have to share toilets and cooking facilities with strangers.
None of us approves of that or believes that it is appropriate to place young families and pregnant mothers in such accommodation. However, today, the situation is worse. There are more than 9,130 children living in temporary accommodation. That represents a 17 per cent rise in the space of one year alone.
We all want those children to have a permanent and safe home, which is vitally important to a child’s wellbeing and development. The cabinet secretary will know a lot of detail about that from her time with the education portfolio. We need decisive action on that, which we have not seen, so I hope that, in her new role, the cabinet secretary will refocus her efforts on it and make it a personal top priority for the years ahead. We on the Conservative benches will work with ministers on any vital reforms that we can make, and I hope that the cabinet secretary will agree to urgent cross-party talks on the issue. I believe that we need to introduce legislation to ban councils placing children or pregnant women in temporary accommodation, as I have outlined. I hope that we can pursue that with the cabinet secretary in the future.
The Scottish Government’s preventing homelessness duties present a good opportunity for Scotland to further develop some of the best protections in the world for people who are at risk of homelessness, but we need those protections to be embedded and delivered through a preventative model, especially here in the capital, which will take significant work and resources to achieve.
In recent months, I have been working with campaigners and hospices across Scotland to highlight their call to action on the additional energy bills that are faced by the families of children with life-shortening conditions and people with terminal conditions in our society. Children with a life-shortening condition are 50 per cent more likely to be living in the most deprived parts of Scotland compared with the least deprived, yet the families of seriously ill children incur unavoidably high household energy costs.
Together for Short Lives, the UK-wide body that supports children with life-shortening conditions, has said that research shows that families with seriously ill and disabled children already pay almost double what an average UK household pays on their energy bills. That cannot continue. The reasons why that is the case are the running of life-saving equipment, the running of other energy-intensive equipment and the need to keep their home warm, often because they are providing a hospital-at-home service.
The Children’s Hospice Association Scotland is calling on the Scottish Government to do more to provide direct and targeted support to families, in particular for a scheme to be developed to enable families to recoup some of the running costs of life-saving energy-intensive equipment.
The former First Minister outlined where she wanted action to be taken forward. We have not seen any progress on that, but I would like the cabinet secretary to also commit to that being one of her top priorities in the weeks and months ahead. It is a critical issue and one for which both the Scottish and UK Governments can deliver better support packages. I am currently organising a cross-party round-table meeting on the issue with UK ministers, and I hope that the cabinet secretary will agree to attend and be part of that.
No one doubts that addressing the level of child poverty is a complex issue and one that requires the focus of both our Governments.
Miles Briggs has made some great points about the issues that families are facing, especially those with children who are living in poverty. Would he use the welcome summit that he has talked about to call for the abolition of the rape clause and the two-child cap?
I want to ensure that the event gives us an opportunity to look at all these issues. I hope that, in the interest of the two Governments working together, which I hope that, with the new First Minister, we can move forward on, it will present such an opportunity. The event is specifically about the energy crisis that many families are facing. I recently held a round-table event on hospices, and it was welcome that many Scottish National Party members attended. I know that they are acutely aware of the pressures that families are under.
In the time that I have left, I want to touch on black and minority ethnic children in Scotland, who child poverty figures show to be disproportionately affected. I want to ensure that the Scottish Government is live to that, because many organisations that have provided briefings have outlined the areas in which there has been very limited progress to date.
Earlier, we discussed a national minimum allowance for children in kinship care, which we need to see progress on. In 2016, the Scottish Government committed to implementing a national allowance for foster carers, as well as a national minimum allowance for children in kinship care, but that has not progressed, and it is currently sitting with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. It is another priority issue that I hope that the cabinet secretary will take forward soon.
I welcome the appointment of Natalie Don as Minister for Children, Young People and Keeping the Promise. There is an awful lot of work to do in that area, and I hope that a delivery programme will be developed as soon as possible to help to achieve all the outcomes, which we support, and to ensure that our young people have the best possible start now for their future.
It is critical that we hold the SNP-Green Government to account, and we will continue to do that from these benches. However, there are many areas in which we can work to make a difference, and I hope that the cabinet secretary genuinely wants to reset that relationship. We desperately need a Government that focuses the resources that we have in Parliament on delivering the outcomes that we all want to see, and I wish her well in doing that.
I move amendment S6M-08589.1, to leave out from the second “acknowledges” to end and insert:
“; recognises the fact that child poverty levels have remained the same since 2007, with 9,130 children living in temporary accommodation; expresses disappointment in the Scottish Government’s failure to close the attainment gap and to deliver free school meals for all primary school children; recognises that the Scottish Government has missed its deadline of devolving all social security benefits, and calls on the Scottish and UK governments to work together in order to ensure that no child goes to bed hungry.”
Thank you, Mr Briggs. I gently remind members who have not pressed their request-to-speak buttons but wish to speak in the debate to press those buttons. Those who have made an intervention already might need to press their buttons again.15:55
I take this opportunity to welcome the cabinet secretary to her post. I wish her well in her new role and look forward to working constructively with her on our shared goal of making Scotland a better, fairer and more equitable society. I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor in this role, Pam Duncan-Glancy, who approached the role with tenacity and a forensic eye for detail. I know that she will be a formidable opponent in her new role as she holds the Government to account for its record on education. I wonder whether the cabinet secretary is breathing a sigh of relief because of that.
I move on to the substance of today’s debate on tackling the cost of living and reducing child poverty. There a lot of words in the prospectus that the First Minister unveiled a while ago, but there is little in the way of substance, new announcements or new methods of tackling poverty. Indeed, I detected little in the way of new committed money and spending. All I saw highlighted in the Government motion was the anti-poverty summit that the First Minister and the cabinet secretary have already spoken about this afternoon.
In principle, Scottish Labour of course supports the convening of that summit. I know that colleagues in the Labour Party will always work constructively when it comes to tackling the pernicious issue of poverty. However, if that summit becomes another talking shop on poverty, it will clearly fail to meet this important moment. An anti-poverty summit will not, in itself, provide tangible and meaningful support to help households that are experiencing deep poverty. It will not help them to buy more food or heat their homes in the winter, and nor will it help a parent to clothe their child.
The lack of ambition in the prospectus is symptomatic of a First Minister who appears to be distracted by fighting fires in his own party rather than addressing some of the most important issues that are facing the country. It is worrying that, after 16 years in power, an anti-poverty summit seems to be the limit of the Government’s plan and vision to address this deepening crisis.
I contrast that with other Governments and the progress that they made. After a decade of a UK Labour Government in 2007, the poorest 20 per cent of families were almost £3,500 better off compared to how they were in 1997. When it was in power, Labour delivered. The most recent Labour Government lifted 2.4 million people out of poverty, including almost 1 million children, and child poverty fell faster here than it did in any other European country.
In this moment, Scotland is desperate for change. People do not want to see division and distraction. People are smart; we cannot just pull the wool over their eyes. They recognise when a party of Government is more focused on internal concerns than on delivering for the people.
People in Scotland are also at their wits’ end with both of their Governments. They see the economic illiteracy of the Tories, which has inflicted immeasurable damage on our communities. They look at those dangerous and reckless economics and know that we need real change.
The need for change has never been starker. New research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has shown that not only has the number of people who are living in deep poverty dramatically increased, the depth of the poverty that they are experiencing has become more severe. The cost of living crisis has exacerbated the situation, but poverty levels in Scotland are deep-rooted and they require deep solutions.
Extreme child poverty after housing costs has been rising since 2014. I read today in the excellent briefing from Includem that three in four people are now struggling to meet the costs of two or more essentials.
Scotland is desperate for solutions. It is desperate for competent and credible solutions that will address the major issues that are facing the country.
Does the member have any of those competent and comprehensive solutions to present to us today?
Mr Macpherson has pre-empted me. I was just about to come to some concrete solutions. I take the opportunity to say to Ben Macpherson that I thought he performed well in his role as minister for social security and that it is a sad fact that there is no longer a dedicated ministerial post in Government to deal with social security issues as Mr Macpherson did previously.
It is clear that people want a laser focus on tackling poverty, fixing the economy and injecting a sense of hope, optimism and trust back into politics. In power, Labour could deliver once again. We would reduce people’s household bills by investing in clean power systems and insulating more than 1.3 million homes. We would introduce a proper windfall tax, helping to reduce household bills and tackling problem debt. We would provide households with a £100 rebate on their water bills and would deliver a green jobs revolution in Scotland, creating 50,000 jobs across the country and a wealth of new opportunities for young people. Those are the ideas that the Labour party will bring forward when we have the opportunity to put them to the people.
In various statements over the past few weeks, and during the leadership hustings, the First Minister has described independence as the golden thread that would run through the heart of his Government. That is the heart of the matter. It is no surprise that the Scottish National Party supports independence, but it is clear, now more than ever, that, no matter the size of the crisis that the country faces, the SNP will always place independence above all else and make it the answer for everything.
I know that the cabinet secretary will, as she did in her opening speech, blame Westminster and point to independence as the solution. It is true that the UK Tory Government has made the situation worse, but it is also true that the Scottish Government has failed to seize the mantle of making Scotland a better, more equal and more prosperous place to live. The Government must not sit on its hands but must use the powers of this place to address the concerning growth of deep poverty in Scotland. Continuity will not cut it. We need serious action to make the change that people want to see.
I move amendment S6M-08589.3, to leave out from “welcomes” to the end and insert:
“; notes plans for an anti-poverty summit to guide future action on tackling poverty; further notes that, after 16 years of an SNP administration, child poverty levels, after housing costs, have remained at 24%, and severe child poverty, after housing costs, has been rising since 2014; acknowledges that 94% of families surveyed by Includem for its report, It Is Not A Choice, have experienced worsening finances, and 73% are struggling to meet the cost of two or more basic essentials; expresses concern at the downgrading of social security in the Scottish Government’s priorities, with the removal of a minister for social security; urges the Scottish Government to take decisive action to reduce poverty across Scotland in the face of these stark figures; highlights the implementation gap on the measures set out by Best Start, Bright Futures relating to employability support, and welcomes the Scottish Labour Party’s plan to tackle the cost of living crisis by introducing a proper windfall tax that would help to pay to keep bills down, to pay for affordable public transport and housing support, to tackle problem debt, scrap school meal arrears, and provide help for households, including a £100 water bill rebate and top-ups to the welfare fund.”
I call Alex Cole-Hamilton to speak to and move amendment S6M-08589.2.16:01
As others have done, I begin by welcoming the cabinet secretary to her role. I worked well with her in the previous session of Parliament and look forward to doing so again.
I am glad to speak for the Liberal Democrats on this vitally important issue. It should be one that unites members and I am glad to hear so much consensus on many subjects.
As we have already heard, one in four children in Scotland live in poverty: a quarter of our nation’s children face significant barriers to their education, are at risk of poor health and lack access to opportunities. That number has not changed in the 16 years that the SNP has been in government; the percentage remains stubbornly static.
I spent two decades working as a youth worker and witnessing at first hand the devastating impact of poverty on childhood. Poverty can also have serious impacts on and consequences for one’s adult chances. It is an adverse childhood experience and is recognised as such. In the past year, the cost of living crisis has significantly exacerbated that challenge. One parent’s experience, as reported to Save the Children, reads:
“My daughter heard me talking to her big sister about gas, electricity and food prices. She found a 5p coin in the street and told me to put it towards the bills.”
Is that really what we have come to? When a child finds a penny on the street, they are supposed to wish for good luck, not worry about whether their family has enough to survive on. It is shameful that that is happening now, in Scotland.
The stark reality is that too many families can no longer afford either food or fuel and certainly cannot afford both. A study that was recently conducted by One Parent Families Scotland revealed that 61 per cent of participants were finding it extremely difficult to afford electricity or could no longer afford it, while half said the same about gas. We are in a crisis that warrants decisive action that the SNP has, time and again, failed to deliver.
Research that was undertaken by my party revealed that just over 5,000 homes were helped with insulation last year under the Government’s insulation scheme. That sounds like a big number, but 874,000 households in Scotland currently face fuel poverty. Only 0.6 per cent of homes in Scotland have received the help that they so desperately need. That is why the Scottish Liberal Democrats are calling on the Scottish Government to tackle the issue urgently and to introduce an emergency insulation programme. I will speak more about that in my closing remarks.
Alongside the rising cost of fuel, parents are increasingly struggling to access childcare services, which jeopardises the sources of income that their family relies on just to get by. Increasing provision for childcare is an issue that my party has campaigned on for more than a decade, and I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for recognising that in our earlier exchange. I am glad to see that the Government has taken some of those calls on board.
As I said in my earlier intervention, however, and as I also say in my amendment, there is still much more that can be done. Scotland still has one of the highest levels of childcare costs and burdens of cost among members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and too many parents are unaware of their eligibility, particularly among the more vulnerable cohort of parents of two-year-olds. Parents of three and four-year-olds who are adrift of the labour market are presented with a take-it-or-leave-it offer on childcare. We know from the MacLean commission into the future of publicly funded childcare, which is more than a decade old now, that families outside the labour market may require far greater flexibility in their childcare offer in order to take up evening courses or they might need childcare on sporadic, one-off occasions to attend a job interview so as to re-enter the labour market. Those are challenges that we have solutions for that we have not yet deployed.
Would the member agree with me and share my concern that, under the current measures, there has been a reduction in the number of placings and a reduction of about a quarter in the number of childminders? Are those not the sorts of things that we need to pay much closer attention to in delivering childcare?
I am very grateful to Daniel Johnson for bringing up that excellent point. Those who provide childminding are among the unsung heroes of the childcare sector, providing the wraparound flexibility that I have just referred to. I am sure that Daniel Johnson’s inbox, like mine, is filled with messages from both parents and childminders who are throwing their hands up in alarm at the position that they have been left in.
While 25 per cent of children in Scotland live in poverty, that number rises to almost 40 per cent of children from ethnic minority or single-parent-household backgrounds. Moreover, women are particularly affected. A report that was published by Engender revealed that women account for 60 per cent of all jobs paid below the living wage. That, combined with the disproportionate pressure to carry out household labour, means that mothers are particularly at risk from spiralling mental ill health.
A testimonial from Includem highlights that grim reality:
“I am now on anti-depressants and sleeping tablets due to my worries for caring for my kids. I have lost a lot of weight as I chose to feed my kids over myself all too often.”
This is 21st-century Scotland; we cannot go on like this. No parent should be put in that position, but it is one that is becoming all too common. It is vital that the Scottish Government not only investigates mental health support for the pressures that parents in particular are facing—and children alike are exposed to them—but examines the intersectional impact of such pressures.
Our Government needs urgently to step up to the plate and show the world a Scotland that gives every child a fair start in life. The eyes of the country are on the chamber, and we are extending good will to the First Minister in that he has made this matter a priority, but the judgment of the people will be swift.
I move amendment S6M-08589.2, to insert at end:
“; further calls on the Scottish Government to rapidly bring forward a new emergency insulation programme that makes every home a warm one, alleviating fuel poverty, reducing energy bills, and overcoming the slow progress of existing schemes, and urges the Scottish Government to resolve the problems around the delivery of existing early learning and childcare (ELC) policies, in light of the thousands of two year olds from deprived backgrounds who are missing out on the benefits of funded hours, families finding that the 1,140 hours provision is inflexible or even inaccessible, and the need to immediately increase rates to protect the future of private and third sector providers, at the same time as also preparing for the further expansion of the funded ELC offer to younger children that is needed to boost attainment and benefit the economy.”
As we move to the open debate, I remind members that they will need to stick within their speaking-time limits.16:08
A YouGov poll for StepChange Debt Charity has found that one in seven Scottish adults has £20 or less to live on after paying for essentials each and every month. That is a sobering thought as we debate child poverty. The low level of UK benefits, soaring inflation and food costs and crippling energy costs are among the clear and obvious factors that have led to that dreadful statistic. As we know, the cost of living crisis will hit children the most, with nearly one in four children in our nation living in poverty.
It matters that the policies of the UK Government—sometimes botched policies such as the Truss-Kwarteng budget, and sometimes deliberate acts of harm such as Brexit, the levels of UK benefits and the sanctions regime—have fuelled that cost of living crisis and have impacted detrimentally on child poverty. More consensually, it also matters what we do in this place, in Scotland’s Parliament, to tackle child poverty.
That is why the Scottish Government has placed our Scottish child payment front and centre in getting cash directly into the pockets of the poorest families in our nation. Around 387,000 children are eligible for the payment this year. Modelling work from last year estimates that the £25 per week per child—a £100 payment per child in a low-income family, every four weeks—will lift 50,000 children out of poverty and will reduce relative poverty by 5 per cent. I shudder to think what poverty levels would look like in Scotland right now if it was not for the Scottish payment.
It is telling that the many briefings from the third sector organisations, which are very welcome in preparation for this afternoon’s debate, focus on calls for a further increase in the Scottish child payment. That is a clear acknowledgement of the power and effectiveness of the SNP’s Scottish child payment and of the real difference that it makes to many families in my constituency of Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn and right across Scotland. They call for an increase because it works.
Ahead of the launch of our new Scottish child payment, the call from the third sector was for a non-targeted £5 per week. The Scottish Government engaged with the third sector and, today, we have not a non-targeted universal benefit but a targeted benefit of £25 per week. When the Government works with the third sector, we get a good, positive outcome and real success.
I therefore warmly welcome the plans for an anti-poverty summit. It will not just be words; it will deliver action, because the evidence is there from what the Scottish Government has done previously. Just as our Scottish Government listened to those with lived experience of poverty and the third sector organisations that support them and delivered the transformational Scottish child payment in the first instance, we must do so once again, sharing ideas and suggestions about how we can improve lives that are blighted by poverty.
We have done lots of things other than the Scottish child payment, but I am not going to list those, because any summit or cross-party discussion must surely be about what we would do next. We do not have a bottomless pit of cash so, if we had cash, how would we spend it? Here are some ideas.
We know that there are calls for the Scottish child payment to go up to £40 per week. Is that affordable? If it is not affordable, should we look at a summer supplement? We know that the summer months of July and August are cripplingly difficult for low-income families, so should we have a summer supplement for the Scottish child payment in July and August? We should discuss that idea at the summit and beyond.
I am a dad. I am fortunate that I can afford to clothe my children. However, I know the importance of the child clothing grant in giving me a school uniform to wear when I went to school.
I also know how often kids rip their trousers or grow out of their clothes, so it is welcome that the clothing grant has increased to at least £120 for children at primary school, and at least £150 for secondary school students. However, is once a year enough? Do we have to think about a second clothing grant? I am not saying where the money comes from for that but am suggesting ideas for spending money if it was available.
We cannot spend the same pound twice. Let us have a frank discussion about where the best investment would be to deliver the outcomes that we want in tackling child poverty.
What about free school meals? They are universal for P1 to P5 and are soon to be universal for P6 and P7. I say to the cabinet secretary that we have to deliver on that as soon as possible. If some local authorities are ready to go now but others are not, can those that are ready be allowed to go now? If they can find that cash now, why should they have to wait? In addition, what about secondary schools? What are we going to do there in the future? We should think in the medium to long term for those, too.
Finally, in the time that I have left, I mention the poverty-related attainment gap in education. We have to start looking at outcomes as well as educational qualifications. I am therefore delighted to see record positive destinations for kids from low-income backgrounds—in fact, for kids right across the country. I am delighted that we are ahead of schedule in getting the 20 per cent of children from the most deprived backgrounds represented in our higher education system. We are ahead of schedule in doing that for 2030. However, the role of colleges is crucial, and their funding is under pressure. I will leave it there, Presiding Officer. That is something else that we have to look at.
I call Stephen Kerr to speak for up to six minutes.16:14
This debate should be a welcome opportunity for us to address the issues that contribute to child poverty. I am afraid, however, that we might easily slip into a display of grievance, wallowing in pessimism and—as I tried to intervene earlier to say—talking more about symptoms than about root causes, which include intergenerational poverty, the breakdown of families, addiction, inequality of opportunity and worklessness and underemployment. People need help, and most importantly they need a good job that pays good wages.
Will the member give way?
I will if Bob Doris is very brief, because we just do not have time for debate.
Does Stephen Kerr think that indebtedness is a huge pressure that leads to the breakdown of families? The UK welfare regime may perhaps contribute to indebtedness occurring in the first place.
I agree that indebtedness is a contributing factor to some of the situations that families find themselves in.
The Scottish Government’s recent report, “Poverty and Income Inequality in Scotland 2019-22” states, rightly, that
“Having paid work is an effective way out of poverty, and those families where all adults are in full-time work have a low poverty risk.”
However, I qualify what the report says by adding that skilled paid work is better than unskilled work, and of course higher pay is better than low pay. We need, therefore, to have an honest debate about the impact—
Will the member give way?
I will not be able to take any more interventions—I apologise. Everyone knows that I love a debate, but I want to say what I have prepared.
We need an honest debate about the impact of the pandemic on the global economy, the Scottish economy and Scottish society, and the devastating complication of the illegal Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. To be frank, we are kidding ourselves if we do not acknowledge that the extended coronavirus restrictions that we applied in this country, with a degree of rigour and a longevity that other countries did not apply, have had a deeply negative impact on our economy and our society.
That is despite the UK Government committing to vast borrowing to support individuals and families through the furlough scheme, and to support businesses and other organisations through various other measures. None of that was cheap—in fact, we borrowed more than £500 billion. I do not believe that members of this Parliament are economically illiterate enough not to understand that when one borrows such vast amounts of money, there will be a negative impact on the public finances.
I seem to recall that it was members of the SNP and the Labour Party who called the loudest for those interventions. How did they think that it would all be paid for? When the economic impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was felt in spiralling energy costs, was it not members of the SNP and the Labour Party who called the loudest for interventions in the retail energy market to support individuals and families, and businesses, in order to mitigate the impact of extraordinary exponential cost increases? Was it not a Conservative Government that took unprecedented measures to intervene to support families and businesses?
That was also paid for by unprecedented borrowing. How did members think that was going to be paid for? As I said, I hope that none of us is guilty of economic illiteracy. We know what the economic facts of life are; perhaps we, as a country, have had to learn them all over again. We cannot keep borrowing and borrowing and still command the confidence of international markets. There comes a point at which we must demonstrate the ability to service and repay our borrowing. Who knew? We all did.
A further example of the social impact of the pandemic that is now being made manifest is the steep rise in the incidence of violence and disruption in classrooms. Lockdown was irredeemably bad for our children and young people. They were the least likely to succumb to Covid-19, but they were, arguably, hit the most by the restrictions of lockdown. There are now aeons of research papers that show how negatively impacted children and young people were by lockdowns.
What are the root causes of intergenerational poverty? They are a lack of equal opportunity; persistent worklessness in households; underemployment; and a deep pessimism that things are, and will always be, as they are and can never be changed.
I am afraid that the biggest purveyors of that pessimism in this Parliament are members of the Scottish National Party. It is a party for pessimists, with much to be pessimistic about—mired in scandal and reeking of corruption. We have a skills shortage and record vacancies, and we have record levels of net migration, but Scotland does not benefit. Members—including the minister who interrupted me—might like to ask themselves why that is the case. We have people who are unemployed and underemployed and yet we are turning our back on the very things that help root out and tackle the root causes of child poverty.
We should be creating more apprenticeships, not rationing them. We should be funding technical education, but we are not. We should be investing in our colleges, but we are cutting that investment.
You need to conclude, Mr Kerr.
Members of the SNP and the Labour Party offer only welfarism. It is not the solution; it is a mitigation.
You need to conclude, Mr Kerr.
The Conservatives offer a way out of poverty, by tackling its root causes.16:21
The most recent poverty statistics are not acceptable. We are a wealthy nation with all the resources required to ensure an equal and fair childhood for all. One child having their health, development and wellbeing impacted by poverty is one too many, but the fact that one in four children in Scotland find themselves in a situation where their future life chances are being impacted is at the forefront of my mind as I make my remarks and support calls for bold action. The Conservative member who just spoke might think that it is pessimism, but I feel that it is more empathy.
Bold action is needed from all spheres of government to eradicate poverty and inequality in our society. Pressure is being placed on all household finances due to rising inflation, high energy bills and soaring increases to food costs. Families who were previously managing are finding themselves increasingly struggling. We also know that the cost of living crisis disproportionately impacts households on low incomes and is likely to exacerbate those unacceptably high levels of child poverty if we do not come together and take further bold action.
I acknowledge the significant actions that the Scottish Government has already taken to tackle the cost of living crisis and child poverty. Bob Doris was correct to get us to imagine what things would be like if there was no child payment, for example. Those actions include the First Minister’s pledge to triple the fuel insecurity fund to support anyone at risk of self-disconnection or self-rationing of their energy use as well as expanding and increasing the value of the Scottish child payment and introducing new family benefits.
The five family payments, including the Scottish child payment, could be worth around £10,000 by the time an eligible child turns six, compared to around £1,800 for eligible families in England and Wales, and more than £20,000 by the time an eligible child is 16. Of course, there is also the provision of funded early learning and childcare and the offer of free, good-quality meals to all pupils in primary 1 to P5. Those things make a real difference and have been welcomed by anti-poverty campaigners.
Speaking about the Scottish Government’s budget, Satwat Rehman of One Parent Families Scotland said:
“We are heartened to see that the Scottish Government has listened to several important calls from anti-poverty organisations, such as increasing taxes for the wealthiest to raise funds for public services ... We are also pleased that the government is raising benefits in line with inflation, which is the right thing to do and will make a real difference for low-income families who are being snowed under by rising costs”.
Peter Kelly from the Poverty Alliance stated:
“The principles that are embedded into the social security system in Scotland ... I think is particularly important. The principle around making a contribution to reducing poverty in particular I think is an important principle”.
Undoubtedly, the progress that the Scottish Government has made is being hindered by the devastating impact of the UK Government’s decade of austerity and welfare cuts. The UK Government has full economic and fiscal powers that it could use to make a real difference to the lives of so many. For example, it could make use of borrowing, provide more benefits and support households, introduce taxation of windfall profits and regulate the energy market.
The latest UK budget was a huge missed opportunity to help people. The reality is that the UK Government could have done far more to ease the burden on so many of our citizens, but it has chosen not to act.
The starkest example of the bind that we find ourselves in with the current constitutional set-up is that although the Scottish Government is increasing and expanding the Scottish child payment, the UK Government decided to cut universal credit. The UK Tory Government has also brought us the frankly illogical two-child limit and its accompanying repugnant rape clause, the benefit cap, the five-week wait, sanctions and over a decade of austerity.
The Scottish Government will spend up to £84 million in 2023-24 on discretionary housing payments to mitigate the bedroom tax, benefit cap and on-going freeze of the local housing allowance. That is estimated to help more than 4,000 families and around 14,000 children to meet their housing costs. Even those who do not believe in Scottish independence surely must occasionally wonder what we could do if we did not have to invest so much in protecting Scottish people from cruel UK Government policies.
A recent Audit Scotland report states:
“The Scottish Government has not ... demonstrated a clear shift”
“preventing child poverty.”
What is the member’s assessment of that report?
It is astounding to be asked that question when I have just let members know how much money is being spent on mitigating Tory policies. I am astounded. I do not understand that.
Here is something that may be of interest. Reversing those welfare reforms would put £780 million into the pockets of Scottish households and lift 70,000 people, including 30,000 children, out of poverty in 2023-24.
I mentioned that all spheres of government need to act in the face of this cost crisis, but I also want to add my voice to those of anti-poverty campaigners who are calling on the Scottish Government to go even further with the game-changing child payment and are asking for an increase to £40 a week as soon as possible. Research from Save the Children, the Trussell Trust and the Institute for Public Policy Research shows that that action could lift 30,000 children out of poverty, so it would help the Parliament meet our 2030 child poverty targets.
While we are working to do that, let us not forget that those targets are about improving the life chances of individual children across Scotland: children who deserve an equal and fair childhood.
I call Claire Baker, who joins us online.16:27
The motion for today’s debate may recognise the persistently high level of poverty in Scotland, but we should recognise that poverty is not inevitable. The failure to address levels of poverty and child poverty in our communities is the result of political choices. That the level of child poverty level remains at 24 per cent, after 16 years of SNP Government, is a reflection of its choices.
We all believe that Scotland is a place that values compassion and justice, and we share a belief that everyone should have what they need in order to live a healthy and fulfilled live. We believe that Scotland is a place where everyone should have a decent standard of living and the same chances in life, no matter who they are or where they come from. Yet Scotland is also a place where families and individuals are reliant on food banks and struggling to pay their bills. One million Scots live in poverty, and the constant pressure of it can dominate their lives.
No one chooses to have their child go to bed hungry or to huddle under covers for warmth instead of turning on the heating, but that is the reality for many. If we want Scotland to be a country that services the wellbeing of its people, we must ensure that everyone has the means to live in dignity.
Both of our Governments have failed those who are most in need. The UK Government’s welfare reform policies have been incredibly harmful, but the Scottish Government has not—[Inaudible.]—of those who are struggling to get by. Ambition has not reduced child poverty rates nor stemmed the increase in persistent deprivation.
Every year, 250,000 children experience poverty. That is one in four children in Scotland, which, as the Action for Children briefing states, is
“not just a national scandal, but a national shame”.
Members have received a large number of briefings ahead of this debate that not only highlight the scale of the problem and the number of organisations working to support those impacted, but set out clearly the type of actions and interventions that are needed to change the situation.
The current cost of living crisis means that ever-increasing numbers of people are now unable to afford the essentials of food, heat and clothing—the basics that we all need to live. Food banks throughout the country are providing record numbers of parcels to people who cannot afford to buy food. Food banks, which should be a temporary measure and an emergency service, are struggling to keep up with demand. We can end the need for them only by increasing people’s incomes and embedding a cash-first approach by getting more money into pockets so that people can buy food.
On Friday, I was at a meeting in Fife in which I listened to Ian Campbell, who is the chair of Kirkcaldy Foodbank. The demand in Fife, as in the rest of Scotland, is huge. Last month was the busiest month ever for Kirkcaldy Foodbank, with 1,612 visits and around 34,000 meals distributed. Some 576 food parcels were given out to families, 423 were given to couples, and 611 were given to individuals. In 2023, 34 per cent of the people who receive food from Kirkcaldy Foodbank are children. The food bank runs across five distribution points in the town. In July last year, it had to take the decision, which it really regrets, to limit people to one food parcel a week due to an increase in demand.
I heard Stephen Kerr’s comments earlier about the importance of employment. However, we know that, in a low-wage insecure employment market, when prices are rising, being in employment does not stop many people needing to use food banks. One in five of those who are referred by the Trussell Trust lives in a household in which someone is working. As wages fail to keep pace with inflation, already stretched pay packets cover less and less. Vulnerable families have been disproportionately affected by the impacts of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis, as structural inequalities are intensified and more and more families are pushed below the poverty line.
For single-parent households, the cost of living crisis has hit hard. Two in five children in poverty in Scotland are in single-parent households, and 38 per cent of children living in single-parent households are in poverty. Last year, three in five single parents found it extremely difficult to afford or could not afford electricity. Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that as many as seven in 10 single parents were skipping meals and going hungry to reduce costs.
It is right that single parents are recognised as a priority group in the tackling child poverty delivery plan. We need to see targeted interventions to support them, recognising that they are among those who are at the greatest risk of poverty, and that address the structural barriers that they face as sole earners and carers.
With fewer than 60 per cent of lone parents in Scotland in paid work, the employment gap between single parents and other households demonstrates the link between caring responsibilities and lower employment. There is consistent experience of a lack of affordable and flexible childcare for those in work, and the expansion of wraparound childcare for early years and school-age children is vital to improving employment prospects for single-parent families. We need to see greater action on that. We also need to see an increase in job opportunities that allow single parents to meet their caring responsibilities and measures that address the gender inequality in employment.
Measures such as expanding the Scottish child payment and introducing new family benefits have provided support for low-income families, but it is clear that much more needs to be done to build on those measures, with more resources and more urgency for those who are at greatest risk. Much more can be done on childcare, school costs and employment, and that must be done at pace, not just promised tomorrow. It takes more than ambition to create a Scotland in which everyone can live in dignity, and not in need.16:33
There is no denying that the impact that poverty has on families is being felt more than ever. The term “working poor” does not sit particularly well with me, but it has become more prominent. We are seeing in-work poverty, with individuals and families who are in work being left unable to make their pay packets stretch to meet all their needs. Those who were only just able to cope and make ends meet are now struggling completely with the cost of living crisis. Those who were already struggling are completely devastated. With increases in food prices, energy, utilities and other essential costs, which have mainly been brought on by the heartless UK Government, economic insecurity is being felt by everyone. However, the burden has, of course, fallen disproportionately on the already vulnerable—on lone parents, those with disabilities, carers, older people and, perhaps most of all, children.
It is shocking that 69 per cent of children in relative poverty live in working households—that has been emphasised already. As many will know, my Coatbridge and Chryston constituency is no stranger to the impact of child poverty. As I have said in Parliament before, I do not think that that is at all fair on children and families in postindustrial communities such as mine that have experienced the multigenerational poverty that the cabinet secretary referred to.
Let us make no bones about it—communities in Lanarkshire and elsewhere were very much still recovering from the Tory-inflicted deindustrialisation of the 1980s when the current cost of living crisis was inflicted on us. The Tories laugh, but many of us lived through that—Tory Governments put us down and then, just as we were making our way up again, they came in to deal yet another blow. Conservative Governments are no friend of communities such as Coatbridge and Chryston, which is perhaps why few people in my constituency would even consider voting Conservative.
Thankfully, unlike in the 1980s, we now have a devolved Government of our own and we have been able to mitigate some of the damage. It was heartening to hear Stephen Kerr acknowledge the measures that the Scottish Government has taken to mitigate the impact of his party’s policies. The Scottish Government has used and continues to use our limited powers and budget to break the cycle of poverty but, without Scottish independence to uncouple us from this destructive Westminster Government, we remain limited.
Will the member give way?
I was not going to take an intervention from a Conservative on this issue but, as I mentioned Stephen Kerr, I will take an intervention from him.
I point out that I was addressing mitigations in the context of social security; I did not refer to the mitigations that Fulton MacGregor referred to. I was talking about the need for us to focus on root causes of poverty, on which, I hope, we are all united.
The new First Minister, in one of his first acts, is ensuring that the Scottish Government triples the fuel insecurity fund to £30 million to support anyone who is at risk of self-disconnection or self-rationing their energy use. Thousands more low-income families will also benefit from free school-age childcare as part of a £15 million investment to help to tackle child poverty.
As my colleagues have said, one of the things that we can be most proud of as a Parliament is the Scottish child payment, which has made a huge impact on families in my constituency and across the country. As has been said, the payment has been expanded to eligible six to 15-year-olds and has been increased in value to £25 per child per week. About 387,000 children are now forecast to be eligible in 2023-24, and it is estimated on the basis of modelling that it will lift 50,000 children out of poverty and reduce relative child poverty by five percentage points. I agree with the call from the charities that Ruth Maguire and Bob Doris mentioned that it would be a good move to increase the payment further, because it works and would provide further help.
Given the large number of children in my constituency who live in poverty, it is perhaps no surprise that there are excellent and innovative examples of groups and charities that work tirelessly to make sure that no children go without. As I have done before, I will take a bit of time to pay tribute to some of those organisations.
Cool School Uniforms is a uniform bank that Julie O’Byrne and Anne Cully set up a few years ago in Coatbridge. The charity has grown exponentially and it works tirelessly to ensure that no child goes to school without warm, clean and suitable clothing. I have a strong interest in the subject, which I have asked many questions about and held round-table discussions on, so I will be interested to hear how the new Government plans to expand our school uniform policy from the current one-off payment of £120, which Bob Doris highlighted.
St Augustine’s Outreach, which ran under the name of the stay connected project during the pandemic, is also doing wonderful work. It helps with all aspects of life by providing furniture, a clothing bank and a pantry; it ran a successful toy appeal at Christmas; it offers financial support for energy through Payzone; it has made up toiletry bags to tackle hygiene poverty; and it most recently had a warm space in the evenings that provided free soup and hot drinks. Over the cold months, many organisations in my area opened up warm rooms, which let people who could not afford to put on their heating come in for a wee drink and a chat in a welcoming environment.
I always mention Coatbridge Community Foodbank, which is an absolutely fantastic organisation, as is Moodiesburn Community Foodbank. I agree with Claire Baker that food banks are seeing demand soar. The fact that we require such places is absolutely atrocious, and I make no apology for saying, as I have said before, that that is all down to the UK Tory Government’s heartless incompetence. However, I am glad that we have such kind and caring people in our communities who come together to mitigate the situation and offer assistance in such difficult times. I am happy to end there.
I call Maggie Chapman, who joins us remotely.16:39
I welcome Shirley-Anne Somerville to her new Cabinet post, and I look forward to working closely with her over the coming months. I thank the Deputy First Minister for the open and collaborative working relationship that we developed on social security and other issues when she was in her previous role.
I am sorry not to be joining members in person today, but I have been at the Scottish Trades Union Congress annual gathering in Dundee, where many of the discussions and debates that are under way have relevance to the debate in Parliament. Protecting and enhancing our public services, supporting our workers and their families by delivering well-paid jobs with fair and safe conditions, and tackling inequality and discrimination across society are fundamental to eliminating poverty and inequality.
I thank all the organisations that have sent in briefings and information in advance of today’s debate. We have probably had more emails about this debate than many of our previous discussions on poverty, and I know that many of us appreciate all the information that is sent to us. However, the level of contact is perhaps a troubling sign—not because the organisations concerned are engaging with us frequently, but because they have to, with messages that are pretty bleak.
The fact that one in four children in Scotland lives in poverty should—does—shame us all. The devastating impacts on our young people’s physical and mental health, development and wellbeing, and on their hopes and dreams, are wide ranging and often lifelong. Poverty robs our young people of their right to a fair childhood; it robs them of a fair future, too.
Let us remember that poverty is a political choice. It is a consequence of decisions taken—sometimes decades ago; sometimes far away—across all different levels and departments of government.
We do not have poverty because we, overall, lack resources or money. Just last year, the five largest energy companies racked up nearly $200 billion-worth of profit. That is profit, not turnover. It is clear that lots of money is available; it is just not in the right places. We have seen successive UK Conservative and Labour Governments act in ways that have failed to provide the foundations for a strong, equal and just society.
When the current cost crisis—the worst that we have seen in a generation—hit, many families were already struggling. Before the cost crisis—indeed, before the pandemic—too many were already in poverty and many were just about getting by. Their experiences of poverty were exacerbated by the cost crisis, not caused by it. A decade of Tory austerity meant that, when the pandemic and then the cost crisis hit, there was very little, if any, spare capacity to cope.
I wish that we had not had more than a decade of austerity and of penny pinching and belt tightening for public services while the already wealthy profited from the increasing misery and precarity of the rest of us. The profiteering seen in recent years, during Covid, by the energy companies and those who benefit from the destruction of our social fabric and environmental life-support systems should never have been allowed to happen, never mind enabled and supported by decision makers. Stephen Kerr might do well to remember that.
Here in Scotland, we have tried to mitigate some of the worst effects of that greedy broken system by increasing the Scottish child payment, by providing the fuel insecurity fund and through targeted childcare support and other commitments. I am pleased to have played a role in securing the mitigation of the benefits cap. It is clear, however, that there is so much more that we need to do. We must ensure that we support families now, while building resilience into all our systems and processes to guard against future crises.
Although we do not have the powers to do everything that we might wish to, particularly for the longer-term structural reform that our economy so desperately needs, we must do more than we are currently doing. Decent support for mental health services for all young people is vital. It has a return to society of up to eight times the initial investment and clear long-term positive impacts for individuals and their wider communities.
We must mitigate the penalties that families with more than two children face because of the Tories’ immoral rape clause. Over the coming months, we will be exploring how we can better harness our collective wealth and income to better support and protect our children and to boost our economy. We want to be in a position to provide universal free school meals, as we know that that supports every aspect of a child’s growth and development.
Affordable, warm homes are the bedrock of healthy, happy families. We must act to tackle the far-too-high levels of use of temporary accommodation.
We need decisive action on public sector debt recovery, and we need to deliver on the promises of employability support. Helping parents, especially mothers, into work is fundamental to meeting our child poverty targets.
We must do all that while clearly recognising the gendered nature of poverty and the multifaceted intersectionality that must be embedded in all our actions to tackle it, so that we do not reinforce structural inequalities. Those parents and children who are the easiest to ignore are the ones we must work hardest to support.
We must recommit to meeting the interim and 2030 child poverty targets. That means doing more than we are doing currently. It requires a ramping-up of our cash-first approach. It means seriously considering proposals that might have felt too radical or too difficult before, including those on tax reform and wealth redistribution. That will not be easy, but it is vital. Our children and our children’s children deserve nothing less.
I call James Dornan, who joins us remotely.16:45
According to the Institute for Government, the cost of living crisis refers to the fall in real disposable incomes due to rising inflation and taxes. It goes on to say that the UK has been in crisis since late 2021, although it seems to many people that we have lurched from one crisis to another for a lot longer than that and that they have been under severe financial pressure since well before late 2021.
Despite those facts, the inaction of the uncaring and out-of-touch Tory Government has been, even by the Tories’ miserable standards, truly woeful. It is difficult to understand what reality they inhabit when, only the other day, after the International Monetary Fund reiterated its forecast that the UK economy will shrink this year, which will cause further hardship for hundreds of thousands of already hard-pressed families and businesses, that was welcomed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer as evidence that things are working. They clearly are not, and the UK Government has nothing to offer us. It has no ideas and no plans—nothing.
In contrast, the UK Government is happy to continue to provide tax breaks to the top 1 per cent while raising taxes for the poorest in our society. Let us be clear: the UK Government is not the solution to the cost of living crisis; it caused it. It failed to grow the economy while in power, added 10 years of austerity and got us trapped in a cycle of low wages coupled with higher taxes to pay for overstretched public services that have been weakened by a decade of cuts, which has left us all worse off. Many people are struggling from one day to the next, and more and more families, including children, are being pushed into poverty. It truly is scandalous.
Barnardo’s recent report, “At what cost?”, highlights the fact that
“Children in the most vulnerable and precarious circumstances will be among those most exposed to the cost-of-living crisis”.
The report states:
“Families with nothing left to cut back on are no longer having to choose between heating or eating—instead they’re unable to afford either.”
It also found that more than half of parents have been forced to cut back on food spending for their family over the past 12 months. One in five parents said that they struggled to provide sufficient food due to the current cost of living crisis, and more than a quarter of parents said that their child’s mental health had worsened due to the situation. Parents admitted to resorting to desperate measures, with a quarter having sold possessions and one in five having taken on new credit cards, extra debt or a payday loan. It is estimated that, throughout the UK, more than one in four children now live in poverty, and the situation is getting worse by the day.
I will respond to Claire Baker’s points. Child poverty levels in Scotland might well be stuck at 24 per cent for the time being, but the levels are worse everywhere else. They have got worse during the period in which our mitigations have helped to at least keep the levels steady. That is nowhere near good enough—not at all—but at least we have not allowed the situation to get worse with the minimal powers that we have.
Rather than defending the UK Government’s abysmal record, Opposition parties should acknowledge some fundamental truths. The Scottish Parliament does not have many of the powers that are pivotal to tackling low wages, low growth, high inflation and high overall taxation. Those powers are controlled and closely guarded by the UK Government, but we need them. We could use those powers to build on the measures that the Scottish Government has taken to tackle the crisis with the limited powers at our disposal.
Perhaps someone should explain to Paul O’Kane the difference between the powers that Labour had in 1997 and the situation that I have just described. Despite his view, that shows the benefit of being an independent nation.
Our latest programme for government, which was brought in under our previous First Minister and will be carried forward by our existing First Minister, sets out a number of measures. Those include the Scottish child payment, the new winter heating payment, the doubling of the fuel insecurity fund and the widening of eligibility for the tenant grant fund—there are lots of measures there.
If people do not believe that the Scottish Government is truly making a difference, they should listen to Paul Lewis from the BBC’s “Money Box” programme, when he says that things are better in Scotland due to Holyrood’s use of devolved powers over tax and benefits. In a column for the Radio Times, he said:
“I once coined the acronym Tabis—Things Are Better in Scotland—as a shorthand for the forward-looking social policies of that country. And it gets truer all the time. Over the past 25 years devolution has given Scotland limited but growing independence over its social security and tax policies. And they are better.”
He once coined the term TABIS—things are better in Scotland. Wow! Of course, people would never believe that when they read our newspapers or listen to opponents telling us day after day how things are better anywhere else and everywhere but Scotland. Who to believe?
Given the UK Government’s inaction and the predictions that the crisis is set to continue, if not get worse, there is a real need for us all to do more. That is why I welcome the initiative that is set out in today’s motion, and particularly the plans to hold an anti-poverty summit to guide future action on tackling poverty. I would welcome it if the cabinet secretary, in responding to the debate, took the opportunity to provide us with more details of the proposed summit, including the timescale for delivery and whether local organisations will be able to participate in person or in writing. No one knows better the issues affecting a local community than those who belong to and work in it.
It is clear that there is still so much more for us all to do. Far too many people, particularly children, still live in poverty. I have lived through the stress, the anger, the heartbreak and the break-ups that poverty brings to families, particularly those with young children. Nothing is more debilitating to people’s self-esteem than the struggle to find the money to buy uniforms or new shoes or, as previously stated, having to decide whether to eat or heat. I therefore urge my colleagues from across the chamber to pledge to support any move to gain the full levels of power that are required to tackle all the areas that impact on child poverty. Only then can we truly say that we have done all that we can for those who need us the most.16:52
I appreciate the Government holding this debate on the cost of living and reducing child poverty so early in the new First Minister’s era, because we all agree that child poverty is unacceptable and deserves our full attention, in order that we ensure that it is eradicated.
However, I do not see how the Scottish Government can categorise the subject as a “national mission”, given its recent actions. I find it incredibly disappointing that the First Minister decided to remove the ministerial appointment that had sole responsibility for social security. It is welcome to see Ben Macpherson in the chamber this afternoon. I have worked closely with him and, although we disagreed, I often found him to be open and willing to engage on the subject. I think that he will be missed by the Scottish Government.
As Stephen Kerr pointed out, social security is by no means the only tool with which to alleviate poverty, but it is a vital tool in our efforts to provide support to the most vulnerable people in our society.
The cabinet secretary knows the social security brief well, but she is going to absorb that brief as part of her wider portfolio. Social Security Scotland is still in the process of being set up and is experiencing many teething problems. The Scottish Government has still not fully devolved all the social security benefits that it took on, and completion of case transfer is not expected until 2025, at the earliest. Even with the cabinet secretary’s abilities, I am sceptical about whether she will be able to devote the required time and energy to social security while her brief remains so busy. If the Government is serious about tackling poverty—in particular, child poverty—it must respect the vital role of social security by bringing back a minister.
The truth is that the Government has been in power for more than 15 years and has made no meaningful improvement in relation to child poverty in Scotland. We heard just a couple of weeks ago that the level of child poverty in Scotland remains at the same level that it was at when the SNP took over in 2007, with one in four children living in relative poverty and one in five living in absolute poverty, after housing costs.
Will Jeremy Balfour comment on the impact of UK Government welfare policies on pushing children into poverty, and on how many people the decrease of £20 in universal credit pushed into poverty?
The cabinet secretary again picks one area rather than looking at the whole of what the UK Government did during Covid. I had to remind her predecessor of this: we are the Scottish Parliament, and I am here to hold the Scottish Government to account. That is my role. The Scottish Government has to take responsibility for the decisions that it makes, but it never does.
No matter how hard I try, I cannot get my head around those child poverty numbers. This is not the 21st-century Scotland that we should be living in. The SNP-Green Government is failing the children of Scotland. As in many other areas, the promises and rhetoric that it sold to the Scottish people are a million miles away from the reality of its failed delivery.
Former First Minister Nicola Sturgeon promised to close the poverty-related attainment gap completely—not “partially”, not “almost”, but “completely”. The reality is that the SNP has failed to do so and has walked back on that promise. The gap actually widened last year; it did not narrow. Not only is the SNP not following through on its promise, but it has presided over a decline in standards for the poorest people in Scotland. The SNP promised to provide free school meals for all primary school children by August 2022, but the reality is that it has moved that back to 2024. Once again, we hear big talk with no results.
Finally, I will circle back to Social Security Scotland and the mess that the Scottish Government has made of what could and should have been a very promising initiative.
The devolution of social security was a golden opportunity to create a unique Scottish system that would be underpinned by the broad shoulders of the UK Government. Instead, what the SNP has produced is over time, over budget, overstretched and still not fully delivered. As I said, I have been contacted by a number of constituents who are trying to access the Scottish child payment but are unable to do so to get the help that they desperately need, because Social Security Scotland phone lines are permanently engaged and its web chats crash because they are too busy. The story is the same for the best start grant. It is all very well having those benefits, but if the people who most need them cannot access them, what is their point?
Once again, I bring up the fact that there is no longer a specific social security minister who can deal with these issues. The SNP cannot tell us seriously that it is focused on child poverty and the cost of living while doing away with that vital role and diverting resources to the work of its divisive nationalist agenda. We all agree that eradicating child poverty is a far more important national mission than the SNP’s divisive and unwelcome independence mission.16:58
In speaking to the Labour amendment, I will address the cost of living crisis, in the main. Across the UK, wages have been stuck for the best part of two decades, and the Trades Union Congress has said that UK workers are on course for two decades of lost pay. They have suffered the longest pay squeeze in all our lifetimes, so it should be no surprise that so many workers have been on strike in so many sectors in order to fight for fair pay and working conditions in the middle of a crisis, and in order to recoup their huge loss of pay over those years.
As the STUC has its annual congress this week in Dundee, Scottish Labour is clear that we stand in solidarity with all the trade unions and professional organisations, and with the nurses and doctors—in fact, all workers—who are vital to running our public services.
However, as the leader of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers—RMT—Mick Lynch, has said repeatedly during the strikes, the individual strikes are critical to encourage growth in sectors outwith the public sector. In other words, trade unions are also standing up for people who are not in trade unions. There is generally greater wage growth in the private sector than there is in the public sector, but it is a basic requirement in today’s society.
There is a need to create a floor—basic wage rates and fairness—for young workers in particular, but also for all those who work in precarious employment. That is why we need to legislate against zero-hours contracts. That is long overdue and is needed for many sectors. It is the basis of a fair and modern society.
Under long-lasting austerity, the average British family is more than £8,000 poorer than its equivalents in other advanced economies. There are many reasons for that, but the complicated post-Brexit trade barriers continue to add to the woes. That should never be forgotten.
The crisis is intensifying. It is impacting on more and more people and the damage that it is causing is there for all to see. Many people are in despair because there is no end in sight.
The cost of living crisis does not affect only people who are on the breadline. Britain’s mortgage market contracted for the fifth month in a row last month, as the jump in interest rates that followed Liz Truss’s September mini-budget continues to damage the economy and trigger a collapse for new home loans. When we talk to many people about that, we find that the increase in mortgage interest payments alone, never mind the mortgages, is astronomical.
We can see that the cost of living crisis is extremely scary for a wide range of people, but large corporations have fuelled inflation with price increases that have gone beyond the rising costs of raw materials and wages and are pushing shopping bills to record highs, according to an analysis of hundreds of company accounts. The cost of living crisis is very much a cost of greed crisis, because virtually all the big companies that sell essential food items and fuel are making vast record-breaking profits.
If we talk to most ordinary people about the rising cost of food, we find that it is not even transparent. We accept that costs are rising for particular reasons, but there is shock about the extent of rises, with food inflation reaching well into double figures.
I am speaking more to the cost of living aspect of the motion than to the poverty aspect, but it highlights the situation that we face as a country where living standards are declining, home ownership is getting harder to achieve, individual and household finances are getting more precarious for many more people, people who are just above the poverty line are increasingly likely to fall below it and many people have a lower standard of living than their parents did. We see a pattern of stagnation and decline.
In her opening speech, the cabinet secretary mentioned the importance of understanding intergenerational inequality. We should talk more about that issue. We did that in the previous session of Parliament, but the situation is even more acute now. Young people under the age of 40 will never see the levels of home ownership and prosperity that their mothers and fathers saw. That is an important policy agenda that the Government must address.
Rampant profiteering drives inflation and cranks up the cost of living for workers and families. It has been going on for almost two decades now. Children are the clear victims of those exploitative policies. The latest statistics from the “Poverty and Income Inequality in Scotland 2019-22” publication make for difficult and discouraging reading for Scotland’s families: the rate of child poverty in Scotland remains at the same stubborn 24 per cent level—that is 250,000 children who are experiencing poverty each year—as it was 16 years ago. That suggests to me that the Scottish Government needs to have, and will have, fresh policies in this Administration. It really needs to examine why that level is not coming down.
The sad fact is that we are in the third decade of the 21st century and Scotland still has levels of poverty that should be consigned to the past. That is not just a national scandal but a national shame.
The cruel irony is that child poverty is expensive. As we have discussed many times in the chamber, there is a premium on poverty, which is its extra hidden cost. People who are in poverty pay more through costly tariffs, prepayment meters and high credit rates. The University of Bristol has calculated that poverty premium at £242 million for Scotland.
As a member for the Glasgow region, I am concerned that there is no credible plan for economic growth in that city region, which has some of the highest levels of poverty. It is alarming that one in three children there lives in poverty, and that it has the highest proportion in Scotland of children in low-income families. It is remiss of the Scottish Government not to have a plan for Glasgow and the west of Scotland, because if one believes in redistribution of wealth, as I do and as the First Minister says he does, one cannot ignore the importance of an economic plan for Glasgow city and the wider region, where the level of poverty is extremely concerning.17:05
As I looked up at the public gallery earlier today, I observed the expressions and reactions of the young people who were attending the Parliament, as young people often do. The young people whom I saw today were about the age that I was when this Parliament opened. At that time, we could feel the excitement and the determination to create a more socially just society and a better politics.
I still feel that optimism today, despite the challenging times that we have been through together. As I said when I first spoke to this Parliament in 2016, we share a determination for and
“a hope of a better Scotland.”—[Official Report, 26 May 2016; c 81.]
That was manifested when we passed the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017, when we committed together to targets to tackle child poverty. The onus is, of course, in many ways on the Government, but the responsibility to meet the targets is all of ours.
We have heard from members across the chamber that poverty is wrong. It is wrong; it does not need to exist here in our country in the way that it does, and we can make the changes in our constituencies to ensure that, in generations to come, the MSPs who sit in this chamber do not face the same challenges in relation to poverty that we do today. I certainly want to see that for my constituents, and I know that every other member here does, too.
We share the responsibility not just for action but for how we got here. Yes, it is fair and reasonable in our democracy for the Opposition to critique and criticise the Government’s positions and decisions, but it is a fact that the decisions of decades past have an impact on where we are now. It is a fact that the mandate that the Labour Party had during the new Labour years could have been used to greater effect. It is a fact that the coalition Government between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives brought about austerity measures that have had an impact on poverty. It is a fact that Brexit has made our economy poorer.
Those circumstances, the shared challenges that we faced together with regard to the Covid pandemic and the consequences of the war in Ukraine have all had an impact for which we share responsibility. That is the context and those are the challenges that we share.
However, we will not benefit from a tribal approach as we go forward, and, in that spirit, it is right that we critique where we are now. We do that better by acknowledging success when it is achieved and by putting forward constructive suggestions about how we move forward, considering where power lies in terms of the Parliaments and constitutional framework of this country.
The achievements of Social Security Scotland are remarkable, and I feel proud and privileged to have been part of that project for some time as a minister. Those achievements are down to a huge number of officials who do remarkable work day in, day out to serve people, which they do really well.
There are practical challenges when it comes to undertaking new constitutional responsibilities and delivering new services. That is a reality, and we do better as democrats to be realistic about that challenge, as well as to be ambitious. Therefore, criticising the Scottish Government for delay because of the pandemic or being unfairly negative about the Government’s delivery of social security since the Smith commission and the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 does not serve well any constituents who we represent.
The Scottish child payment is a hugely impactful policy, and it is one that the cabinet secretary conceived when she was the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People. We all know the impact that it is having. If members go around any communities in the constituencies that they represent, they will hear people feeding back about the difference that the payment and its increase by 150 per cent has made, especially at this time. We should be proud of that achievement and build on it.
In that spirit, I would like to make two small suggestions on the way forward for the Government and Parliament to consider. I welcome the appointment of the Minister for Housing because it is an important remit, particularly at the moment. I urge the Government to consider whether more direct capital spending can be allocated to high-pressure housing areas such as here in the capital city, where the demand for social housing is extraordinarily high and has been for some time. I look forward to constructive engagement on that as well as a continuance of measures around how we bring about a better deal for tenants. I also welcome the Government’s commitments on that.
To the Parliament, I say this: there has been a lot of discussion today about work and what we can do to help people to make the journey out of poverty. We can surely collaborate behind a call for employment law and in-work benefits such as universal credit to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Think of the impact that we could make together to address poverty in our country if we had those extra levers. There is a shared enthusiasm in the Parliament for that, so let us collaborate and make it happen in the shared spirit of a national mission to tackle poverty in our country. Surely that is something that we can get behind to achieve good outcomes. Would that not be a wonderful thing?
We now move to closing speeches and I call Alex Cole-Hamilton to speak on behalf of the Scottish Liberal Democrats.17:11
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I apologise for not pressing my button and giving Daniel Johnson the impression that he was next.
I start by paying tribute to Ben Macpherson. I might not agree with everything that he has just said, but I do not doubt the power of his words and the contribution that he has made to public life since he was first elected in 2016. Ben and I share a constituency boundary and I look forward to hearing more of his contributions unencumbered by ministerial collective responsibility in the future. I also thank him for his contribution to this debate.
Claire Baker quite rightly used the word “dignity”, and allowing families and people—our constituents—the right to that dignity of which so many are deprived by the man-made creation of poverty is at the heart of this debate. We need to remember that poverty is a man-made creation. As Ben Macpherson rightly said, we are all responsible for using our collective will and might to end that man-made spectre.
There will always be areas on which we agree; there is no doubt about that. Let me say from the outset that I want this Government to succeed. This Government has embarked upon many avenues and ventures that I think are wrong-headed and not the priorities for our people, but on this I agree with the Government. We will always support aspects of policy that we can get behind if we see that there is a line of sight to it achieving the abolition of the spectre of poverty. The child payment is exactly one of those policies. I echo some of the concerns that Jeremy Balfour rightly raised when he talked about the amount of time that it has taken to get that payment to people, but I do not denigrate its existence. I congratulate the Government on it and am grateful to the cabinet secretary for her remarks.
I was quite taken by Bob Doris’s remarks about a supplementary payment that can be made over the summer. That idea would bear more scrutiny.
We live in a changing world, which makes our work to end the spectre of poverty that much harder, and sometimes things are beyond our control. On 22 February 2022, a muzzle flash shifted the world on its axis with the illegal invasion of Ukraine. It showed us with stark clarity how exposed we are to energy insecurity, which was, in itself, a massive turbocharge to the poverty that we all seek to address. I hope that we have learned a lesson from our exposure to global shocks in the energy market.
We have an answer to that in Scotland by aspiring as much as we can to make every home that is occupied by our constituents a warm home. Right now, that is not the case, and we know that. We have that in granular detail, and we need to address that reality if we are going to drive down fuel bills as well as meeting our climate obligations. For all the challenges that we face, we cannot lose sight of the fact that our world is still on fire.
As I said in my opening remarks, 874,000 households in this country live in fuel poverty and we are nowhere near touching the sides. Last year, only 5,000 homes were helped to improve their insulation measures—that is 0.6 per cent. We must exponentially ramp up our efforts. Miles Briggs was quite right to say that we should focus first on those who have caring responsibilities, particularly for end-of-life care. I visited St Columba’s hospice yesterday and heard about the exponential growth of the hospice-at-home service and the impact that increased fuel costs have on that.
Although I did not agree with everything that Stephen Kerr said, he is partially right in saying that poverty is intergenerational and that work and social mobility are the fastest routes out. However, getting into work is problematic in and of itself if the childcare that someone relies on to attend evening courses or job interviews is not available. We do not have flexibility in our childcare sector. The Government’s current aspiration to provide 1,140 hours of free childcare is too inflexible and can be inaccessible for parents who are adrift of the labour market. It equates only to the duration of the school day, falling short of full-time working hours, and prevents primary caregivers, who are typically women, working full time.
Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that 25 per cent of parents living in absolute poverty in Scotland have given up work, that a third have turned down a job and that a further 25 per cent have not been able to take up education or training as a result of childcare problems. That is why our amendment calls on the Government to immediately increase payment rates to protect the future of third sector and private providers.
During his campaign to become First Minister, Humza Yousaf promised an expansion of early learning and childcare, which is something that has long been championed by my party. We have said for years that funded childcare should dovetail with maternity and paternity leave. We need big plans for infrastructure and staffing, but the problems of the existing roll-out must also be fixed and lessons must be learned for what comes next.
Thanks again to campaigning by my party, two-year-olds from poorer backgrounds are entitled to free early learning and child care. That was a big Liberal offer, but the Scottish Government is still messing up the roll-out and Scotland is miles behind England in uptake. Childcare should be helping with the cost of living crisis and with raising attainment, so why are 8,000 of Scotland’s poorest families still missing out on that? For the families of three and four-year-olds, the offer of free hours is all too often a “take it or leave it” one, with the promised flexibility and choice just not there. Instead of being able to fit childcare around work and other commitments, parents all too often find that it is the other way round. They are essentially being told that it is not the Government’s problem if they cannot make the set hours work, because the offer of 1,140 hours is there.
I understand that I must conclude soon. We need a new funding formula that will ensure that the private, voluntary and independent early years sector is not left at a disadvantage. Look at childminding, where 10,000 places have been lost in the past five years. That sector should be thriving but instead is being squeezed. The current formula funnels experienced staff away from all private settings into council nurseries by paying them more to do the same job there.
Mr Cole-Hamilton, I thought that you were concluding.
I will conclude now; thank you for reminding me. We cannot forget those small private and voluntary nurseries.
I now call Daniel Johnson to wind up on behalf of Scottish Labour.17:18
I am sorry for my earlier impetuousness, when I tried to steal Alex Cole-Hamilton’s time.
I will begin with Ben Macpherson’s challenge, because it is an important one. We must look ahead and use this place to find new solutions and new ways of thinking. However, I gently ask whether that is what the Government is doing today.
Mr Macpherson is also right in saying that it is incumbent on the Government to use the power of the Administration behind it to do that heavy lifting. We have had a so-called refresh today, but what is new? What has changed? What are the new ideas? When we have a programme for government, we usually have a long list of Government bills to come, but the Government mentioned only two bills today. If members do not want to take my word for it, they should just look at the BBC’s coverage of today’s big relaunch and reboot. What is the BBC covering? It is covering two things, both of which are things that the Government is scrapping, not new things that it is doing.
This is a big problem that requires urgent action at significant scale, but the solutions are just not forthcoming from the Government. This is not a reset or a refresh; it is just a restatement. We only have to look at the Government’s motion to see that, because there are no new ideas, just repetition of things that it has done before.
The reality is that the Government is on pause, and it has been on pause since mid-February. Despite the election of a new First Minister, it cannot get going again. It is like a rabbit that is stuck in the headlights, frozen in fear, with a crisis surrounding the party. That is why there is simply rhetoric, not action, despite the calls made by the Poverty Alliance today.
I recall hearing members from all parties giving ideas of what they would do further to tackle poverty in Scotland. Daniel Johnson has not given any policies or ideas yet—could he give some?
I am barely two minutes in. Mr Doris should be patient—I will get to the ideas.
All that the Government has really announced today is a talking shop, and, as Paul O’Kane pointed out, that is simply not good enough, as urgent action is required. Mr Cole-Hamilton was absolutely right to point to the urgent need to address fuel poverty. Ultimately, if there is one lesson from soaring energy prices, it is that we need to help people to get off gas. We need to help them to heat their homes more efficiently, and that requires urgent action both right now, with insulation, and in broader steps to get people on to more sustainable heating methods. Where are the solutions on that from the Government? There is an idea for Mr Doris—we could look at that. I will come to other ideas further on in my speech. Simply having a talking shop or summit will not do it.
The most interesting point in the discussion arose between Stephen Kerr, Fulton MacGregor and Claire Baker. We cannot just examine the symptoms of poverty. If there is one small bit on which I can agree with Mr Kerr, it is that we need to consider the root causes, but we do not do that by ignoring the deep structural causes of poverty even among those who are in work. Both Fulton MacGregor and Claire Baker did an excellent job on that. It is not simply about providing access to jobs. If it was that simple, we would have solved poverty in recent months, given the tight labour market. There are structural issues that prevent people from accessing that work, including those involving the childcare that can enable people to access work or undertake training to take higher-paid jobs. Here is another idea for Mr Doris: we could have direct intervention that would enable people to take up the training required, beyond the traditional training that is available. That could help people to overcome the barriers that prevent them from taking better work.
In the words of John Bird, we need to “dismantle poverty”, and that requires us to acknowledge the structural problems that put it in place. We see very little from the Government that is seeking to analyse what the structural issues are, let alone helping people to overcome them. There has been a lot of discussion about the scale of poverty but not about how we might actually help people to overcome the structural barriers that prevent them from seeking and taking up the solutions that they need to get out of it.
Ultimately, this is a debate that seeks to distract. The motion before us is virtually a copycat motion, replicating one that we debated prior to the recess. Indeed, we have another carbon-copy motion for tomorrow. That is because the Government does not actually want us to discuss any substance; it wants to distract us from the serious issues that arise. This is a rebrand, not a reset. The Government keeps talking about a fresh start and fresh thinking, but, frankly, there has been nothing forthcoming from the Government today, either from the debate and the motion before us or from the First Minister’s statement earlier today.
We want real change and a real difference. Frankly, we need to get shot of the SNP and deliver a Labour Government in the UK and in Scotland, which will make a real difference and tackle the real issues, if we are to deliver real change and tackle poverty in Scotland.
I encourage members who come into the chamber to desist from engaging in private conversations.17:24
I begin my closing remarks on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives with consensus. Supporting Scotland with the cost of living and in reducing child poverty is a key objective for all political parties. Many of us are agreed on that shared ambition today. However, how we achieve such objectives, and our policies, will differ.
Unfortunately, the SNP has an unhealthy habit of blaming everyone but itself when debating social issues. The Scottish Conservatives understand that a thriving economy is key to lifting people out of poverty, to supporting people with life challenges and to giving our young people the best possible start in life.
It is also important to recognise the powers that the Government has at its fingertips in one of the most devolved parliaments in the world. Devolution in Scotland works best when the UK and Scottish Governments work together. We saw that during the height of the pandemic, when rolling out the Covid-19 vaccine. In my view, that is the best way to support people in Scotland.
For the past 15 years, the SNP has presided over devolved powers. When it first entered office, it promised to eradicate child poverty, but, in fact, the percentage of children in poverty has remained stable since the SNP came to power in 2007. In addition, an Audit Scotland report has said that the effects of the SNP Government’s child poverty delivery plan cannot yet be assessed, despite the SNP’s having launched in 2018 its four-year plan to reduce child poverty. Data is vital when addressing child poverty in Scotland, and I am beyond frustrated at the lack of data held by the Government.
Will the member take an intervention?
No. I am sorry, cabinet secretary, but you did not give me that opportunity.
That lack of data is not good for governance nor for measuring the success of a policy. The Government should not shy away from scrutiny.
Having listened carefully to the debate, members across the chamber have reflected on the SNP’s record in tackling the cost of living and child poverty. The cabinet secretary mentioned providing immediate support to break child poverty. I therefore wonder whether she agrees with the Scottish Conservatives that the roll-out of free school meals must be a priority for the Government. Poverty does not stop when children reach primary 6, and we all know that providing children with a hot meal not only helps them to concentrate at school but makes sure that they do not go home hungry. I would therefore be grateful for an update on that when the cabinet secretary sums up.
Housing is another important issue that has been raised today by many contributors. My colleague Miles Briggs was right to raise the issue of families—in particular, children—living in temporary accommodation. We should all be concerned that 9,130 children are living in temporary accommodation. That must have a negative impact on their daily lives, and I join Miles Briggs in his calls to work with the Government to tackle that issue together. He also mentioned kinship care and the need to introduce the national minimum allowance, which I and others have called on the Government to do.
Paul O’Kane mentioned the fact that independence will always be a top priority for the SNP. He is right on that point. The Government must put that obsession behind it and focus on what matters to the people of Scotland.
Alex Cole-Hamilton raised the issues that are faced by parents—particularly mothers. He is right in saying that women are detrimentally impacted by cost pressures, particularly if they work in the childcare sector.
Stephen Kerr mentioned tackling the root cause of poverty by creating good jobs, the provision of apprenticeships to our young people and the need to pay skilled jobs well. He also, rightly, highlighted the measures that the UK Government took during the pandemic, especially those that supported families and businesses.
Jeremy Balfour mentioned the removal of the ministerial position for social security—something that I find strange, given how important that is in supporting people.
Finally, Social Security Scotland and the many teething issues in setting up the benefits system need to be urgently addressed by the Government.
Presiding Officer, I make no apology for sounding like a broken record in raising again the SNP’s flagship policy of the expansion of free childcare. It was heartening to hear so many members make reference to it today, because it is an issue that I care deeply about. It helps to lift children and families out of poverty, and we must get it right. I am pleased that Natalie Don is in the chamber—I welcome her to her role—as I wrote to her recently about working collegiately on that issue.
I also refer to the comments that were made by the First Minister in his commitment to working with the childcare sector, but I hope that that means the whole childcare sector, because we need a reset of that policy. I therefore extend that olive branch again today, and I ask that we arrange a meeting with those in the private, voluntary and independent sector to discuss the problems that the roll-out of free childcare is causing for them. Members have heard the issues that I and others have raised about the staffing crisis, council funding and PVI rates. If the private, voluntary and independent nursery settings close, the policy will fail.
We have already mentioned the 11,000 childminders. Daniel Johnson, Alex Cole-Hamilton and others raised that matter earlier. We need to encourage people into the childcare sector instead of driving them away. After all, childcare practitioners are Scotland’s first educators and, if the Government is serious about tackling child poverty, that needs to happen when a child is young, in order to support parents and to ensure that any intervention that is required can happen, to give our children the best possible start in life.
All that I am asking is that the SNP get a grip on that policy. This Government can then look towards the UK Government’s ambitious policy of 30 hours of free childcare a week for children from nine months old. That is how we will tackle poverty head-on: by fixing the problems in an existing policy and then being bold and ambitious. Time will tell if the SNP is up to the challenge.
We heard earlier about the First Minister’s programme for government, which has been completely overshadowed by the chaos that is engulfing the SNP. For the sake of our country, I ask the Government to put the needs of our country first, and not its own needs, and to tackle the cost of living crisis and child poverty. Only then will we see the real improvements that we really need.
I call Shirley-Anne Somerville to wind up the debate. Cabinet secretary, you have up to nine minutes.17:30
I thank members on all sides of the chamber for their contributions. It would be fair to say that we have not agreed on everything, but in the main the debate has been constructive. I think that it shows that every member in the Parliament has the best interests of the Scottish people and the people of Scotland at heart; we just disagree sometimes on how to take that forward.
As part of that, it is important that—as the First Minister said during his statement—this Government reaches out to those in opposition in the chamber, and reaches out again to stakeholders and in particular those with lived experience, to ensure that we work together to tackle child poverty and poverty as a whole. That is why the anti-poverty summit is important. I hope that, despite the cynicism and scepticism among some about that summit, Opposition leaders, or at least spokespeople, will take up the offer to attend. In the spirit of those types of meetings, I am happy to look at any invite that comes in from Miles Briggs on the issue of life-shortening illnesses, in particular among children.
During the debate, there has—quite rightly—been critique and criticism of what the Government has done and what it is determined to do. However, I think that it is important to challenge very strongly the insinuation that the First Minister lacks ambition in this area. He has been in post for just a few weeks and we have already had announcements of further increases to the fuel insecurity fund; a discussion on childcare and investment in it; information on the just transition and funds for energy transition; and further additional funding of £1 million to tackle health inequalities. Those are just some of the issues that have already been addressed, on top of what has been presented in the statement today.
Any extension to child maintenance and childcare would be welcome. With regard to the £15 million that was announced today, however, there are between 350,000 and 400,000 children in primary school, so that amounts to just £40 per child. How far will that £15 million really go?
We have demonstrated that through the important work on the pathfinder initiatives. I say to Daniel Johnson that he rose to the challenge that Bob Doris gave him and presented some ideas. A number of members presented ideas, and I say to all of them that, whether those ideas are for further work on childcare, the insulation aspects that Alex Cole-Hamilton mentioned or other areas, I am more than happy—as is the First Minister—to hear constructive comments and thoughts about how we can take them forward.
This is the start of that dialogue but, although I am happy to meet Opposition spokespeople individually on some of the initiatives that they have discussed, I hope that the next step will be for us to talk about the important issue of how we fund those. As we look at what we can do, we must have a realistic debate about how that can happen within the Government. I am not closing those ideas off at this point; I simply say, “Absolutely—let’s meet and get down to the detail, past the top lines that we have had the opportunity to discuss today, and talk about how much some of those initiatives cost and where that money comes from.”
We can look at the work that the Government has already done. The Scottish child payment is but one example—it has increased by 150 per cent in eight months. As a result, we will see a reduction in relative child poverty by about 5 per cent in 2023-24.
However, context is everything, and people, particularly the Scottish Conservatives, may criticise the Government for pointing to it, but it is a matter of fact that, while we make decisions on the Scottish child payment, decisions that are taken elsewhere push children and families into poverty. We will do what we can with the powers that we have to lift them out of poverty, but when the UK Government makes changes to welfare reforms and reduces universal credit by £20 a week, that pushes the same people back into poverty. We cannot ignore that, because to do so would be a dereliction of our duties and responsibilities.
This is the start of a dialogue. We get criticised for the fact that we are debating poverty measures again, but we also get criticised for not debating poverty measures enough. I am not entirely sure whether we are talking about it too much or whether we are not talking about it enough, but the Government will continue to reach out and speak to people, and we will also continue to make a real change in people’s lives.
Another aspect that we have talked about is the impact of high energy costs. It is a deep disappointment that the UK Government has ended the energy bill support scheme. The people of Scotland are living in that context. We will do what we can through the child winter heating allowance, winter heating payments and the fuel insecurity fund, for example.
Many members mentioned housing and homelessness—quite rightly—and we are taking those issues forward as a priority. The minister for housing will continue important work to achieve the vision that is set out in the ending homelessness together action plan so that everyone in Scotland can have a settled home that is high quality and affordable, and that will be supported with funding of £100 million.
Employment is also a very important aspect that we need to talk about. To truly tackle poverty, we must ensure that we have long-term, sustainable improvement to household income; that means people in employment with good, fair wages. That is why the Government supports the real living wage, unlike the UK Government, which has a national living wage that is too low and does not reflect the cost of living. During his very informed speech, Ben Macpherson once again suggested the devolution of employment law. We should look at that.
The one point on which I have consensus with Stephen Kerr is that we should look at the causes of poverty, but I say respectfully to him that one of the root causes of poverty in Scotland lies with the Scottish Conservatives because of the impact that the UK Government has on Scottish people.
As we look to what more we can do, we will hold the poverty summit, because it is important that we listen more to people and that we pull in the talents and expertise not only within the Scottish Government—my party—but across the chamber and in local government, national Government, business and the third sector. They should all work together. We also need to challenge ourselves on how innovative we can be, through our commitment to the minimum income guarantee, for example.
I am also looking forward to my work with the Scottish Greens, and with Maggie Chapman, in particular. I am sure that she and I can build the same positive, constructive relationship that I had with my friend and colleague Ross Greer working on education. I look forward to working with her on mitigation which, unfortunately, the Government has to deal with a lot due to the context that we are in.
A number of members—Pauline McNeill, Fulton MacGregor and Ruth Maguire—raised important points about intergenerational poverty and those who are struggling most; that is very important and we need to look at it.
Some members are still concerned about the make-up of the Government and the fact that there is no social security minister; well, can I introduce you to the social security minister? She is right here; she is in the Cabinet and she is dealing with social security. I remember that, when Ben Macpherson got into post, he was criticised for being a junior minister because we had demoted the issue, and now people are somehow concerned that the role is back at Cabinet level again. Can we get some perspective that this is a priority for Government? It will continue to be a priority for me.
I say respectfully to Jeremy Balfour—who I have worked well with in the past and hope to work with again in future—that, although he is here to hold the Scottish Government to account, he is also here to represent the people of Scotland. That means standing up against the UK Government, Jeremy, when it does things wrong. My goodness in my area it does plenty wrong to criticise.
Will the member take an intervention?
I am afraid that I have to close, or I genuinely would have taken the intervention. My apologies, Jeremy.
The Government has vowed to do everything that it can do tackle poverty. We will continue to work closely with our partners in local government, the third sector, businesses and communities to listen to people—particularly those with direct experience—and we will continue to do everything that we can to build a better Scotland for us all by making our communities and households more resilient and able to flourish by ensuring that everyone in the country has a bright future.
Thank you, cabinet secretary. I know that we are pressed for time, but full names would be appreciated.
That concludes the debate on supporting Scotland with the cost of living and reducing child poverty.
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