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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 17 December 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, General Election Outcome, Business Motion, UEFA European Championship (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, UEFA European Championship (Scotland) Bill, Decision Time, Food Insecurity


Contents


Food Insecurity

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-20197, in the name of Alex Rowley, on A Menu for Change’s report, “Found Wanting”. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the report by A Menu for Change, Found Wanting, which looks at the pressures forcing people into food insecurity in Scotland; understands that A Menu for Change is a three-year initiative that is run by Oxfam Scotland, Nourish Scotland, the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland and the Poverty Alliance, and is funded by the National Lottery Community Fund; notes that its research was carried out in Fife, East Ayrshire and Dundee and tracked people with lived experience in and out of food insecurity; believes that, while people said that they found great support from community groups and the healthcare and education sectors, the report found that system changes are required to prevent the causes of food insecurity; considers that income shocks from insecure and inadequate wages from employment and social security are key drivers in pushing people to become food insecure; notes the report's recommendations for a review of the budget for the Scottish Welfare Fund, for the Scottish Government to use public procurement to deliver fair work and invest in low-paid sectors, and to ensure that devolved employability programmes are designed to provide person-centred support for people who are furthest from the labour market; recognises the significant barriers that people facing food insecurity can face, and, in doing so, notes the authors' recommendations for UK ministers to restore the value of key benefits, uprate all benefits in line with inflation, remove the two-child limit and benefit cap, eliminate measures creating income shocks, including the five-week wait for universal credit, and to improve in-work conditions through measures such as increasing the national living wage to the real living wage, banning exploitative zero-hours contracts and improving in-work support.

16:21  

I thank those who supported my motion and paved the way for this debate, and the Labour business manager, who gave me the time for the debate.

I want to acknowledge the Big Lottery Fund for making the funding available for what is an important piece of work, and Oxfam Scotland, the Poverty Alliance, the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland and Nourish Scotland, who managed and oversaw the work.

A Menu for Change is a project that aims to reduce the need for emergency food aid by ensuring that people across Scotland get the cash, rights and food that they need before they are in crisis. Working with local groups and people, the project ran a study that found that food banks are not the long-term answer to food insecurity. Fundamentally, people need cash so that they can buy the food that they need. That is an important point, as I worry that food banks, which are something that my generation had previously encountered only during the miners’ strike of 1984-85, are in danger of becoming part of everyday life in Britain—that is Britain, the fifth-largest economy in the world.

Although I think that good people will continue to make donations to food banks, and many food banks are desperate for them to do so, we have to keep saying that food banks cannot become a way of life. People must not have to depend on charity to feed themselves. In the system of governance that we have, people should pay their taxes and contribute to the general wellbeing of society.

The study found that low and irregular wages, combined with a social security system that often fails to provide a basic safety net, are what push people into food insecurity. In this Parliament, we must recognise that we do not have many of the levers that can address those issues. That is even more frustrating, coming on the back of the result of last week’s general election. It is also a bit depressing, given that much of the overarching political debate in Scotland remains focused on unionism and nationalism, with an all-or-nothing approach. I hope, therefore, that the organisations that are behind the piece of work that we are discussing can support a positive approach and help to provide the evidence to make the case for what could be done to tackle poverty if we in this Parliament had control over more of the necessary tools and levers. I say that in the absolute belief that the Johnson Government will not only fail to address those issues, but proactively make them worse.

In the meantime, although we do not have many of the levers for change, we certainly have some. There is action that can be taken by the Government and by others in Scotland. The study shows that the Scottish welfare fund is a crucial lifeline for those in crisis; however, it is clear that we must see it strengthened. The Scottish Government needs to increase investment in the fund and in its administration. There should also be a summit of local and central Government, along with the third sector, to discuss the report’s many recommendations, as it highlights the need for more co-ordination and joined-up work, particularly at the local level.

I believe that the report can lead to more work on, and a national strategy for, tackling poverty. On its own, a national poverty strategy would not tackle poverty, but it would set out what needs to happen and where responsibility lies. It would give us a clearer picture of the direction that we need to take in Scotland.

The organisations involved in the report state that the Scottish child payment is hugely welcome, although its take-up must be closely monitored. They also say that a wider package of support should be introduced for households that will not be eligible for the new benefit.

The report has a number of key recommendations for the Scottish Government, and it would be good to hear the cabinet secretary comment on them. It would be good to have a debate in the first half of next year, in Government time, setting out where the Government is with its approach to poverty.

I point to the three areas—Dundee, East Ayrshire and Fife—where studies were carried out. In each case, A Menu for Change has made suggestions and recommendations based on the work that it has done and, in particular, its detailed engagement with local communities. As a Fife MSP, I intend to make sure that its report on Fife is shared as widely as possible, and that discussion takes place with all interested parties, including local politicians, who can make changes as a direct result of its work.

The organisations involved in the study have made it clear that listening to those with real-life experiences of poverty, and of food poverty, is key when moving forward and making policy. I will conclude, therefore, with some of the views of those people. One person said:

“I went three days without food and ... literally, I was close to collapsing in the street”.

Others said:

“I’m worrying about things that I need tae really worry about, like whether I’m gonnae eat today or whether I’m gonnae pay a bill tomorrow.”

“It gets to that embarrassing point of, dignity totally goes out the window, you know, ’cause I felt suicidal more times than I had hot dinners, and that’s no joke.”

“I think your stomach kinda gets used to it.”

That is not the type of society or country that we want to live in. This report gives us an opportunity to come together and say that we will no longer accept poverty in Scotland. We will work together to do what we can to change it.

16:29  

I am grateful to Alex Rowley for securing tonight’s debate, because it gives me the perfect opportunity to thank all the West Lothian organisations that work all year round—not just at Christmas—to alleviate food poverty. It also gives me the opportunity, once again, to state my support for enshrining the right to food in Scots law, because hunger in one of the richest countries in the world is, indeed, a crime. Hunger is a moral crime. It is also a crime in international law. Specifically, that is enshrined in article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which the United Kingdom signed as far back as 1976.

Our approach to ending food poverty should be based on a legal right to food. However, we need to be clear what that would mean in practice: the Scottish Government and all our public bodies would have a duty to ensure access to adequate and affordable food, and the Government and its agencies would be open to challenge within its existing powers. That is a big ask of any Government, but we should step up to the challenge. We have to recognise that, if we want legislation to mean something in practice, there is much more to do in Government, across civic Scotland and on a cross-party basis, to ensure that our approach is resilient and robust over time.

As Alex Rowley has said, the Scottish Government does not at present have all the levers required to end food insecurity and poverty. That is also recognised in the published work, “Dignity: Ending Hunger Together in Scotland”, which was led by the Rev Dr Martin Johnstone.

The situation is demonstrated by local experience. Between April and September, West Lothian Foodbank distributed more than 3,000 three-day emergency food parcels and provided a lifeline to more than 1,000 West Lothian weans. This has been its busiest year to date. Demand is increasing due to the roll-out of universal credit. The specific reasons why families seek help from West Lothian Foodbank are to do with benefits: 38 per cent are struggling because benefits are low; 19 per cent are struggling because of delays to receiving benefits; and 17 per cent are struggling due to changes to benefits. The bottom line is that people’s lack of food is due to their lack of money.

In some countries, people have the right to food written into their constitution. Germany calculates social security benefits on the basis of what is required in order to have a nutritious diet and a life with dignity.

“Dignity” is an important word. We know that many people would rather go hungry than seek help from a food bank. Examples of organisations in my constituency include the Vennie in Knightsridge, which has a good food outlet on a Tuesday that supports more than 50 families, and Polbeth Community Hub, which has a community fridge and community shop. Their work is imperative, because they recognise that food is about community as well as consumption.

I am grateful to Polbeth Community Hub for hosting—along with Artlink in West Lothian—an event that I supported. I also thank the fantastic Soul Food Sisters, which is a social enterprise in Glasgow. It led a community cooking lesson in which we all learned how to make Algerian mahjouba and Polish pierogi.

In addition to tackling hunger, all those local organisations are reaching out to communities to reduce loneliness and isolation, to promote good mental health and to help people upskill and recognise the social value of food.

This morning, I had the great privilege of meeting children from my old primary school, Addiewell primary school. That made me reminisce and made me nostalgic. I know that much has changed in the community that I represent since I went to that school in the 1970s, but rising hunger and poverty for our children is our collective shame. As we look forward to 2020, we should remember that poverty is not inevitable. We can end it, if we are determined to transform our collective shame into collective action.

16:34  

I thank Alex Rowley for bringing the motion for debate and for highlighting the report. I am thankful that it has been written. I might not agree with everything in it, but it allows us to take a step back and consider how to solve the issues for the longer term. I agree with Alex Rowley that food banks cannot become normative in Scottish society. We need to work across parties and we need policies—we will sometimes disagree on them—that allow us to think outside the box in order to ensure that we move on from food banks and that they do not become part of Scottish society.

I also thank the third sector and charitable organisations for the work that they do to combat social injustices. Here in Lothian, I know of many organisations—food banks and others—that seek to help the most vulnerable people in society. Often, they do that with little by way of budget or resources. We should pay credit to the many organisations that do that.

There is a challenge for national Government and local government in respect of how we fund those organisations and how we make sure that local groups get the funding that they need. There is no magic answer. Like Mr Rowley, as a former councillor I know that such organisations are often under councillors’ radar, because they work in such small areas. All they need in order to make a massive difference is a small amount of money. That is a conversation that we need to continue.

One of the other issues that we need to look at—the Social Security Committee is doing so at the moment—is uptake of benefits; literally millions of pounds in the system are not taken up by individuals across Scotland. The committee hopes to produce a report early next year, which will give some kind of collective way forward to help with that.

I totally understand some of the issues that Jeremy Balfour has raised. However, I wonder what he thinks about the manifesto on which the Conservatives stood, which will potentially mean a 60-year high in child poverty if the UK Government continues to proceed with the policies that it has in place and the cuts that it intends to make. We can support the third sector, but the problem has largely been caused by cuts that Jeremy Balfour’s party has made. In the time that he has left, might he try to work out how he might change that?

I will deal with that issue in one moment. We have to look at uptake. There is no easy answer. The Social Security Committee visited Wester Hailes and talked to many local organisations there, where it was interesting that even among local organisations there is not consensus on how to move forward.

On the cabinet secretary’s question, we sometimes forget that the old welfare system was not working and that there was cross-party and third sector support for the introduction of a new system. It is clear from the record that universal credit had—at least at the beginning—support across the chamber at Westminster.

One of the issues that people point to is the five-week waiting period. I am concerned about why people are not taking advantage of the advance payments that are available on day 1. We need to look at what other messages we are giving people. Why are they not taking up advance payments? There seems to be a misconception that people have to go through that period without money, but that is not the case. Anybody who says that should—

Will the member take an intervention?

I think that my time has almost gone, unfortunately.

You can take the intervention.

We need to ensure that people fully understand that they can get an advance payment from day 1, which will help them to get through the period.

Again, I thank Alex Rowley for bringing the debate. I will finish as I started—by saying that we need to ensure that food banks are not here forever and that we work to ensure that they go.

16:40  

I, too, thank Alex Rowley for bringing this important debate to the chamber.

I commend all the groups that are involved in A Menu for Change for their comprehensive report on food insecurity in Scotland, which is a completely unacceptable situation that is faced by too many people in our society. “Found Wanting” is a disturbing assessment of the current political and structural responses to food insecurity. It is shameful that people in one of the most prosperous countries in the world—a country that has a reputation for good food and drink—should have to choose between feeding themselves or feeding their children, and that people who work in full-time jobs should have to resort to food banks. No one should be resorting to food banks, especially not people who work full time. Nobody should be going hungry in a decent modern society. Food insecurity is caused by poverty or adverse circumstances, not by lack of availability of food.

As we have heard, the “Found Wanting” study was carried out in Fife, East Ayrshire and Dundee, but the evidence will be familiar to members from constituencies and regions across the country. In North Lanarkshire, for example, 27,000 food parcels were handed out last year, and the Basics Food Bank, which serves areas in North Lanarkshire and is based in Wishaw, saw a 28 per cent rise in demand over that period.

I say to Jeremy Balfour that we know that many of the causes of the food insecurity that people face are results of austerity, which is a political choice to inflict hardship on the most vulnerable people, and a path on which the recently elected UK Government seems set to continue.

Ending the five-week wait for universal credit and the two-child limit, improving working conditions to raise the living wage and ending exploitative zero-hours contracts would make real differences to people who face food insecurity. However, we know that that will not be tackled by the Tories, so it is imperative now that the Scottish Government uses every resource at its disposal not just to mitigate the impacts of those harsh policies, but to ensure that all the powers of the Scottish Parliament are used to raise the living standards of the communities that are being hardest hit by austerity.

Food banks can, of course, help people who face food insecurity. We all thank the volunteers who have set them up and who work in them. However, they are a symptom of the problem, as is emphasised in A Menu for Change’s report. As Alex Rowley said, real solutions rely on ensuring that there are resources for people to buy their own food. Crisis grants from the Scottish welfare fund continue to be a source of emergency income, and in many instances the grants allow people to buy food. Of the people who were surveyed for “Found Wanting”, more than 52 per cent had received at least one crisis grant, and most of those were to cover the costs of food and electricity.

Since “Found Wanting” was published in October, more recent Scottish Government statistics have shown that there have been nearly 60,000 applications to the Scottish welfare fund. The crisis grants that were made between April and June 2019 represented a 12 per cent increase over the number in the same quarter last year, with nearly 33,000 crisis grants having been awarded. Most of that expenditure—60 per cent—was allocated to buying food, which is a 29 per cent increase on the amount in the same quarter last year. There has been increasing demand for crisis payments, but no increase in the welfare fund budget. We need to look at that.

A Menu for Change’s report concluded that the welfare fund must be increased to improve the fund’s ability to reach all the people who need it. The latest figures only reinforce that argument. We should also remember the latest figures for April to June: we can expect demand to be even higher in the winter months as households choose between fuel and food.

We should always remember that failure to resolve food insecurity is more than just a problem: it is a breach of human rights. One of the key recommendations of A Menu for Change’s report is that the Scottish Government should enshrine in law the right to food, in order to give day-to-day effect to international human rights law, and that it should then inform and empower people about that right. There is significant support for that proposal. The Scottish Food Coalition lodged a petition in Parliament calling for the proposal to be included in the proposed good food nation bill. During the consultation on the bill, more than half of respondents called for the right to food to be enshrined in Scots law. As I have said previously, I intend, as a means of developing consideration of how best to do that in Scots law, to consult shortly on a member’s bill on securing the right to food.

The UK Government’s approach to human rights legislation has been, and will no doubt continue to be, to perceive it as a burden and to talk of the need for reform or abolition. The Scottish Parliament has the opportunity to show leadership on human rights; to take forward the recommendations of A Menu for Change, the Scottish Food Coalition and many other organisations and charities; and to take meaningful action to ensure that no one in 21st century Scotland goes hungry.

16:45  

I thank Alex Rowley for bringing the debate to the chamber. We in the Scottish Greens are hugely supportive of the work that A Menu for Change has achieved. I was particularly proud to chair a meeting in Parliament just three weeks ago on the A Menu for Change project, its research and its impact.

We already know that access to food is a fundamental right—colleagues have highlighted that again during the debate, and we must not forget it. It is a fundamental right, but many people in our country are not accessing food at the moment, or are finding it particularly difficult to do so. The “Found Wanting” research is particularly valuable in revealing the lived experience of people who do not know where their next meal is coming from.

Food poverty, period poverty and fuel poverty are all poverty. They all have the same root cause: a lack of a sufficient and secure income. When we speak about food poverty, it might seem that we are suggesting that there is not enough food. There is more than enough food, but not everyone has enough money to be able to access that food.

Food banks are simply not the answer—that is one thing that I was pleased to hear Jeremy Balfour state—and must not become normalised. I know that because, like all members, I have had correspondence from constituents on that issue. I will never forget one letter from a disabled mum of two. She told me that the worst day that she had ever lived was the day when she had to go to a food bank with her two children, because she felt that her dignity was being completely and utterly eroded.

Therefore, although we all agree that we are very grateful that such emergency food aid exists, we must ask why—in this wealthy country, in this century—we are relying on emergency food aid to feed some of our most vulnerable citizens. Although what is literally a lifeline for many people is in our communities, it simply is not the answer. We have to make sure that people have enough income to buy the food that they want, when they want it.

Whether people are working or are not working and need the help of the social security system, or perhaps they are experiencing a combination of both, for too many people in our country incomes are too low and too unpredictable.

The report draws attention to the fact that our insecure labour market is a major driver of food insecurity. For many of those in the study that “Found Wanting” reports on, a sudden loss of hours on a zero-hours contract, the end of a temporary contract or a lack of basic employment rights such as sick pay can all contribute to their not being able to put meals on the table.

The “Found Wanting” report is yet another in a line of hundreds of reports that points to the vandalisation of our social security system as a major driver of food insecurity. For those who were studied, the move to universal credit from work or other benefits, and the need to wait at least five weeks for a payment, was a common trigger for severe food insecurity.

As much as Conservative members often point to advance payments as a solution—a point that Mr Balfour raised in the debate—the report makes it clear that advance payments of universal credit are not always the answer. Participants in the study were reluctant to take out advance payments because they have to be repaid. How can someone repay a loan when they have hardly any money and are struggling to get by? That puts people off. Deductions from subsequent payments to pay back advances, rent arrears and other debts often extended the experience of food insecurity as incomes were insufficient to cover basic needs.

Angela Constance made the point that Germany bases its social security model on whether people have enough money to buy good nutritious food. We need a minimum income standard, below which we cannot expect anyone to survive or to be able to play a full, normal part in society.

The report also draws attention to the role played by the Scottish welfare fund. In the cases of many people who took part in the study, the welfare fund was a true lifeline when people had simply entirely run out of money. However, the report also notes that many people reach the maximum number of grants that they are entitled to through the fund and are then turned away. We need to revisit whether a limit to the number of grants is appropriate and, at the very least, ensure that people are referred on to other sources of support. They must not simply be refused with no further help or advice, as the report suggests is happening in some cases.

I know that I am over time, Presiding Officer, so I will wrap up. I recently proposed an amendment to a Scottish Government motion, asking that the Scottish welfare fund be reviewed to ensure that it is adequate. At the time, I did not get the support of the Conservatives or the Government, but I would be grateful if the cabinet secretary could indicate whether that is something that she would be willing to look at again.

16:50  

I congratulate Alex Rowley on securing this important members’ business debate.

I commend Oxfam Scotland, the Poverty Alliance, the Child Poverty Action Group and Nourish Scotland for the excellent work that they carried out in producing their longitudinal study, which culminated in the Menu for Change report, “Found Wanting”. The report was published in October this year and makes for very stark reading indeed. As has been said, the key issue that the report deals with is food insecurity. It does so by being mindful of individual stories from the areas of Fife, Dundee and East Ayrshire, which are covered by the report—stories of the lives that are affected by food insecurity, of how circumstances can change over time and of the sudden need for individuals to seek recourse to emergency food aid in the form of food banks.

As the MSP for Cowdenbeath, I think that the poverty that I see in my constituency and right across Scotland—in energy-rich Scotland—is absolutely unacceptable. Although cross-party working, commissions, studies and meetings are all very well and good, we must deal with the elephant in the room, which is that the only way that we can tackle decade upon decade of systematic Westminster neglect and the generational poverty that we see as a result is to secure the normal powers of an independent country.

As it stands, we will always be constrained in what we can do so long as, for example, 85 per cent of social security spend is controlled by Westminster, full taxation powers are retained by Westminster and employment law is controlled by Westminster. Those are key levers that other normal independent countries would take for granted. The Scottish National Party Government is taking action to the full extent of its powers. It is straining every sinew to tackle the poverty that we see around us in our country, and it will continue to do so, day in and day out. In that regard, witness the Scottish child payment, which was described by one of the authors of the report—the Child Poverty Action Group—as a “game-changer” in shifting the poverty curve. Witness the Scottish Government putting fairness, dignity and respect at the heart of the limited social security powers that we have in this Parliament. Witness the SNP Government legislating for free school meals for primaries 1 to 3, for help with school uniforms, for the carers supplement, for the best start grant and for free prescriptions, to name but a few. In the area of employment, we see the SNP Government’s commitment to promoting fair work, to the extent that it can with the powers that it has.

On the Scottish welfare fund, which has been mentioned by a few speakers, my understanding is that the Scottish Government has asked the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to have a look at the operation of the fund.

We simply do not have the power to end Tory austerity and to stop the welfare cuts: we only have the power to mitigate them. The Scottish Government is spending about £100 million per annum on mitigating the worst excesses of policies that we in Scotland do not support, implemented by a UK Government that we in Scotland did not vote for. The sum total of our ambition in this Parliament cannot be simply to mitigate the damaging policies of others. Such an approach is not sustainable. We will not solve the generational poverty that we see in our country, nor tackle the food insecurity that far too many individuals and families are facing, under the current constitutional settlement. We will not solve those problems by spending, and allowing to be spent in our name, £200 billion on nuclear submarine replacement. The only way that we will tackle those structural problems is to see the return of normal powers of independence to this Parliament.

16:54  

First, I congratulate Alex Rowley on securing the debate. Our Government’s national performance framework aligns with the United Nations sustainable development goals, the second of which is to achieve zero hunger globally by 2030, and to

“ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations ... to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round.”

As colleagues have passionately argued, so far that goal is far from being achieved in Scotland. In the six months between April and September of this year, the Trussell Trust distributed over 100,000 three-day food parcels in Scotland. The trust has said that on average, people who accessed food banks in the 2018-19 period needed around two referrals each. That is six days’ worth of food—or, rather, six days for which a person or a family might have had to go without.

The A Menu for Change “Found Wanting” report highlighted the extreme resilience of people who live with the reality of food insecurity across Fife, East Ayrshire and Dundee. Sadly, their experiences are echoed right across the country. Fundamentally, the report showed that people experiencing food insecurity need access to cash—not just to help them during a crisis, but so that they can access food throughout their lives.

That is why the report’s recommendations on the Scottish welfare fund budget are so important. The fund has been vital in enabling people to survive. Flexibility to allow local authorities to adapt the funding to the needs of their region is important, but more needs to be done to address the barriers to accessing the fund. The limit on how many payments can be made, the excessive requirements to provide evidence of financial difficulties and understaffed administration are leaving people waiting. Those problems have put people off accessing that vital grant.

If we are to address the principles of dignity and respect that are ingrained in the delivery of the Scottish welfare fund, we need to make sure that its budget increases, along with awareness and knowledge of what the fund can do among the people who need it.

What is critical about the A Menu for Change report is that it highlights the link between poverty and food insecurity, both for those in work and for those out of work. It rightly echoes the report on the UK by the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty, Philip Alston. In his concluding remarks on Scotland, he outlined that incorporating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into law was a key step in tackling poverty.

That is crucial and I hope that all of us in the chamber can sign up to it. The challenge, however, is turning that right into reality. Like others, I think that there is much more that the Scottish Government can do, such as consistently using public procurement to deliver fair work and fair terms and conditions and to deliver quality, locally produced food; and supporting people who are furthest from the labour market back into work, giving them the chance to work again and ensuring that they have decent employment.

I will add a final point. Colleagues have rightly highlighted the importance of eliminating poverty, and Angela Constance rightly mentioned the importance of community projects. I cannot be alone in having spent a lot of time in the past few weeks out and about in our communities, looking at the reality that a lot of our communities face. We need more investment in our local authorities to enable them to deliver community-based projects that empower people, such as projects that give people access to community gardens and allotments, which provide people with hope and connections to one another. It is important that we give people access not just to food but to wellbeing—addressing their mental and physical health. That needs to be part of our wider strategy to build and empower communities and to end food insecurity.

There is so much more that can be done and that is why I think this debate is important. Across the chamber, members have agreed with suggestions for practical projects and investments that need to be made. I hope that the cabinet secretary will consider those comments and think about what more she and her colleagues can do, not just in her portfolio area, but right across the Scottish Government.

16:59  

I thank Alex Rowley for bringing this debate to the chamber and members for the contributions that they have made. This debate has been passionate and rightly so, because, quite frankly, it is utterly shameful that, in a country as rich as ours, folk go hungry. The testimonies that Alex Rowley read aloud suggested that people are getting used to hunger; that is certainly not the kind of country that I want to be living in or to be part of. Collectively, we must do more to tackle hunger and to rid ourselves of that shame.

I particularly thank the individuals who took part in the research and shared their stories, and I thank A Menu for Change for bringing their experiences to our attention.

To end hunger in Scotland—as the report recommends—it is vital that we take action on the causes of poverty. There are a number of recommendations in the report for us in the Scottish Government. We will of course continue to take the action needed, and we will be guided by the report’s recommendations for tackling food insecurity and hunger.

As so many members have mentioned, food poverty is down to income poverty and a lack of cash. That has not been helped by the devastating cuts to welfare. Far from providing a safety net, the UK social security system is plunging many people into crisis. About 8,500 Scottish families have already had their income cut by the universal credit two-child limit. That figure will reach 40,000 at full roll-out, pushing up to 20,000 more children into poverty.

Post-2015 welfare changes are set to reduce spending on social security in Scotland by an estimated £500 million a year. Those are devastating cuts, and we should be in no doubt about the impact that they are having. Behind all the figures and statistics are the stories of individuals who are struggling—who are surviving, not thriving. The potential of those children whose numbers I have just mentioned represents unfulfilled potential, unless we do more to support them. We cannot ignore those statistics so, last year, we invested more than £1.4 billion to support low-income households. That includes more than £100 million to mitigate UK Government cuts.

This year, in order to increase household incomes, we announced the Scottish child payment. It will put an extra £10 per week per child into the pockets of low-income families. That is a progressive policy, and it is set to lift 30,000 children out of poverty. It will also be a protective policy, importantly, as it will ensure that people do not fall into poverty. It is a crucial policy, which is why charities have described it as a “game changer”. It shifts the curve on child poverty in this country.

Unlike the UK Government, whose welfare reforms appear intentionally cruel and damaging—and a political choice, as Elaine Smith said—we believe that social security is an investment in the people of Scotland and has an important role in tackling poverty. Dignity, fairness and respect are the values underpinning our new agency, Social Security Scotland.

Improving income from employment is also key to tackling poverty. The research highlighted stories of people working on zero-hours contracts and their anxiety in not knowing where their next meal or pay cheque was coming from. Those people were doing all that society asked of them—working hard and contributing—but they were never getting out of their situation, and they were struggling. That surely cannot be right.

Although the Scottish Government does not have powers over employment law, we do not let that stop us taking action. That is why we seek to influence the agenda and to use the powers that we have in order to make a difference. Our new employment service, fair start Scotland, is helping those furthest away from the labour market into a good job that they can sustain, and our fair work action plan, which was published this year, supports employers in adopting fair work practices such as payment of the real living wage, with no inappropriate use of zero-hours contracts.

I share the cabinet secretary’s frustration at the policies that the Parliament requires to mitigate. Perhaps the cabinet secretary is coming on to this point, but I note that the Scottish Human Rights Commission and the Scottish Food Coalition want the right to food, which is recognised in international law, to be enshrined in Scots law. Is that something that the cabinet secretary is considering presently?

The First Minister’s advisory group was discussed at the meeting in the Parliament that Alison Johnstone chaired fairly recently. The advisory group will be considering the totality of rights so that we can make progress on that. In lieu of that, we are already taking a rights-based approach now to ensure that dignified access to food represents our approach to the issue in Scotland and that the rights aspect of that is not lost. That is why the First Minister’s group is pursuing that work.

When it comes to increasing income from employment, we are proud that Scotland is the best-performing part of the UK for paying the real living wage, and we continue to work to lift at least 25,000 more people into the living wage by 2021 as part of our ambition to build a living wage nation.

That is good progress, but there is clearly more to do, and it is little comfort to those who are struggling on zero-hours contracts. We will continue to move forward and make sure that more people are paid the living wage.

Alongside improving incomes from work and social security, our efforts to reduce household costs are significant in tackling poverty. For example, we know that low-income households often pay over the odds for energy. To address that, we are spending £0.5 billion over the four years to 2021 to tackle fuel poverty and improve energy efficiency.

We have also invested £3.3 million to deliver the money talk team service, which supports low-income households to maximise their income by increasing benefit uptake and helping people to make savings on essential services such as household energy costs.

It is also vital that we focus our efforts on tackling those causes of poverty. However, when people do face a crisis, we must ensure that support is easy to access and that it treats people with kindness and dignity. Our Scottish welfare fund is a unique source of crisis support in the UK, providing emergency cash to people in need. Many members have spoken about that this evening.

The principles of dignity and respect are already well embedded. The statutory guidance that all local authorities must have regard to when delivering the Scottish welfare fund states that local authorities must ensure that applicants are treated with respect and their dignity is preserved at all times. Crisis grants are paid by a variety of different methods that allow for flexibility and mean that local authorities can respond to individual and local needs. In November 2015, the Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities agreed a change to the way in which the Scottish welfare fund is distributed among local authorities and to base it on the income domain of the Scottish index of multiple deprivation to ensure that it helps those in the most deprived areas. That change was phased in over a three-year period, with 2018-19 being the first year when that SIMD model was used fully. It is important that we allow the new funding methodology to bed down, and, in due course, we will review the impact of the new distribution method on local authorities.

We also know that community spaces play an important role. The research gives examples of the critical social and practical support that is provided by local initiatives such as community cafes and community meals. They can provide safe spaces where people feel supported and included. Sarah Boyack and other members spoke about wellbeing, resilience and community empowerment.

That is the sort of work that our £3.5 million fair food fund supports. The fund helps communities to respond to food insecurity in ways that promote dignity and can help people to access wider support such as welfare rights advice. It is a move away from the food banks that we all want to be rid of, and it will ensure that dignity, choice and support are there for those who need them.

Sarah Boyack also spoke about procurement, and I want to highlight the work that is being done in North Ayrshire through the community wealth building model, which is important. We want to support that work and see it further supported across Ayrshire so that it can be part of the regional deal and that people can benefit from the investment that is being made in that area.

I am conscious of time. We have covered a lot, but the report will not just gather dust. It has had and will have an impact on informing policy and, in a practical sense, on the ways in which work is being carried out in Dundee, Levenmouth and Fife to ensure that people get extra help and responses to their food insecurity.

Christmas—a few days away—is a time of indulgence and enjoyment for many, but we are reminded that, for too many people, this time of year can mean strain and sadness for folk who are on limited household budgets. We must therefore continue to work collaboratively to achieve our sustainable development goal and commitment to end hunger in Scotland. That is a key pillar of our good food nation and fairer Scotland ambitions. As a responsible country that respects human rights, we will continue to do everything in our power to make Scotland a fairer and more equal place for all.

However, it is challenging because we have an “I’m all right, Jack” Tory Government that is hell-bent on continuing to punish the most vulnerable, and we are fighting poverty with one hand tied behind our back. As Angela Constance said, poverty does not have to be inevitable. This Government and Parliament cannot just sit back and be content to accept poverty. Instead, we will continue to work across the parties because most people in this place want a different kind of country, a different Scotland that does not have testimony such as that which Alex Rowley read out at the start of the debate. We want something different and something better. We want a country that enables all our people to have the life that they deserve and to be able to flourish.

Meeting closed at 17:09.