Meeting date: Tuesday, September 28, 2021
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 28 September 2021
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Universal Credit, Environmental Standards Scotland (Chief Executive), Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Scottish Ambulance Service
- Time for Reflection
- Topical Question Time
- Universal Credit
- Environmental Standards Scotland (Chief Executive)
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Scottish Ambulance Service
I remind members of the Covid-related measures that are in place and that face coverings should be worn when moving around the chamber and across the Holyrood campus.
The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-01405, in the name of Shona Robison, on keeping the lifeline—a call to the United Kingdom Government to cancel its cut to universal credit.15:23
It is a pity that the leader of the Scottish Conservatives is not staying to hear the concerns about the cut that his UK colleagues are going to make to universal credit.
We should not need to have this debate. We should not have to consider the hardship that the UK Government’s decision—[Interruption.]
Mr Balfour, that is enough.
Douglas Ross has a vote, of course. Perhaps listening to the debate would help him to make his mind up about how he should vote on these matters.
We should not have to consider the hardship that the UK Government’s decision to cut universal credit by £20 per week will cause to 6 million people across the UK. We should not have to debate a cut that will push 60,000 people in Scotland, including 20,000 children, into poverty. We should not need to use the chamber to add our voices to the increasingly urgent calls for the UK Government to reverse that senseless and harmful decision.
Everyone in the chamber is aware of the enormous social and economic disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic. The number of people in Scotland who are in receipt of universal credit has more than doubled since the start of the pandemic, to around 480,000 as of July this year. The UK Government should already have done the right thing. As the Government with the full powers over universal credit, at a time of rising prices and costs and at a time of increasing poverty, it should already have said that it would make the £20 uplift permanent.
Given that it is not included in her motion, will the cabinet secretary outline where the Scottish ministers believe the £9 billion that is needed for that increase to remain permanently in place will come from?
As a Conservative member told me last week, it is about the political choices that are being made. The political choice of the UK Tory Government is not to continue the £20 uplift for the most vulnerable people in our society at a time of rising fuel and food prices. That position is unsustainable.
The cabinet secretary talks about political decisions. Last week, I lodged an amendment that would have seen a doubling of the Scottish child payment. Was it a political decision that Scottish National Party members chose not to support me in that vote?
As the member knows, we are going to double the Scottish child payment. We are going to give more money to families—the Conservatives are going to take money from Scottish families. This is the fundamental difference: the Scottish Government gives money to families while the UK Tory Government takes money away from families.
Across the UK—it is not just an issue for Scotland—people are facing a perfect storm of the end of the furlough scheme, a hike in national insurance contributions and rising energy and food prices. The cut threatens to compound those issues and deal millions of households a hammer blow of hardship. Analysis from the Scottish Government shows that the cut to universal credit is set to reduce UK welfare expenditure in Scotland by over £460 million by 2023-24. That will be the biggest overnight reduction to a basic rate of social security for more than 70 years.
At the start of the pandemic, the UK Government did the right thing in recognising that the standard allowance of universal credit was not sufficient to live on. The Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time that said that it was intended to “strengthen the safety net” that was available to people.
Will the member take an intervention?
I will not, just now.
Analysis from the Legatum Institute that was published last week shows that the uplift prevented 840,000 people across the UK, including 290,000 children, from being pushed into poverty. A recent report from Citizens Advice showed that, as a result of the cut, more than one third of universal credit recipients across the UK would be in debt after paying just their essential bills.
Will the member give way?
I will be happy to take an intervention if the member can answer why he thinks that a third of universal credit recipients should be in debt after his Government cuts universal credit.
The cabinet secretary talked earlier about the right thing to do. All parties across the Parliament can agree that the right thing to do is help people to get off universal credit. The best thing that we can do for people is help them to find work. Does the cabinet secretary welcome the £3.2 billion investment made by the UK Government in doubling the number of work coaches to 27,000?
Does that not just reveal the Tories’ thinking? They do not even recognise that a huge number of people on universal credit are already in work. Does Mr Kerr not even know that? He fails to understand the position—as do so many Tories—that people on universal credit face.
The Legatum Institute’s research highlights the need for the additional money. The chancellor said that the uplift was required
“to benefit our most vulnerable households”.
Those people are no less vulnerable now. If anything, with the rising cost of living and a national insurance hike on the way, they are in an even more precarious position than ever. Once again, on behalf of the Scottish Government and on behalf of the Parliament, I call on the UK Government to reverse the planned cut.
It is not just the Scottish Government and Parliament that have expressed their outrage and alarm at the planned cut. Calls for the lifeline to be kept have come from organisations and individuals from across the political spectrum. The four social security committees and the four children’s commissioners of the UK nations have written to the UK Government, too, standing up for the people they represent and calling for that lifeline to be maintained. From the Conservative Party alone, Baroness Ruth Davidson, Alexander Stewart and all six former work and pensions secretaries since 2010 have called for a reversal. Surely, Tory members do not think that every single one of them is wrong. The Scottish Government has also written to the UK Government on eight occasions throughout the pandemic to ask it to make the uplift permanent and extend it to legacy benefits. The unity from such a diverse range of voices—it is not common—that are urging the UK Government to reconsider should make it clear that this is not a question of partisan politics; it is about doing the economically, socially and morally right thing.
I am certain that colleagues across the chamber will share my grave concerns about the UK Government’s repeated refusal to conduct any impact assessments of the cut’s effects. Most recently, the then Minister for Welfare Delivery confirmed on 17 September that the Department for Work and Pensions had not analysed and would not analyse the cut’s effects; yet the Financial Times quoted an anonymous UK Government official confessing that it was well understood that the cut would see homelessness, poverty and food bank usage soar, which we all know to be the case.
It is hard to fathom why the UK Government has chosen to proceed with the cut without properly assessing its impact—so much so that the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty described the cut as “deliberately retrogressive” and “unconscionable”. It is no wonder that he felt that he had no choice but to write to the Prime Minister to call for the cut to be reversed, while he noted that the UK Government’s decision to remove the uplift might fail to conform to international human rights law.
Perhaps the most sobering insight into what the cut will mean comes directly from the people who will be affected. Earlier this month, a recipient of universal credit spoke movingly to the Work and Pensions Committee about the effect that the cut will have on his family. He said:
“Before the uplift was introduced we were already on a knife edge to do with food versus fuel. The uplift sent some relief and for that to be removed is going to leave us with that big question again: do I go hungry, do my kids go hungry or do we keep the house warm?”
That is the terrible choice that too many families will face this winter unless the decision is reversed.
I remind everyone that the cut is not inevitable and that it is not happening because it is expected to improve the lives of those who will be affected—we know that it will not do that. A conscious decision has been made to remove support from people who rely on the uplift as a lifeline that allows basic needs to be met and them to live with a modicum of dignity.
The Prime Minister has repeatedly defended the cut by suggesting that taking money away from people who receive universal credit will encourage them to take up work—we have heard that repeated today.
That is not what I said.
The member might do well to listen for once. More than a third of universal credit recipients are already in work, and it is, at best, doubtful that placing additional stress and hardship on them will make it easier for them to find and work longer hours.
The UK Government’s argument also ignores the estimated 2.7 million people who are not expected to work or who are expected to work more limited hours because of illness, disability or caring commitments. They deserve to live in dignity, too.
An adequate social security system is needed all the time—not just during pandemics. As such, it is essential to recognise that the payment level of universal credit was not sufficient before the pandemic and stands to be even less so after the cut. Years of a freeze on the UK Government’s benefits meant that universal credit had not kept pace with rising living costs, so maintaining the uplift is the absolute bare minimum that the UK Government should do. It should also take the opportunity now to fix the many shortcomings with universal credit that have been well documented for years.
It is neither practical nor sustainable for the Scottish Government to mitigate all the effects of the UK Government’s cuts, but we will do what we can within the powers that we have. As we rebuild from the pandemic, we have an opportunity to ground our recovery in changes that will make Scotland a more equal and inclusive society.
In 2020-21, we invested about £2.5 billion to support low-income households, which included nearly £1 billion to support children directly. We made more than £1 billion of additional resource available to help communities through the Covid pandemic and to build resilience in public services, and we continue to provide the support that is needed to help people through the perfect storm that we will face in the months ahead.
In the Parliament, we will go further and take ambitious steps to tackle child poverty, promote social justice and level the playing field for young people from low-income backgrounds and their families.
On that particular point, and on the points about the Scottish Government’s responsibility for reducing child poverty, does the cabinet secretary agree that, given all that we will hear today, doubling the Scottish child payment immediately and then doubling it again, to get us on track to meet the child poverty targets, is crucial? Will she also commit to retaining eligibility for the Scottish child payment for the 4,000 families who will lose it if they lose their universal credit?
As Pam Duncan-Glancy knows, we have set out how we will double the Scottish child payment. The doubling of the Scottish child payment is not in doubt and has never been in doubt. We will deal with that and take it forward as part of the budget discussions. I am happy to continue to discuss those issues with Pam Duncan-Glancy.
Regarding the support that we are already providing to families, we have increased the school clothing grant to £120 for primary school kids and to £150 for secondary school kids, and we are delivering provision of free school meals during school holidays, which will support about 148,000 children and young people. We are also doubling the carers allowance supplement with an extra investment that is forecast to be £21 million, which marks the second time that the Government has doubled that benefit.
We have declared a national mission to eradicate child poverty. While the UK Government is criticised by the Work and Pensions Committee for its lack of targets or strategy for tackling child poverty, the Scottish Government will publish its second tackling child poverty delivery plan next March, backed by £50 million over the lifespan of the plan.
We will double the Scottish child payment to £80 every four weeks as soon as we can in this parliamentary session. In the interim, we have introduced bridging payments of £520, to be paid in both 2021 and 2022, for those who get free school meals due to their families being on low incomes. [Interruption.]
The cabinet secretary will have to wind up now, I am afraid.
Despite our best efforts, the universal credit cut will undermine much of the positive effect of the Scottish child payment. That is just not acceptable, so I call on all colleagues across the chamber to make their voices and the voices of their constituents heard in a unified call on the UK Government to do the right thing and reverse its decision to cut universal credit while extending the uplift to legacy benefits. I call on Parliament to support the motion in my name.
That the Parliament agrees, along with opposition parties in the UK Parliament, that the UK Government’s planned reduction to universal credit should be reversed; recognises the cross-party efforts of opposition parties in the UK Parliament and the social security committees of each of the four nations’ parliaments and assembly in this aim; notes Scottish Government analysis that the reduction of universal credit could reduce welfare expenditure in Scotland by £461 million a year by 2023-24 and push 60,000 people, including 20,000 children, into poverty; agrees that the inadequacy of the payment is just one of many issues with universal credit, alongside the two-child cap and the abhorrent so-called “rape clause”, the five-week wait for a first payment, the benefit sanctions regime and the so-called “bedroom tax”; believes that this reflects the UK Government’s uncompassionate approach to welfare, which has been challenged by opposition parties across the UK, and acknowledges Scotland’s human rights-based approach to social security.
I recognise that the nature of the debate will excite emotions—people feel passionately about this subject. However, I encourage all members to treat one another with respect.
There is a bit of time in hand. If members have a contribution to make, please make it through an intervention and I will give members their time back.15:37
“Unprecedented”—a word that has been used time and again by politicians throughout the Covid-19 public health emergency. The pandemic has, indeed, demanded that Governments act, and that unprecedented decisions be taken, with unprecedented levels of support being put in place. The United Kingdom Government has delivered one of the most comprehensive economic responses in the world to support families, jobs and businesses. Over this year and last, the UK Government has provided more than £407 billion to support families, jobs and businesses, which is more than almost any other country in the world. That has included protecting around 14 million jobs through the furlough scheme and self-employment schemes.
As part of the pandemic response, UK ministers have delivered £14.5 billion in additional funding to Scottish Government ministers since the start of the pandemic. In responding to the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic, the UK Government increased the standard universal credit allowance by £20 per week. In March this year, the UK Government agreed and announced, in addition, a six-month extension to that uplift.
Does Miles Briggs believe that, with the scrapping of the uplift, the crisis that we have faced is at an end?
With restrictions now being lifted and with the economy opening up, we must ensure that there is a different focus. That focus must be on a jobs-led recovery in the country—in Scotland and in our United Kingdom as a whole. That is why the UK Government has delivered a comprehensive £30 billion plan for jobs to help to get people back into work.
Even if we leave to one side whether the mythical jobs-based recovery will actually come to fruition, what does Miles Briggs say to people who are on universal credit or working tax credits right now who are not expected to find work, or to find more work, but will see their incomes being slashed at a time when their costs are rising?
We called for the uplift to be extended during the worst of the pandemic. As to the so-called “mythical jobs” that Neil Gray referred to, the support that has been put in place has helped people to sustain work. That has been critical for many people on low incomes.
We have already seen support being put in place to help people to get back into the workplace. As I was outlining, the £30 billion plan for jobs is absolutely key to that. To date, it has already helped to support more than 69,000 young people into work through the kickstart scheme, thereby giving them the best start in life. Kickstart gives young people who are risk of long-term unemployment the chance to build their confidence and skills in the workplace, and to gain the experience that will improve their chances of going on to find long-term sustainable work. I hope that that is something that everyone in the chamber wants.
Will the member take an intervention?
Will I get some time back, Presiding Officer?
Yes, you will get a bit of time back.
Does Miles Briggs recognise that, in the past year, more than 76,000 more disabled people have become unemployed as a result of the pandemic, and that women are more likely to have had to give up paid work to carry out unpaid work. This morning, at the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee, we heard that that can cost £15 million a day. Does the member recognise that the world of work is not the world of work that his party thinks it is, and that it is deeply unequal for many people who live in Scotland and the United Kingdom?
Mr Briggs, I will give you most of that time back.
Thank you. I share Pam Duncan-Glancy’s concerns. We have discussed the matter at the Social Justice and Social Security Committee. Why is it that fewer disabled people in Scotland have opportunities for employment than do those who live in the rest of the United Kingdom? Ministers are scoffing, but they should be answering that vital question.
Although Pam Duncan-Glancy criticises the UK Government for not maintaining the uplift, we do not know what Labour’s plans are, other than that it said at the previous election that it would completely scrap universal credit. Therefore, we need to get details from Labour about its real view on the issue.
The restart scheme, which I mentioned earlier, is vital because we need a national mission and a national priority to get people back into long-term employment. The UK Government has invested £2.3 billion to hire and retain work coaches, which has resulted in the number of coaches doubling to nearly 27,000. It was planned that that would be done by the end of the financial year, but it was achieved in just eight months. The programme gives job seekers the personalised and intensive support that they need to move back into work. [Interruption.] I am sorry, I cannot take an intervention. I only have two minutes left and have already taken three interventions.
Since April 2020, 1.6 million people have moved from unemployment into employment through the universal credit intensive work search regime. The UK Government has also invested more than £200 million in the job entry targeted support scheme for people who have been unemployed for more than three months, which will support applicants through provision of skills in curriculum vitae writing and interviews, provide job search advice, and provide tailored support, which is something that we all hope for. The scheme has already helped to support more than 6,000 people in Scotland alone.
We desperately need more training opportunities for the huge number of skilled-job vacancies that exist across many sectors in Scotland today. The loss of more than 100,000 college training places under the Scottish National Party Government has clearly had a hugely detrimental impact on our college sector, as well as on the training opportunities that are available for many people. Making sure that priority is given to training programmes, and the full return of support and delivery of apprenticeship schemes, are also crucial in helping people to get back into work.
Last night, I watched the cabinet secretary on television talking about the growing housing crisis that the SNP is presiding over here in the capital. She said that difficult decisions have had to be taken with the limited budgets that are available. Every Government in every part of the world is finding that to be the case. As a United Kingdom, we face a difficult decade ahead in recovering from the social and economic impacts of the pandemic. The Scottish Conservatives always believe that the United Kingdom’s best days are ahead of us, so it is vital that the Scottish Government work constructively with UK Government ministers in pursuit of a jobs-led recovery from the pandemic.
I move amendment S6M-01405.1, to leave out from “agrees” to end and insert:
“welcomes the support that universal credit has provided to half a million people in Scotland throughout the COVID-19 pandemic; further welcomes the decision to extend the temporary £20 per week uplift for six months during the height of the pandemic, as called for by parties across the Scottish Parliament; believes that, with the removal of most restrictions, this is the right time for the uplift to be reviewed; notes that the introduction of universal credit has been a key driver of employment and contributed to employment levels rising to record levels before the pandemic; further notes that the UK’s unemployment rate has now fallen for six consecutive months; welcomes that the UK Government’s Kickstart Scheme has already helped 63,000 young people into new positions; notes that UK Government spending during the pandemic has delivered an additional £14.5 billion for the Scottish Government, and calls on the Scottish Government to work constructively with the UK Government in the pursuit of a jobs-led recovery from the pandemic.”15:45
I am proud to open the debate for Scottish Labour. The cut to universal credit is cruel and heartless; in some cases, it could even be deadly. Scottish Labour, as well as our colleagues in Westminster and Opposition parties across the United Kingdom, have been calling for the UK Conservative Government to cancel the cut. I welcome the opportunity to come together with colleagues to send a strong message to the UK Conservative Government that Scotland, and this Parliament, do not support that callous move.
Removing the £20 uplift will reduce social security to the lowest level in decades and will end, once and for all, any pretence about there being a fair and just recovery from the pandemic. Forget all the rhetoric about levelling up—this is simply part of a race to the bottom.
At the outset of the pandemic, the Tory Government rightly recognised that social security levels were simply too low to enable people to afford even the bare essentials. It brought in the £20 uplift, but only for some people, as it did not give the uplift to the millions of people who claim legacy benefits, many of whom are disabled. That is discrimination.
Nonetheless, the UK Government uplifted universal credit because it recognised the poverty that people were experiencing. It must recognise that the situation has not changed. It existed before the pandemic and has been made worse by the pandemic. People will still need the extra £20 a week after the pandemic. The uplift was not a treat; it was a material recognition that people were being left to a life in poverty and, in some cases, they were being left destitute by a failing social security system that has been gutted by the Tory Government.
For millions of people, slashing their money now will be an assault on their basic human rights. The cut has not even taken place yet, but the increase in anxiety is already palpable. Research by the Trussell Trust has found that one in four people believes that they are very likely to have to skip a meal if the cut goes ahead. That is the equivalent of 115,000 people in Scotland.
Removing the uplift will leave people struggling to keep warm, too. The same research found that the equivalent of 101,000 people across Scotland will very likely soon be unable to afford to pay their heating bills. Just this morning, Citizens Advice Scotland published research showing that nearly 400,000 people have already missed an energy payment because they have found themselves short of money.
We know that the additional £20 a week has been used for essentials and that people use the money in their local economy. Taking it back will do untold damage to people and their communities. It is the last thing that people who are already struggling to make ends meet need.
The Tories would have us believe that there is a choice between encouraging people to work and maintaining the £20 uplift. That argument is not credible. The argument that the Tory Government is removing the uplift because it wants to raise living standards through work does not stand up.
Universal credit, for all its faults, of which there are many—today’s motion highlights just some of them—is built to make it easier for those claiming it to get into and stay in work. Taking £20 a week out of people’s pockets will leave many without the means that they need to get to work. In fact, the Trussell Trust found that one in five people is unlikely to be able to travel to work or to essential appointments because they will not have the money to do so. Furthermore, the notion that there are swathes of well-paid, secure and unionised jobs, with enough hours to get by, just waiting for people to swoop into, does not hold up.
We support the Scottish Government motion because it is right and necessary that we all stand together to call out this callous decision and the damage that it will do to families across Scotland. However, I want to be clear to both Governments that we need more than words; we need deeds, too. It is imperative that the Scottish Government uses the maximum available resources to address poverty and inequality. I also want it to take real and bold action to end poverty and inequality.
For example, as it stands, 4,000 families are set to lose out on the Scottish child payment when the removal of the £20 uplift kicks in. The Scottish Government has the power to prevent those people from having their pockets hit twice. I make a plea to all parties to bring certainty for those families today.
The truth is that, for far too long, Scotland has been failed twice over—by a callous Tory Government and by a Scottish Government that at times prefers to sit on its hands, or point fingers and place blame. Right now, when it matters most, the Scottish Government is not using the powers or the money that are available to it to take the bold and ambitious action that is needed to tackle the stark poverty and inequality in Scotland.
On the watch of both Governments, poverty has been climbing. If that does not stop, we will not only fail future generations but undo the progress that has been made. I have to say that that progress, especially on child poverty, was made under previous Labour Governments.
We must recognise that, although the cut will be a catastrophe, the prospect of the uplift did not even exist when the Parliament unanimously agreed to set child poverty targets. We must meet those targets—there can be no caveats. Therefore, although I stand alongside the Scottish Government to call out the cruel and damaging cut, I also hold fast to my commitment to push both Governments to go harder and faster on poverty right now.
Scottish Labour, alongside the third sector and faith leaders from across Scotland, has called and will continue to call on the Scottish Government to double the Scottish child payment immediately, and again in a year. It has refused to do that, so far. I say to the Scottish Government that, although it is absolutely right to call out the UK Government’s actions, and we must do that, it should also recognise that it, too, must act.
We on the Labour benches will not allow either Government to fail our people—to fail to meet this moment and step up. That is why we will continue to put forward bold ideas. The Scottish National Party Government talks a good human rights game but, as the evidence shows and as I heard in committee this morning, it has not walked the walk yet. It does not put its money where its mouth is.
People were struggling before the pandemic, and the pandemic made things worse, so they are struggling even more and they need action. We must stand here and stand strong against all policies that push people into poverty. We can and must shout loud about how cruel and callous the Tory Government cut is. However, we must do more than that. We must also use the powers of the Parliament in the way in which they were intended, which is to make policy decisions that transform people’s lives. The Tories must cancel the cut and the SNP must prove that it, too, will do what it takes to end poverty and inequality, in deeds, not words.
You must wind up now.
With the stakes higher than ever, it is imperative that we use every possible lever that we have. None of us should rest until we do.
I remind members who are participating in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons. Members who make an intervention and plan to speak later in the debate will have to press their button again.15:51
Andrew Bowie has 3,620, David Mundell has 6,050, David Duguid has 6,280, John Lamont has 7,150, Alister Jack has 8,190 and Douglas Ross has 6,110. Those are the numbers of families in those politicians’ constituencies who will be directly impacted by the cuts to universal credit. The politicians can stand by and watch that happen to their constituents or they can stand up for them now, make their voices heard and, more important, make their votes count against the cut.
The measure could mean a £1,040 cut to people’s income or 22,000 people being plunged into poverty across the UK, according to the Child Poverty Action Group. The £20 is not a treat; it is a necessity for families, whose costs continue to rise. Their costs have not gone down just because the impact of the virus is potentially waning. Their costs are going up and at such a time they need more support, not less.
The Trussell Trust is right to point out that the move could force 82,000 people in Scotland alone to use food banks, one in four people to skip a meal, one in five to be unable to heat their home and one in five to be unable to get to work. That is especially ironic because, apparently, the cut is designed to get people into work. If they cannot get to work, they will not earn any more money than they are earning now.
The Conservatives seem to be concerned about the cost of the £20 rise to the overall Exchequer, but they have also said that work is the best route out of poverty. If they had any confidence in their multibillion-pound so-called work plan, they would not be cutting universal credit, because if all those people went into better-paid work there would not be a demand on universal credit. Therefore, their plan does not work.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has been clear that there is a link between poverty and poor child health outcomes. At the other end of the age scale, Age Scotland is concerned about 106,301 people aged over 50 who are dependent on universal credit. The cut will affect all age ranges.
It is important to recognise that the cut will impact on people who were at the front line of the pandemic, such as cleaners, carers, hairdressers and shop workers. All those people stood up and defended us when we needed people to go out and do their jobs, but the UK Government does not recognise the necessity of providing support for them.
I hope that the Scottish Government responds to Pam Duncan-Glancy’s point about the eligibility criteria, because the minister did not respond specifically to it. Four thousand families in Scotland will lose out on the child payment as a result of the change in eligibility criteria. The Scottish Government needs to step up and make up the difference, because it is important that those families do not lose out as a result.
I hope that Parliament comes together. I hope that the Conservatives on the benches opposite me recognise the errors of the policy, and that, if nothing else, they stand up for all those in their constituencies who I mentioned earlier. The Conservatives should stand up, make their voices heard and show that they care.
We move to the open debate. We have a little time in hand, but I encourage anyone who makes an intervention to do so as briefly as possible.15:55
How on earth are we here, at this 11th hour, still debating whether the UK Government should keep a lifeline in place or, within days, make the single biggest cut to social security since the second world war and take this form of social security support to its lowest level in 30 years?
It is to the UK Government’s credit that it recognised at the start of the pandemic that universal credit was not paid at a sufficient level to live on and so it needed to provide the uplift to avoid social and economic catastrophe. That was little wonder, because universal credit is a shadow of what was initially proposed and has been a cash cow for the austerity cuts meted out first by the Lib Dem-Tory coalition, then even more brutally by the majority Tory Government. In all, £37 billion has been removed from social security and, by extension, from our constituencies by UK Government social security cuts since 2010.
The cabinet secretary has a political choice. You have a choice on Thursday to help carers have certainty for 2025. Will you vote for my amendment on Thursday morning?
Speak through the chair, Mr Balfour.
This is a tale of two Governments. One Government is investing in giving carers additional support that is not available to carers elsewhere in the UK, and one Government—[Interruption.]—is cutting social security. [Interruption.] It is very clear—
Mr Kerr, those are enough sedentary interventions.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
The £20 per week uplift, which we know has made such a difference to people over the past year, has not even made up for all the cuts that I have described, which just goes to show the scale of what has gone before. According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, even with the uplift in place, families who are unable to find work are getting £1,600 less per year than they would have done in 2011. Families with children are even worse off, receiving around £3,000 less than they would have done 10 years ago.
At the start of the pandemic, there was a recognition that circumstances outwith the control of households in receipt of universal credit were going to impact on them. Those of us who are living in the real world can see a similar storm coming now for people in low-income households. Analysis by the Resolution Foundation shows that four in 10 households on universal credit will see a 13 per cent rise in their energy bills, at the same time as their universal credit support is cut by £20 per week. Then, with the Brexit-induced heavy goods vehicle crisis thundering on, food prices are set to rise by 5 per cent in the run-up to Christmas. Inflation is rising at a record rate, slapping more costs on household budgets, which the UK Government wants to hit again with a national insurance tax rise. UK Government policies are hiking costs and cutting incomes.
How many more hours will the care worker, the delivery driver, the cleaner and the shop worker need to find to make up for the cut? Analysis from the Institute for Public Policy Research shows that a lone parent working 48 hours a week cannot reach a living income unless they are paid more than the real living wage. Those people are our key workers. The Tories were lauding them during the pandemic, but now they are hammering them with cuts to their incomes, forcing them into in-work poverty and to food banks.
What are those who are not even supposed to find work meant to do? Miles Briggs and the UK Government have refused to answer that question. Those who are already struggling with a long-term illness or disability have no means to increase their income through work. They will not benefit from the so-called UK jobs plan, and they have suffered the lion’s share of the £37 billion in cuts. People with a disability are already more likely to be in poverty. Now the UK Government will be forcing them deeper below the poverty line.
The Tory amendment does not even stand up to scrutiny from one of their own. The former DWP secretary of state Stephen Crabb gave a commendable speech in the House of Commons a couple of weeks ago. He admitted making a big mistake when he was secretary of state—one that the Scottish Tories want to repeat with their amendment. That mistake was to believe that cutting social security would increase engagement with the employment market. Instead, it increases in-work poverty, destitution and mental health problems, creating a vicious circle.
When it can choose not to, why is the UK Government choosing to put our fellow citizens through unbearable hardship? The cut will strip support from 10,500 of my Airdrie and Shotts constituents. It will impoverish 60,000 people in Scotland, including 20,000 children. It is immoral economic madness. The campaign to reinstate it—if it is not stopped next week—starts now.16:00
The £20 uplift to universal credit was just one part of a £9 billion package of social security spending introduced by the UK Government to protect the most vulnerable in our society from the worst of the pandemic. When it was first announced by the chancellor in March 2020, it immediately provided financial relief to families affected by the pandemic and sat alongside other measures such as the uprating of child benefit, guardian’s allowance and relief thresholds, and a one-off £500 payment for the recipients of working tax credit. The DWP is not often praised, but it has really risen to the challenge during the pandemic.
An independent review of the UK Government’s temporary Covid measures by the Social Security Advisory Committee noted that
“the rapid response on a huge scale by the Department for Work and Pensions ... to support social security and tax credit claimants during the pandemic has been very successful”.
It added that the universal credit system performed
“remarkably well under pressure”,
with a number of critical successes such as
“rapidly adapting the claims process, suspending conditionality”
and speeding up payments. [Interruption.] Not now; I want to make progress.
We cannot escape the fact that the £20 uplift to universal credit, which has already been extended for six months, has always been a temporary measure. As the economy reawakens, the focus for any Government should be to get the country back to work. All UK Administrations face that challenge, but the UK Government is leading the way with its plan for jobs.
The kickstart scheme is just one prong of the strategy, with £2 billion invested and more than 63,000 young people now in kickstart jobs. More than 2,500 young people begin kickstart jobs every week. That is a remarkable number. [Interruption.] Not now. As a result, it is only right that my colleague Miles Briggs has mentioned kickstart in his amendment. It is a great programme and deserves more recognition from members here. [Interruption.] No, I gave way last week. I want to make progress today.
There is also the £2.9 billion restart scheme, which provides support worth around £2,000 to more than 1 million long-term unemployed people on universal credit. The number of work coaches has been doubled to 27,000 and £2.3 billion has been invested in recruiting them, and 1.6 million people have moved from unemployment into work since April 2020. The job entry targeted support scheme has been given £200 million and has supported almost 6,000 people in Scotland. A million people in receipt of pension credit have been given a £140 discount on their energy bills. The national living wage has been boosted to £8.91 per hour.
It is easy for the SNP to point the finger of blame when it comes to social security, even if its own system is far from perfect. To say, as many do, that the UK Government has not done enough to support those who need it most is just not true.
The decision to end the uplift in universal credit was not taken lightly by the UK Government—such decisions never are. However, as I have outlined, the UK Government and the DWP have gone above and beyond in standing up for the most vulnerable in our society.
I call Marie McNair, to be followed by Alex Rowley. I ask for speeches of about four minutes. We do not have a lot of time in hand.16:04
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate about the need to cancel the Westminster Government’s plan to cut universal credit and working tax credit by £20 a week, although I am astounded that we need such a debate. What rational Government that had the true interests of the people at its heart would ever think that, at such a difficult time, cutting this lifeline to many people would be a good idea? The plan lacks compassion, it is cruel, and it will literally take the food out of people’s mouths. It will mean that many families will be unable to heat their homes at a time when energy costs are spiralling out of control.
I hope that this debate, along with the pressures from everywhere else, will make the heartless Tory Government see sense and end its plan to make the cut. However, we have certainly got one thing from this debate: it tells the people of Scotland everything that they need to know about the Tories.
As a member of the Social Justice and Social Security Committee, I can assure Parliament that we are extremely concerned about the cut. We have taken a united four-nations approach with other social security committees to call for its reversal. We heard from the Child Poverty Action Group that the cut will put more than 20,000 children into poverty.
Most people on universal credit are working, are unfit to work or have caring responsibilities. The Westminster Government’s attempt to minimise the likely impact of the removal of the £20 uplift has been found to be disingenuous and inaccurate. Thérèse Coffey, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, even suggested that people taking on an extra couple of hours’ work would fully mitigate the cut. That is, of course, not true, and it was a shameful attempt to spin away the misery and hurt that the Tories will inflict on our families. Bill Scott, the chair of the Poverty and Inequality Commission, pointed out in evidence to our committee that a person on the minimum wage would have to work for an extra nine hours, because of universal credit’s clawback system—of course, that assumes that work is available and that the employee can take it on.
Instead of using such misleading rhetoric—I note that there is more of that in the Tory amendment—we need the Tories to announce that the cut will not go ahead and that families will not have to face impossible choices that will inflict devastating hardship at such a difficult time. We heard in the chamber last week that the Tories were lobbying to have the planned cut reversed, but we see from their amendment that that was just more rhetoric to get them out of a tough corner. I advise them that we will not let them off the hook so lightly. This is a Tory cut, and if it goes ahead, it will hang round their necks for years to come.
While the Tories are lobbying, they should lobby on everything that is wrong with universal credit and shows a lack of compassion and concern—the five-week wait that forces families to choose between waiting for a payment and immediately going into debt, the two-child policy and its despicable rape clause, the removal of the disability premiums that exist in the legacy benefits, and the sanctions regime that penalises many, to name just a few things.
The Tories should also lobby on the benefits cap. The pandemic has led to a 115 per cent increase in the number of people who are impacted by the cap. Most of those families have children, and the benefits cap means that many of them did not see a penny of the £20 uplift.
It is tragic that we need to have this debate in Parliament. It is astounding that, at a time when a perfect storm is heading towards many people in Scotland, the Westminster Government is even contemplating such a cut. We must unite as a Parliament in order to have the loudest possible voice and urge the Tories to think again. Forcing families to choose between heating and eating is an absolute disgrace. The Tories must reverse this cruel plan that will inflict dreadful hardship on many of our constituents.16:08
I rise to speak in favour of the Government’s motion and to reject the amendment from the Scottish Conservatives, which ignores the damaging cut to people’s incomes and the consequences for the lives of men, women and children if the cut goes ahead, and is completely out of touch with mainstream thinking on the issue across Scotland—and, indeed, across the UK.
The Scottish Conservatives are also out of touch with six previous Conservative work and pensions secretaries, who have all written to the chancellor urging him to drop the proposal because of the damage that it will do to people, including children.
This week, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown said:
“at this point, the government’s planned £20 a week cut to universal credit in October seems more economically illogical, socially divisive and morally indefensible than anything I have witnessed in this country’s politics.”
Against that backdrop, the Scottish Conservatives have come to Scotland’s Parliament to defend a proposal from a Westminster Government that will do serious economic and social damage to thousands of men, women and children up and down Scotland.
Gordon Brown went on to say:
“Austerity has been the theme of the past decade, but this cut is vindictive even beyond austerity. It comes 11 weeks before Christmas and it is being coldly and inhumanely executed in spite of the new evidence, mounting month by month, of worsening hardship and continuing crisis.”
“I have never seen a government act so callously and with so little concern for the consequences of their actions on the poorest in our society.”
That is what the Conservatives are defending today.
It is estimated that, in Scotland, more than 220,000 households with children will have their incomes cut. Those cuts will start as we lead up to Christmas, as fuel bills for gas and electricity rise and as the cost of food is on the rise—not to mention the on-going problems of fighting a global pandemic.
That all comes as the Conservatives try to con people with talk of levelling up. Instead of levelling up, as they claim, they are doubling down on a losing formula that makes no economic sense whatsoever. If they want to start balancing the books, they could, for example, do what Labour did in 1997 and initiate a one-off windfall tax. They could easily raise £6 billion by imposing a tax on those who have made the greatest speculative gains from the pandemic. A mass of evidence shows that that would be a reasonable thing to do. Instead, they have decided that the most vulnerable people will pay the price.
That has to be the key point in the debate. It is about political choices in difficult times. We can choose to share the burden and to ask those who are the most able in our society to take a heavier share—
I have to ask you to wind up now, Mr Rowley.
Alternatively, as the Scottish Conservatives are proposing, we can decide that the lowest paid—those who are least able to meet payments—should have their income cut. That cannot be right. Surely, even at this stage, the Parliament could unite to say, “Don’t go ahead with this—stop this, think again and do what is right for the people of Scotland.”16:13
Having previously relied on working tax credits to help to feed and clothe my child—despite being in work—the thought of suddenly losing £20 per week and any potential passported assistance fills me with fear. That fear will be striking at the heart of thousands of my constituents across Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, and many folk will be lying awake at night trying to figure out where they are going to make cuts to the family budget.
Make no mistake, Presiding Officer—I am talking not about putting a bottle of wine back on the shelf but about being in work and deciding whether a child can get new shoes or trousers, as they have kicked the toes out of their trainers and their jeans are at half mast; deciding whether the heating can be turned on as winter starts to bite; and deciding whether fresh food can be bought or whether it will be, “Let’s see what I can make this week from the tinned food from the food bank.”
I can remember having to save in order to afford £1 for the toddlers group, and it breaks my heart to think of other parents having to make that awful decision—not being able to afford the luxury of a toddlers group that will provide social opportunities for both them and their wee yin. The mental wellbeing impact will be felt severely.
Before I go any further, I put on record that years of savage cuts to social security by successive UK Tory chancellors—some of whom are now changing their minds on the matter—show us that universal credit was never enough, even before the pandemic struck. Removing a much-needed and welcome lifeline as we head into a winter beset with increased fuel and food costs, looming increases to national insurance and the end of the furlough scheme will be absolutely “catastrophic”. Those are the words of the UK Government’s own internal advisers.
If we add to that the bedroom tax, the child cap and the abhorrent rape clause, it almost feels as though to be poor is to be punished. Please remember that 45 per cent of universal credit claimants do not even receive their full entitlement, because they have to pay back a never-ending cycle of debt at source.
As a former Scottish Women’s Aid worker, I want to focus on some key figures. Women are overrepresented in low-paid precarious work with zero-hours contracts. Research by the think tank Autonomy found that some 98 per cent of workers in the UK who take home poverty wages in jobs with high coronavirus exposure are women.
According to Save the Children, more than two thirds of the families that it helped with emergency grants in the past 16 months were one-parent families, 96 per cent of which were led by single mums. Two thirds of those families were in receipt of universal credit.
As we have heard, according to estimates, withdrawing the uplift will move about 60,000 people into poverty, including 20,000 children. It will reduce spending on universal credit and tax credits in Scotland by £460 million by 2023. That is £460 million that will not circulate in our local economies, because—make no mistake—that money goes out as fast as it comes in.
Many of the mums who will face this cut next week will also be worrying themselves sick with the fear of having their children taken from them. That is a real worry that many charities hear from women who fear that their inability to feed and clothe their children will result in social work intervention.
I will finish on the fact that approximately 40 per cent of universal credit recipients are in work. I am sure that I was not the only one who could not believe my ears when, last week, South Scotland Conservative MSP Sharon Dowey implied that the cut to universal credit will be the best way to get people back into work. She repeated that today. Her colleague Alexander Stewart, however, assured us that the Conservatives are doing all that they can to lobby their Westminster counterparts to keep the lifeline. Which is it? Scotland is watching.16:17
Scotland has two Parliaments, and the model of devolution works because it is generally understood that some issues are better served when addressed at the local level. However, after 14 years of this SNP Government in power, that theory has been harshly tested and found to be in need of amendment. It remains true that some issues are, indeed, better dealt with at a more local level, but only if it is not an SNP Administration presiding over that level.
As I mentioned, we are 14 years into this Government, and it is fair to say that its record makes for grim reading—so grim, in fact, that it raises the question of how it finds itself in any position to throw stones at Westminster. Perhaps if it spent less time throwing stones and more time on self-reflection, we would have a different story.
On that point, at least one of the clear contributing factors to that woeful record is perfectly evident in the topic of the motion—namely, that the Government is far more interested in fixing and talking about powers that are reserved to Westminster than it is in taking full control of the powers of this Parliament.
Even when it takes a brief break from slagging off Westminster and tries to exercise the powers in its hands, it is woefully inadequate. Back in 2016, social security powers were devolved to this Parliament after many years of promises that more devolved powers were all that stood between the nationalists and a perfect Scotland. Alas, the Government had to learn a harsh lesson—that it takes more than mere catchy slogans and empty promises to govern a country effectively. It even had to hand back control of severe disablement allowance to the DWP because it could not handle it or roll it out in the time that it promised. [Interruption.] I will not take an intervention. In fact, it says that it will not be until 2025 that it finally takes full control of those devolved powers.
Quite frankly, the SNP is in a glass house and should not be throwing stones. The reality is that effective governance requires more than empty promises to shake the magic money tree and pay for anything and everything without consequences.
After thoughtful consideration, I think that we should perhaps take a look at the issue. The uplift was extended and perhaps could have been extended for longer. However, I fully support the UK Government in its pursuit of fiscal responsibility and a future for this country, which is crippled with outrageous debt—left to us mostly by the previous Labour Government.
Will the member take an intervention?
I look forward to SNP colleagues voting for my amendment on Thursday, to make sure that people are protected.
Will the member take an intervention?
I stress the irony of an SNP Government lodging today’s motion in the wake of its 14 years in power. All that is left is overpromising and underdelivering. Poverty is up, the attainment gap is wider, drug deaths are out of control and the SNP Government cannot even take control of the devolved social security powers that are needed to fix all those problems. The reality is that, even if more powers were devolved to the SNP Government, it would exercise them as woefully as it has exercised every other power that it has.
I am reminded of a quotation from the late, great Ronald Reagan. The 10 most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the SNP Government and I’m here to help.”
I remind members that it is up to the member who is speaking to decide whether to take an intervention.16:21
The social security system is the sign and signal of our responsibility to one another. It should be there to help us when we need it most, to support all of us to live well and with dignity in a society that cares. However, for too long, UK Governments have undermined our social security system not only by cutting support but by consistently misleading the public about benefit recipients.
The £20 cut to universal credit that we are debating today is one of the biggest social security cuts ever to be made in British history. Not only that, it is the latest in a long line of cuts that have torn more and more holes in our social security safety net, hitting the poorest families hardest. The benefits freeze reduced incomes as costs were rising, cutting around 6 per cent of overall income; the abhorrent two-child limit has removed about £2,900 from 18,000 Scottish households; and the benefit cap prevents thousands of Scots from getting the benefits that they should have.
The £20 increase was a welcome reprieve from some of those cuts. Indeed, the Institute for Fiscal Studies described it as
“the first significant real terms increase in entitlements for out-of-work claimants without children in half a century, though earnings have doubled ... in that time.”
The fact that the £20 increase was needed could not be a clearer admission that our social security system had been fatally weakened long before the pandemic came along. The increase was not an act of benevolence but an admission of failure. It was an admission that the system had been so damaged by cuts that it was no longer able to perform its basic function of providing adequate support for people who need help with their incomes for reasons beyond their control.
The Conservative amendment, which we cannot support, displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of universal credit, because it focuses heavily on the importance of work. The DWP has argued that the cut will act as a work incentive, but universal credit is not exclusively an unemployment payment, as many millions of recipients are either working or have been assessed as being not required to work. Like the bedroom tax, which tries to force people to move into smaller properties that simply do not exist, this cut, which is being forced on people who cannot work or who cannot work more, is simply inhumane. Also, the cut is not a work incentive if it means that people can no longer afford to use public transport to get to work or that people become ill because they cannot eat well enough.
If the cut goes ahead, it will pull as much as £460 million out of the economy instead of that money being spent in our high streets, supporting local jobs. It will mean that people will skip meals as they face the choice between heating and eating. Independent analysis by the Scottish Parliament information centre suggests that withdrawing the uplift would move more than 50,000 people, including over 10,000 children, into relative poverty at a time when we know that poverty is already unacceptably high.
This regressive cut is symbolic of a UK Government that knows the price of some things but the value of nothing. The cut will temporarily save the Government a few billion pounds a year, but the ripple effects of poverty and the associated societal costs will reach far into the future, adding burdens on future generations. It reflects the stark difference between the UK Government’s coercive approach to welfare and the human-rights based approach that we are trying to build in Scotland. It is symbolic of a Government that ploughs on with its plans, no matter what evidence is presented to show that they are going to actively harm our society’s poorest people.
We cannot support that. With additional powers, we could do so much more, but, for now, we want that lifeline retained.16:25
Way before Covid-19 hit, turning to food banks was, unfortunately, a reality for far too many people in all of Scotland’s communities. There were multiple reasons for that, not least the five-week wait to receive universal credit and the DWP sanctions regime. However, perhaps the major reason that people previously struggled on universal credit was the UK benefits freeze. Citizens Advice Scotland has stated that,
“as a result of the benefits freeze between 2016 and 2019, UC has fallen in value over a tenth (11.5%) behind inflation.”
As MSPs, we have witnessed over many years the impact of benefits being too low. The £20 uplift to universal credit and to tax credits has meant that the past year was the only year in which universal credit rose above inflation rates since it was introduced, eight years ago. When the uplift is removed, monthly standard UC allowance rates will drop by between 14 and 25 per cent. Those cuts will push 60,000 people in Scotland, including 20,000 children, into poverty and, by 2023-24, they could have taken £460 million a year from the pockets of those in our country who most rely on social security.
Citizens Advice Scotland found that 74 per cent of people on universal credit said that, if the benefit was reduced by £25 a week, they would not be able to cope. The Trussell Trust’s 2021 report, “State of Hunger: Building the evidence on poverty, destitution, and food insecurity in the UK”, revealed that
“over two fifths of households referred to a food bank”
“were in receipt of”
universal credit. That was with the current £25 uplift, before a penny was taken off those households.
It is not a finely balanced judgment—the evidence is overwhelming. More than 63,000 households in Glasgow that rely on universal credit, and over 400,000 households in Scotland, need the UK Government to listen and to act. They also need the support of the Scottish Conservatives.
Citizens Advice Scotland has
“found that removing the £20 a week increase will result in 58% of these CAB complex debt clients being unable to meet their living costs”.
However, it is the next comment that I would like the Scottish Conservatives to listen to most closely. CAS also found that
“The £20 a week uplift”,
as it currently is,
“has so far reduced the number of CAB complex debt clients unable to meet their living costs by more than a third (38%)”.
That is a really positive statistic—the £20 increase has been a success. It has not gone as far as I would have liked it to go, but it has been a success. It was the right thing to do and so is retaining it.
For some time, I have believed that the motivation for the £20 UC increase was the sanitisation of a creaking UK universal credit system for the many people who had never been involved in the benefits system before and who would have been shocked at the low level of benefits once they were on them. The UK Government moved swiftly to shore up that creaking system by introducing the £20 supplement. Now, the Conservatives hope that, with many of those workers moving off universal credit, the £20 lifeline can be removed.
If it was right to support those who were newly accessing universal credit, it is surely right to continue that support for those who require it for the longer term, including those with additional vulnerabilities, be they lone parents, those with disabilities or many others.
Three Conservative members have mentioned the doubling of the number of work coaches. The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents work coaches, has said that
“the £20 weekly uplift in UC payments has meant that claimants are better able to engage in job seeking rather than having continuous worries about money.”
Work coaches support the uplift because it helps people back into work. It is the right thing to do. I know that some Conservative members agree with me and with almost every word in my speech. I say to them—Alexander Stewart and others—that they should do the right thing, show some backbone, be principled and defend our constituents against the cut.
I call Carol Mochan. You have a tight four minutes, Ms Mochan.16:30
On universal credit, I am in full agreement with Opposition parties across the UK as well as the Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the many councils that see the effects of these decisions on a daily basis. The cut is blatant vandalism and will ruin lives—it is as simple as that. It does not make any sort of economic sense, given that it will result in the Scottish economy losing more than £500 million a year.
However, that is far from my mind at the moment. The cut will not ruin the lives of the wealthy, of course, nor the lives of the hundreds of Tory MPs who waved it through, but it will ruin the lives of the worst off in our society—an ignored and belittled group who are repeatedly booted back down the ladder the minute they get their foot on a rung. When the so-called uplift ends in October, it will be one of the most blatant examples of punishing the poor to pay for the mistakes of the rich that we have seen in this country for some time.
The reality is that in a sensible country a meagre increase of £20 during an unprecedented health crisis would be seen as necessary and sensible. In many countries, the level of benefits available to people in need were significantly higher to begin with. The uplift rectified a small portion of the years of stripping away benefits in order to appear to be tough, but pushing people to the brink is not tough—it is a tragedy.
We speak about being a compassionate country and a society that is built on shared values of community and fairness, but that is all just for show if we attack at every turn those who are least able to get by. I know that Tory colleagues will say, as they often do, that what I am saying is evidence of an anti-Tory mindset. Let me be honest: I am anti-Tory—Boris Johnson is destroying not only my region, South Scotland, but the entire UK with decisions such as this cut. It will correctly be seen by the electorate as cruel.
When so many people are living hand to mouth, how can anyone stand by such a decision? It is not what we were elected to do, and the cut will damage families and communities for years to come. Decisions of this nature help to ingrain poverty and push communities that have been suffering for decades into a spiral of poor conditions and decreased wealth from which few ever escape. There is no trickle-down effect in places such as Kilmarnock, Tarbolton and Catrine; there is just the cold hard reality of an economy that does not work for the many. The £20 uplift gave a small respite from that and now we have to tell people that it will go. That is shameful.
Scotland should advocate for a floor under which we will not let people fall; part of that should be adequate benefits, but that is far from the only thing that is needed. The economic fallout from Covid has been worsened by years of deregulation, moving the ownership of wealth and assets overseas and a complete disregard for any kind of just taxation that addresses historical inequality.
That grand scheme—the £20 uplift—is a small symptom of a much larger plan to engineer a society for the rich at the expense of everyone else, and that is how we should view it. If you believe that a single parent who lost their job due to Covid should be punished while a hedge fund manager with 10 properties in five different countries should flourish, you are articulating a set of political priorities that I find truly abhorrent. History will look on your decision as disgraceful. However, it is not too late to do the right thing and put your name to the opposition of the planned cut—that is all we ask.
You have to wind up now, Ms Mochan. I ask you to close.
My last point is that I hope that the Scottish Government will step in and mitigate those plans where it can, because that is also the right thing to do.
I call Emma Roddick, who is the final speaker in the open debate. You have a tight four minutes, please, Ms Roddick.16:34
Just two weeks ago, the Conservatives intervened in my speech on homelessness to insist that the Scottish Government raise the Scottish child payment, which is a benefit that is linked to universal credit, by £10 a week. Now, here they are insisting on backing a move down south that will remove £20 a week from those same universal credit claims. How can we fight child poverty in Scotland when every increase—every doubling—of the Scottish child payment ends up being sucked into the growing black hole of yet more Tory cuts?
Does Emma Roddick accept that, when we set the child poverty targets in the Parliament, there was no such thing as the £20 uplift, that we set them without caveat and on the basis that we would meet them anyway, and that raising the payment to £20 will not be enough?
Absolutely. I take Pam Duncan-Glancy’s point. I am certainly not against doubling the Scottish child payment in any sense; I am simply concerned that it will have less effect coming straight after the cut.
The introduction of the uplift was a recognition in a time of national crisis that people did not have enough money to buy essentials. We all know that that is still true today, and we know that the removal of the uplift could plunge tens of thousands of Scottish people, including around 20,000 children, into poverty. There is no justification for that.
Even within the Conservatives’ amendment, they claim that the justification for removing the uplift, which was extended to cover the past six months, is that employment has risen for the past six months. Essentially, they are saying that the intervention is working and lifting people out of poverty, so we should remove it. The callous attitude of the Conservatives today in backing a move to take £20 out of the pockets of those who have been hardest hit in the past two years is bad enough in itself, but claiming it as some righteous work incentive is horrific.
Yesterday, the Trussell Trust sent MSPs some very interesting and harrowing information ahead of this debate. Its data show that one in five on universal credit said that the cut would prevent them from travelling to work, one in five would struggle to heat their homes over winter, and one in four—that is, 115,000 people—is likely to have to skip meals.
The Tories are using poverty as a punishment for not working hard enough and ignoring the fact that many in this country cannot work, or are working and are still not earning enough to live on because the UK Government is still dragging its heels on employment rights. More than a third of universal credit claimants are in work and are still below the very low threshold that the Conservatives consider to be worth supporting.
I find the, at best, complete lack of consideration for and, at worst, active and conscious endangerment of disabled people to be absolutely disgusting. Disabled people on universal credit are 50 per cent more likely to skip meals to get by. I am proud that the Parliament is becoming more diverse, and I hope that that will lead to better recognition of the issues that disabled people face, but the Tory amendment does not fill me with a lot of hope for Tory colleagues.
Making the biggest overnight cut to social security in my lifetime and in the lifetimes of most people here, when fuel and other living costs are rising and we are recovering from a pandemic, is as ridiculous as it is morally reprehensible. Today, the Highland poverty action network described it as a “disaster” for those most in need, whom it serves, and it wondered whether there could be a worse time to do it.
The Tories can stand up in the Parliament and defend taking £20 out of the weekly budget of nearly a quarter of a million families with children while demanding that the Scottish Government give those same families an extra tenner, but they cannot do it with any integrity.16:38
This illogical and cruel cut to universal credit should not be taking place. From listening to the Conservatives today and back-bench Conservatives in Westminster, I think that it is clear that they have no idea why it is happening.
We heard Shona Robison quoting the Legatum Institute. That is illustrative. The Legatum Institute is run by a very right-wing Tory peer, is registered in a tax haven, advocates a hard Brexit and is funded by the spoils of Russian chaos in the 1990s. I have doubts that the people who are involved in it really care about the poor in Scotland and across the UK, but they are aghast that their treasured Tory Government is doing what it is doing. That is because they believe that there will be a significant electoral cost to the Tories as a result of what they are proposing to do in a matter of days. If even those people think that it is a bad idea, perhaps Conservative colleagues might want to think again.
The cut is politically incomprehensible. It is economically illiterate, fiscally incredible and morally unconscionable. To take such action now assumes that the crisis is over, but we know that the crisis in our schools, shops, factories and streets and around our kitchen tables has only just begun. It will run for years to come. Miles Briggs must accept that we are only seeing the start of the results of the pandemic.
We must not equivocate—we know the consequences of the cut, which so many members have spoken about so eloquently. We know the pain that it will bring. Let us not pretend that any person who is thrown deeper into poverty by the cut cares whether an extra pound in their purse comes badged with a saltire or a union jack. What matters to them is putting food on their table, being able to switch the heating on and putting clothes on their child’s back.
A single mother from Dundee says:
“It’s already a struggle for me even WITH the uplift. I’m a single mum of 2, and even with the uplift I’ve gone weeks with nothing. If they take this money away I’ll be down an even bigger hole. I don’t have 2 quid to my name.”
She is one of 18,000 Dundonians who will be impacted by the cut. The UN’s special rapporteur on poverty said:
“For these people, £20 a week makes a huge difference, and could be the difference between falling into extreme poverty or remaining just above that poverty line … If the question is one of fiscal consolidation to maintain the public deficit within acceptable levels then you should raise revenues, not cut down on welfare at the expense of people in poverty.”
Far too often we end up talking about mitigating harms and propping people up rather than enabling them to lift themselves free. We need an economy that works, which raises wages and provides jobs. Pam Duncan-Glancy is right to describe benefits as enabling the pathway into work. However, over 14 years the Scottish Government has failed to do that and to build the economy that we need. We are far weaker as a country and as a community than we should be.
With the cut, increases to national insurance and rocketing energy bills, low-income families are heading to an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis. It is no wonder that UK Government ministers are briefing that it is going to be a difficult winter.
The list of people and organisations that are squarely against the cut to universal credit is extraordinary. It includes children’s rights organisations, anti-poverty campaigners, every single Opposition party and even six previous Tory DWP ministers—as highlighted by Alex Rowley. Neil Gray stood alongside Stephen Crabb, rightly, to argue that the cut makes employment less likely. Willie Rennie made a salient point when he asked the Tories to have confidence in their own jobs plan—we heard about it today—to reduce the claimant count and to save money by getting people into work.
Although the callous cut is squarely the responsibility of the UK Government, we must also consider our responsibilities in the Scottish Parliament. If it is a moral question then that moral quandary lies with us, too.
The analysis of the Child Poverty Action Group is that
“the Scottish Government also has an obligation to progress the realisation of rights in Scotland and a statutory requirement to meet its own child poverty targets.”
As Pam Duncan-Glancy has said time and again, those targets were set prior to the introduction of the uplift and pre-pandemic, and they are set to be missed by some considerable distance unless urgent action is taken. We ask the Scottish Government to take that action.
Our pre-pandemic child poverty figure was almost 30 per cent. The immediate doubling of the child payment is a moral imperative—as is doubling it again. Introducing a £40 per week payment would cut child poverty by a third in one action.
The question remains that, if we cannot mitigate child poverty now, in this year of all years, when the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government have more resources at their disposal than ever, and if we cannot put money into pockets now, when will it be done? Every day that passes is a moral affront. All we can hope is that the UK Government recognises the extraordinary folly of the course on which it is set.
In a matter of days, families will wake to much deepened hardship. We are confronted by the
“fierce urgency of now.”
For those who need all of our help,
“there ‘is’ such a thing as too late.”16:44
I am happy to close the debate on the Scottish Conservatives’ behalf. I am not at all surprised that the SNP Government has chosen to use Government time to debate a matter that is entirely outwith the Parliament’s control. Only last week, the Scottish Government proudly reminded the chamber that Social Security Scotland now delivers 11 benefits, seven of which are new, but instead of spending this afternoon scrutinising the Scottish Government’s delivery of the devolved benefits, we have debated the actions of a different Government that is accountable to a different Parliament.
Will the member take an intervention?
No, thank you—I have a lot to cover.
I take issue with the narrative that we have heard this afternoon—that universal credit has been a total failure and is a stick to beat the UK Government with. That is far from the truth. Universal credit has provided opportunity to people; the reality is that it is vastly superior to what it replaced—many work coaches will say exactly that.
No longer are people saddled with a benefits system that makes claimants poorer for choosing to take on more work. No longer are claimants faced with a confusing patchwork quilt of benefits that can be paid. Universal credit has brought simplicity to the benefits system, as well as a tapered system that gradually decreases payments for claimants.
Those factors must be taken into account; they helped employment to rise to record levels in the months that led up to the pandemic. It is precisely because of those aspects that people have gone into work—[Interruption.] No, thank you. I have no doubt that universal credit, along with new schemes such as kickstart and the young persons guarantee, will play an important part in the process, but—[Interruption.] Presiding Officer, if I want to take an intervention, I will say so, but I want to continue.
As well as having helped people into work, universal credit has been shown to be resilient. In the pandemic’s opening months, the system had an additional 2 million new claimants in comparison with the previous months. The system was nearly at breaking point, but it did not break—it continued and ensured that individuals received the support that they required. [Interruption.] Not at the moment.
We all know that universal credit needs to be delivered at this time because many people need support. The uplift of £20 a week was followed by a further layer of support throughout this unprecedented time. I was pleased when the six-month extension to the uplift was confirmed in the March budget, following calls from Conservative MSPs for that.
However, it would be remiss of me not to mention, as many colleagues have, the cost of continuing the uplift. Members of other parties tell us that the funding problem is a non-issue, but I am sorry—it is not a non-issue. In the chamber less than a week ago, the SNP social security minister refused to say whether he would permanently double the carers allowance supplement, and the reason for that was that budget considerations were being taken into account.
Will the member give way?
No, thank you.
In the week before that, SNP members voted down our amendment to call for the Scottish child payment to be doubled in the next financial year. One must assume that budgetary constraints had something to do with that.
It is clear that the SNP Government would like to claim that there is a simple solution, but there is no simple solution to any of this reality. In recent days, a proposed solution has been a reduction in the universal credit taper rate from 63p per pound to 60p per pound. That would still cost about £1 billion, but it would help to support those involved. The taper system of support could also be used to give individuals an uplift; that could be considered.
We have given just some of the reasons why Conservative members called for the Scottish child payment to be doubled in the next financial year. I have sympathy with discussion of both proposals as we go forward.
In response to the contributions from members across the chamber, I would like to speak about what my colleagues have said. Miles Briggs spoke about the unprecedented level of support, with billions of pounds—£14 billion—being given to Scotland to assist and support, jobs-based recovery, plans to kickstart individuals into the community, long-standing work commitments, restarting schemes and building back. Those are all vitally important. Sharon Dowey spoke about the success of the DWP in taking on millions of new claimants across the country, as well as building back and ensuring that the measures were in place.
Jeremy Balfour talked about the two Parliaments and about the 14 years of the SNP Government and the controls that this Parliament has; he talked about the Government not delivering on those and having to hand back powers.
In conclusion, I have already said that this is far from a simple issue with a simple solution—no matter how loudly members on the opposite benches try to shout otherwise. I have said and continue to say that there should be no grievance. The blame game is not what we should be indulging in. The SNP Government should choose to work constructively with the UK Government to move on from the pandemic, to help people back into work, to help people deliver and to help people throughout the recovery. That is what the people of this country want to happen. I support the amendment in the name of Miles Briggs.16:51
We are living through serious and historic times, and the Conservative Party is about to make a serious and historic mistake that Scotland and the rest of the UK will not forgive. We are still in a pandemic, trying, together, to get through this period, which is not over, as Michael Marra rightly emphasised. We have challenges ahead of us, economically, environmentally and in multiple other ways. We face a perfect storm of cost increases, many caused by Brexit. People are facing rising food prices and rising fuel costs. In such a situation, how could a Government even be thinking about cutting support for some of the poorest in our society—and doing so actively and knowing the harm that that will cause? How can that be right?
We have seen some of our best as a society during this on-going pandemic. People and communities supported each other. Governments stepped up, too. I commend the UK Government for what it did. Sharon Dowey is right: the DWP did a lot of good. Bob Doris talked about that, too. Back then, there was an acknowledgement that universal credit was too little to support people and to allow them to fulfil their potential, so it was increased. Surely if it was not enough then, how can it be enough now if £20 is taken away? How can such a cut be right?
It is always better to give support to someone if they are struggling, rather than letting them fall to the ground and having to pick them back up. That is what social security is all about: it is about ensuring that we come together as a society, for the individuals affected and all the services that support them, and provide the resource to help people. That is what the increase to universal credit helped with. Social security is a collective investment in each other, and that is what we are building here in Scotland. What baffles me is why the Conservative Government is not grasping this opportunity to reform universal credit, instead of cutting it.
For Conservative members to suggest that this issue is not relevant to Scotland or to this Parliament just shows how ignorant they are. Every time a welfare cut from a UK Conservative Government is undertaken, devolved services have to pick up a lot of that damage.
We have years of evidence of what needs to be fixed with universal credit: the five-week wait for the first payment needs to be removed; the debt-inducing advances need to be replaced with non-repayable grants; the two-child limit and abhorrent rape clause need to be scrapped; the sanctions regime needs to be removed; and the benefit cap needs to be lifted. The UK Government should be sorting out those issues, not taking £20 out of the pockets of some of the poorest in our society.
The concepts of levelling up and building back better will mean nothing if the cut is made. Presiding Officer, you can hear how angry we are about what the UK Government is doing, and about how reckless and wrong-headed it is. The UK Government is making a conscious, nonsensical and unnecessary choice. It will take £6 billion out of local economies across the UK. Across the UK, 800,000 people, including 300,000 children, will be plunged into poverty. The cut will take £460 million a year out of local economies here in Scotland, and 60,000 people here, including 20,000 children, will be plunged into poverty. It will be the biggest overnight cut to welfare in 70 years.
As Emma Roddick and Elena Whitham rightly emphasised, the cut will have huge consequences for individuals. It will mean less food and heating for many, and it will cause damage to some of the most vulnerable in our society. How can that be right?
As Maggie Chapman said, the cut will exacerbate in-work poverty, because 175,000 households that are claiming universal credit are working households. It is economically nonsensical and, as Michael Marra rightly said, it is illiterate and illogical, because it will take money out of local economies as we try to recover.
The cut is also unnecessary. The UK Government has many revenue-raising tools at its disposal—it has a full suite of fiscal and monetary powers. As Alex Rowley suggested, it could bring in a windfall tax. It has full borrowing powers. It could use its digital services tax, corporation tax, capital gains tax, inheritance tax or, as Carol Mochan argued, the dividend income tax. Yet, even with all those options available, once again, it has decided to punish the poor by cutting support for the lowest paid and the most vulnerable. How could the UK Government do so at the worst possible time? How can that be right?
Conservative members talked about two Parliaments and two Governments, and it is a tale of two Parliaments and two Governments. We in the Scottish Government will do what we can with what we have, as we have done throughout the past years. As always, Pam Duncan-Glancy’s suggestions are taken in good faith, and we look forward to working with her. However, it is not reasonable or acceptable to expect the Scottish Government to mitigate every bad policy decision of a UK Tory Government that Scotland never voted for.
While we are in the UK, it is for the UK Government to be held responsible for its actions and accountable for its decisions. Most of all, it should listen to the people of Scotland. Will the Conservative UK Government listen to the anti-poverty charities? Surely, ignoring them cannot be right. Will it listen to the voices from across political parties, including its own party? Surely, ignoring such widespread criticism and concern cannot be right. Will the UK Government listen to the lessons from history of the dire consequences of not supporting those in need when they need it most? Ignoring those lessons cannot be right. Will the Tory MSPs listen? As Willie Rennie rightly asked, will the Tory MPs listen? To loyally stand by on the issue cannot be right.
I urge Parliament to vote to reject the £20 universal credit cut. I urge the UK Government to listen to the people of Scotland, whom we all, including those on the Conservative benches, represent. I urge the UK Government: for goodness’ sake, in such times, do the right thing.
If it does not, we will not forget. If the Scottish Parliament agrees to the motion today but it is ignored and our people suffer, we will know who to blame. In no way can the universal credit cut be right; in no way can it be reasonably or morally justified, especially at this time.
If the Parliament is ignored and our people suffer, we will know who to blame. We will remember who did not speak up—the Scottish Conservatives. We will remember that a Tory UK Government, which Scotland never voted for, wilfully punished those less fortunate at this most difficult of times and that it did so against Scotland’s will. We will remember that, and the people whom we represent will remember that, too.