Meeting date: Wednesday, December 4, 2019
Meeting of the Parliament 04 December 2019
Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Achieving a Fairer Scotland, Business Motions, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Delivery Charges
- Portfolio Question Time
- Achieving a Fairer Scotland
- Business Motions
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Delivery Charges
Achieving a Fairer Scotland
The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-20110, in the name of Aileen Campbell, on achieving a fairer Scotland. I ask members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons now. I call the minister to open the debate and move the motion—cabinet secretary, that is; I am demoting you.14:41
Presiding Officer, thank you—Deputy Presiding Officer, I should say. [Laughter.]
At least your mistake was going in the right direction.
It is the season of good will, but that will probably be where the good will begins and ends today.
The debate provides an opportunity to focus on our aims to achieve a fairer and more equal Scotland. In 2016, we published our fairer Scotland action plan, which outlined 50 actions for this parliamentary session that were built on five high-level ambitions to achieve a fairer Scotland by 2030.
I am proud that our third-year progress report, which was published this week, shows that all 50 actions are in progress, with 19 completed and 11 forming continuous programmes of work. Our report also sets out the progress that we have made against each of the recommendations of the independent adviser on poverty and inequality, Naomi Eisenstadt. Those recommendations have been very much embedded in our actions to build a fairer Scotland.
Although we have delivered progress and continue to work hard within the powers that we have to create that fairer Scotland, we act against a backdrop of over a million Scots—including almost one in four children—living in poverty and an increasing reliance on crisis support such as food banks.
The Scottish Government estimates that United Kingdom Government spending on welfare and social security in Scotland will reduce by up to £3.7 billion by 2020-21. At the same time, the Scottish budget has been cut in real terms by around £2 billion. It is no wonder, then, that the Trades Union Congress said recently that this has been
“a decade of failed austerity”.
We know that poverty levels are set to rise. The Resolution Foundation is the latest organisation to point to the rising tide. It says that, if another Conservative Government is returned, child poverty is at risk of reaching a record 60-year high, because the Conservatives will continue with the decade of welfare cuts that have led to the hardship, desperation and poverty that we have all seen in our constituencies.
What do the Conservatives offer in their manifesto to help families who are experiencing such hardship? Not much. Despite the words of the United Nations rapporteur, who said that Tory welfare cuts were inflicting “great misery”, there are only two mentions of poverty in the manifesto, which are in a single sentence:
“we will continue our efforts … to reduce poverty, including child poverty.”
The lack of mention of poverty is not surprising, given that the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, deflected the blame for rising poverty, despite the Conservatives having been in power for a decade, by saying:
“It’s not the Government, though, is it?”
However, the rise in poverty is down to the UK Government and its actions. The benefit freeze, the local housing allowance freeze, the benefit cap, the shocking two-child cap and rape clause, the diabolical universal credit roll-out and other changes are having a drastic impact on families throughout the country.
On top of that, we face the uncertainty of Brexit. Independent analysis has predicted that leaving the European Union will result in the economy shrinking, which will threaten jobs, incomes and Government revenues. Recent Scottish Government analysis predicts that, in a no-deal situation, 130,000 Scots could be pushed into poverty.
This Government will not sit back and spectate on poverty. Instead, we will continue to work hard to protect the people of Scotland and tackle poverty and inequality. That work was recognised by the UN special rapporteur, who said in a recent lecture that, compared with England, Scotland is
“on a very different trajectory when it comes to the social protection of its population.”
There is a chasm between the approaches that have been taken over the past decade by the Scottish Government and by the UK Government. Levels of child poverty, after housing costs, are 6 percentage points lower in Scotland than in the rest of the UK, which is down to our unique approach to housing, our investment in social housing stock and our ensuring quality, affordability and sustainability in our social rented housing.
I am proud of our achievement in delivering more than 87,000 affordable homes since 2007, nearly 60,000 of which were for social rent, including more than 12,000 council homes. Our spend per head on the affordable housing supply programme is three times higher than the UK Government spend per head on its affordable homes programme. In the four years to 2018, we delivered 50 per cent more affordable housing units per head of population than in England, and 75 per cent more per head of population than in Wales.
Beyond that, we are taking strong action to end homelessness, and our action to eradicate fuel poverty is underpinned by ambitious statutory targets.
We are helping families to access the advice and support that they need. We know that many people around the country do not claim the full benefits that they are entitled to and that they pay over the odds for electricity and gas. Our new money talk team service is helping to combat that and, since its launch in November last year, it has helped more than 5,000 households to be better off by a total of more than £10 million, at an average of just under £2,000 per household. Our benefit uptake strategy for devolved benefits will ensure that people receive the devolved benefits to which they are entitled.
Our investment in early learning and childcare will reach nearly £1 billion by 2021-22, benefiting around 80,000 households and providing greater support for families. We are almost doubling the funded provision for all three and four-year-olds, plus eligible two-year-olds, to 1,140 hours by August 2020. That universal offer, plus targeted provision, has the potential to be truly transformative for children and their parents. For children, the expansion will provide a high-quality learning environment, which will help to prepare them for school, support their development and narrow the attainment gap. For parents, it will save families £4,500 a year, on average, as well as help parents to return to work or increase their working hours.
We are exercising our full influence to make workplaces fairer, too. Scotland already has the highest levels in the UK of individuals who are paid the real living wage or above—more than 83 per cent of employees—and the lowest number of zero-hour contracts.
However, our ambition does not simply extend to exceeding the standards that are set in the rest of the country. That is why we have committed to building a living wage nation and, by 2021, lifting an additional 25,000 individuals on to the real living wage of £9.30 an hour through employer accreditation. We have set out ambitious action in our fair work action plan and have revised the Scottish business pledge to focus on the key issues that need to be addressed.
We are going further. Through our tackling child poverty delivery plan, we have committed £22 million for new parental employment support. That investment will support parents in work to increase their earnings and progress in their careers. It will build strong links with early learning and childcare by enabling parents to take advantage of the new jobs that the expansion is creating, as well as to take advantage of the funded hours of childcare.
Our new employability services are helping more people to access employment. Fair start Scotland, the cornerstone of our new approach, is voluntary and, since launching in April 2018, it has supported more than 16,000 people and helped more than 4,000 into work. However, that is only part of the story. Fair start Scotland’s first annual report showed that, in a survey of more than 1,000 people who had used the service, 92 per cent felt that they were treated with dignity and respect.
Dignity and respect are the guiding principles for the action that the Government takes. They are at the very heart of our newest public service, Social Security Scotland, which runs a system that is there to support people at the times that they need it, providing not a handout but an investment in the most important resource that our country has—our people.
For the important early years, our best start grant helps families to buy the essentials for their new child when the child is born and at key stages in their wee one’s life.
Our carers allowance supplement, which is worth an additional £452 to carers this year, goes some way to recognising the invaluable work of the thousands of carers in Scotland.
We have also pledged significant new investment of £180 million a year through our Scottish child payment, which will be fully rolled out by 2022, with early payments for under-sixes starting to be paid before next Christmas. The pace at which we are delivering that new benefit is unprecedented. The Child Poverty Action Group called the payment “game-changing” in our fight against poverty, given that it will shift the curve and lift 30,000 children out of poverty when it is fully rolled out. Importantly, the families of the 410,000 children who are set to benefit from it will also be protected against being pulled into the trap of poverty.
I have offered a glimpse of the actions that we are taking and the powers that we are using to make our country fairer. Although national action is important, our local partners have a strong role to play, too. The first local child poverty action reports demonstrate how much good work is happening across the country in linking programmes and delivering the front-line services that folk access. The Poverty and Inequality Commission welcomed that activity and has recently shared its views on how that can be built on in future years. Together with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, NHS Health Scotland, the Improvement Service and others, we will continue to support local areas to maximise their impact and support our collective action.
At birth, every child in Scotland is eligible to receive the baby box. That is an important symbol of the equality that we want for every person in Scotland throughout their life. We know, however, that a fairer Scotland will not be achieved without action and we are committed to making that happen. After all, children only get one shot at childhood, and it is important that we make sure that we get it right.
Earlier this year, we estimated that, in 2018-19, we invested more than £1.4 billion in support directed at low-income households across Scotland. However, that included more than £100 million to mitigate the worst impacts of UK Government welfare reforms. Through our spending review, we are focusing on child poverty and wellbeing as the lens that must guide our investment decisions to make Scotland a fairer place.
The actions of this Government stand in stark contrast to those of the Conservative Government at Westminster. It really is a tale of two Governments. While we mop up the mess and mitigate the callous and punitive acts of the UK Government, we are not content to sit back and accept poverty as inevitable. With the powers that we have, we are being bold and ambitious to create a fairer Scotland. On housing, childcare and employment and through the Scottish child payment, we are using our powers to build a better, fairer Scotland where food banks have been relegated to the past and child poverty has been truly eradicated. I look forward to the debate ahead.
That the Parliament welcomes the publication of the Fairer Scotland Action Plan, Shifting the Curve and the Life Chances of Young People in Scotland, Progress Report 2019; notes the steps being taken towards achieving a fairer and more prosperous Scotland, including the commitment to introduce the Scottish Child Payment, which is a brand new benefit to tackle child poverty head on; further notes the 2018 annual report on Welfare Reform’s estimate that UK Government social security spending will reduce by up to £3.7 billion in Scotland by 2020-21, and acknowledges the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights 2019 report, which stated that the UK Government’s austerity cuts and welfare reforms are a key driver of serious hardship, increased food bank use and homelessness.14:52
When I first read the title of the debate last week, I was genuinely excited by the thought that we might have a constructive discussion about where we want to go on this issue and where we actually are, because we all want to live in a fairer Scotland.
However, what we see in the Scottish Government’s motion and the other parties’ amendments is a papering over of the current position in this country and of the failings of the party that has been in power here for more than a decade. We all acknowledge that progress has been made in some areas, but it is slow and patchy. When we look at the reality on the ground, we see that many people are still missing out because of the Scottish Government’s lack of action. Let me give a few examples.
Will the member take an intervention on that point?
I would prefer to develop my point for a moment.
Let me start with education, which we all agree is the key to enabling young people, and especially those who live in poverty, to move out of challenging situations and have fresh opportunities. However, only yesterday, we heard again how the Scottish Government’s education policy is failing all our children. In maths, our children’s achievements are behind those of their counterparts in England and Northern Ireland—and in science they are notably so. In reading, they are also behind their English counterparts.
In today’s papers, Professor Lindsay Paterson gives a damning reflection on where we are with our education policy and why so many young people in Scotland are failing, and yet the Scottish Government simply will not listen to experts, parents or teachers on what we should be doing instead.
I will give way to Ms Ewing.
Mr Balfour, I will let you talk about education in this debate to a degree, but you do not mention it in your amendment. Keep to your amendment and keep to attacking what is in the Business Bulletin.
I am grateful to Jeremy Balfour for giving way. He might want to read the programme for international student assessment—PISA—statistics again, because what he said was not an accurate reflection.
However, he started off on the central issue of the poverty that we see in 21st-century Scotland, which forms part of the subject of this debate. Given that around 85 per cent by value of social security spend is still controlled from Westminster, the situation is an indictment of successive Westminster Governments, rather than the fault of the Scottish Government. As he said, the Scottish National Party Government has been in power since 2007. Let us look at the decades upon decades of systematic neglect of Scotland by Westminster.
There is plenty of time in hand, so you will get your time back, Mr Balfour.
That is a classic example of what the SNP Government and its back benchers do. They look at the statistics on education and then ignore them. They say that experts, parents and teachers are wrong and that they know best.
I developed the theme of education because it is key to moving people out of poverty. Mr Swinney dropped the proposed education bill. The First Minister said that we should judge her Government on its education record. In the past 10 years, it has failed dismally. Until we get movement with regard to that, the Government will continue to fail. My colleague Alison Harris will talk about what is happening with children at a younger age.
Given that education is a failure, let us look at employability and disability. The Government has failed on that as well. Yesterday evening, we had a members’ business debate in which we had lots of warm words from the minister. However, let us look at what the statistics say. In Scotland, 45.4 per cent of people who are disabled are in employment. The figure in England is 51 per cent. That is a substantial gap in respect of people who are disabled and looking for employment in Scotland. There has been a lack of vision and policies from this Government to take those with disabilities out of poverty, give them fresh opportunities and allow them to develop. We are letting down individuals in our society who want to work but are not getting the opportunities to do so.
I was interested to hear the cabinet secretary talk about benefits. She was brave to do that. This Scottish Government’s record is, “Give us the power and then we will hand it back to the Department for Work and Pensions quicker than you can say any word in the English language.” It does not want the powers that it has been given; it is handing them back. The previous cabinet secretary, Jeane Freeman, made a commitment in the chamber—and on numerous occasions in the Social Security Committee—that all the powers would be fully up and running before the 2021 election. Now we hear from the current cabinet secretary that that will not be the case—another broken promise from the Government.
Next year, accountability and the powers for social security will come to this Parliament. The timetable has been laid out for a safe and secure transition. That is understood by stakeholders. The changes that we have made allow us to deliver the Scottish child payment. Is Jeremy Balfour saying that we should not deliver that? We are determined to have a safe and secure transition. What would he change? What would he move or speed up?
The first thing that I would change is that I would not make promises that I could not keep. Secondly, I say with due respect to the cabinet secretary that I hear a different message from stakeholders. I hear concern and uncertainty, because they do not know what will come down the road from this Government. They do not know what they are getting, because it will not tell us what the regulations are. If this Government genuinely wanted—[Interruption.] Do you want to intervene, cabinet secretary?
Cabinet secretary, please do not have a dialogue across the chamber—please ask to make an intervention through the chair, as is the procedure. The member should not have to ask you to intervene.
I am grateful to Jeremy Balfour for taking a second intervention.
The stakeholders are working with us to develop the regulations, which will be further developed by the commission. There is a process for this: it will come to the committee for consideration and the timetable has been laid out. Scaremongering around what is happening in social security does not do the Conservative Party any good, because it absolutely lacks credibility. The stakeholders know that, and I am afraid that the Conservatives are digging more of a hole for themselves today, rather than working with us to get what everyone wants—a successful benefits system. I ask again: what is it that they would change? I am hearing absolutely nothing in the timetable that they would change.
As a party, we would have delivered all the benefits by 2021, as the SNP promised—in fact, it promised that it could do it all in 18 months, which it has simply failed to do.
Will the member take an intervention?
I need to make some progress.
Many people who want to establish what their benefits are face a lack of certainty. This Government simply wants to tax people more. We have seen taxes going up. The UK Government has raised personal allowances to £12,500—we are lifting thousands of Scots out of poverty in that way. We have a UK Government that does not just talk but actually does things and makes radical changes in people’s lives. I would argue that that is the key difference between the Scottish Government’s motion and the amendment in my name. Let us be absolutely clear that we will not make changes by simply talking; what we need is action from this Government to help the most vulnerable in our society.
I move amendment S5M-20110.1, to leave out from “2018 annual report” to end and insert:
“concern of a number of early learning and childcare practitioners and stakeholders over the roll-out of 1,140 hours of childcare, while acknowledging the need for flexibility within the service so that parents have the most adaptable means for returning to work or study; acknowledges the importance of the safe transfer of disability benefits and the need for the Scottish Government to prioritise their transfer with no further delays; welcomes action by the UK Government to empower workers through an increase to the living wage, personal allowance rate and a decreasing disability unemployment rate, and supports the UK Government’s target to have 4.5 million disabled people in employment by 2027.”15:02
Anyone who is out knocking on doors in this general election—and that is probably all of us, although not today—cannot have failed to notice the striking gap between the haves and have-nots; it has certainly struck me. That can vary from community to community and from street to street, but it is clear to me that we have a very long way to go in creating a fairer Scotland, and until we can say that we have significantly closed the gap. Over the past year, according to Shelter, one child in Scotland has been made homeless every 37 minutes. That is 14,000 children in total. Statistics such as that show how far we have to go to achieve the goal of a fairer Scotland.
I believe that the Scottish Government must lead ambitiously, and our amendment calls for it to be more ambitious in its aims. The fairer Scotland progress report shows that, in too many areas, it has not gone far enough. It is important to note that this cannot be done without the involvement of partners, including people in the third sector, and even the Opposition parties playing a constructive role where we can.
However, like the cabinet secretary, I must acknowledge—this has been said many times—that the 2019 report by the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights clearly stated that the UK Government’s austerity cuts and welfare reforms have been a key driver of serious hardship, increased food bank use and homelessness. I say to the Tories that I do not think that we can have an all-round constructive approach until their party at least acknowledges the role that universal credit and welfare reforms have played in creating hardship in Scotland.
Creating a fairer Scotland is about more than just tackling poverty and improving incomes. It is also about tackling the lack of opportunity and the fact that some people do not get the same chances as others or the right help when they need it. Poorer people tend not to move in the same networks as wealthier people.
Creating fairness is wide ranging and includes climate change, fairness for future generations and the urgent need to be inclusive to ensure that people on low incomes are not left behind as we make changes towards a low-carbon future. That is a discussion that we will need to have in depth at another time.
I am also struck by the number of young people with disadvantage in their lives these days. Other MSPs cannot have failed to notice that. We have discussed young carers, and many young people suffer ill health. I chair the cross-party group that addresses Crohn’s and colitis and I am staggered that Scotland is presiding over a rising number of young people who are ill, including those who are suffering mental ill health. We must equip our schools and colleges with the resources to help those young people who falter to get back on course with their lives when they may have lost out in school.
Naomi Eisenstadt, whom I think is the best appointment that the Scottish Government has made to date, is eloquent on that subject. She points out that we need to value non-academic routes more and says:
“in most areas a significant proportion of young people will not be aiming for a degree on leaving school. These young people should get comparable care and attention to their futures that is regularly devoted to more academic young people.”
We have all said that, but more focus needs to be put on it.
A fairer Scotland is one that welcomes refugees, and one that sets the bar for a real living wage among Government and Government contractors. There must be fair pay and fair employment rights. We know of precarious employment among young people and the stories of those who do not have any rights in their employment. That is why we will support the devolution of employment rights. We believe that there is a better chance of protecting young people from precarious employment and zero-hours contracts, giving them protection at work, if we have those powers closer to home. I recognise that we must also work with trade unions in a fairer Scotland.
In January, the Poverty and Inequality Commission reported that one of the most worrying trends is the increase in the number of households with a disabled person who are living in poverty; Jeremy Balfour is right about that. While it was only a 1 per cent increase, that represents 40,000 people, which is an important figure to bear in mind. It is a huge topic to address in a short speech and there are other things that I want to focus on.
Last year, KPMG reported that the proportion of jobs paying less than the living wage was 19 per cent. I acknowledge what the cabinet secretary said about Scotland’s figures, but that figure represents 435,000 people. The Poverty and Inequality Commission says that the Government’s target is not ambitious enough and it is looking for a push in the hospitality sector, which has the highest proportion of people earning less than the living wage.
In October, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported:
“Poverty in Scotland is rising, from an already unacceptably high level. ... Almost one in five people in Scotland live in poverty, and for children the situation is worse, with one in four in poverty.”
That looks set to get even worse as we face the prospect of Brexit. A lot depends on the outcome of the general election—I will say no more.
One of the issues that compromises the Scottish Government’s attempt to tackle poverty to some degree is the uptake of the new top-up benefits. We welcome the Scottish child payment but the full roll-out will not come until 2022, although I acknowledge that roll-out will start in 2020. I also acknowledge the best start grant and the carers allowance supplement, which has an extremely positive effect. The Government must be commended for the way in which that has been rolled out by the new social security agency.
However, the question is how we can ensure that uptake is as high as possible; that issue has been addressed by Shirley-Anne Somerville on many occasions. We need to examine in serious depth how benefits could be automated to relieve the problem of poor uptake, although I know how difficult that is. Perhaps the conversion of the Scottish child payment from a top-up to a stand-alone benefit might allow more scope for it to be automated. I put that out for consideration. The Poverty and Inequality Commission says that the Government should make more use of new powers to create new benefits rather than supplementing current ones, so that seems to be its view, too.
Housing costs continue to push people into poverty. In Scotland, the number of working-age adults in the poorest one fifth of the population who spend more than one third of their income on housing has risen over the past 20 years. The number of families living in the private rented sector has risen and for many people that is not a choice—it is their only option. Recent statistics indicate that the average cost of renting in the private sector has risen in 15 out of 18 Scottish local authority areas. That is addressed by the Living Rent union, which warns that the situation will only get worse. We need action to curb high rents, and I hope to talk on another day about my bill to curb high rents. Serious effort must be made to get rents down in the private rented sector or we will not be able to tackle child poverty.
If I had more time, I would mention the gender pay gap, as well as helping vulnerable customers in the energy market, who are not getting a great deal of the rights that they deserve. My colleagues Sarah Boyack and Claudia Beamish will address those issues.
It is important that we do not underestimate the scale of the task in creating a fairer Scotland. We believe that the Government needs to be more ambitious. We will support the Greens’ amendment; we will not support the Conservatives’ amendment. I hope that the Government will support our amendment; in the event that it does not, we will support the Government’s motion in good faith.
I move amendment S5M-20110.3 to insert at end:
“; regrets the rise in poverty in Scotland and believes that more ambition is required across government to tackle inequality and improve people’s quality of life; calls on the Scottish Government to address the barriers to benefit uptake and reduce housing costs; agrees that universal credit, the two-child cap and pernicious UK welfare reforms must be scrapped, and believes that tackling the climate emergency must be done in a fair way, recognising the growing inequalities and insecurities facing people across Scotland.”15:10
The motion rightly notes that, by 2020, around £3.7 billion of social security spending will be cut from Scotland as a result of UK welfare reforms. The international day of disabled persons took place yesterday, so it is timely and important to highlight how hard those cuts have hit disabled people. Colleagues have raised that important issue.
A report by the disability benefits consortium that was released this year shows that disabled people have lost benefit payments of around £1,200 on average each year. For a household with one disabled adult and one disabled child, the average loss is over £4,300. No wonder that the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights and the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities have raised concerns about the impact of welfare reforms on the fundamental rights of disabled people.
Disabled people are forced to travel huge distances to undertake wholly unnecessary benefits assessments that are overturned on appeal more than two thirds of the time; in some cases, they are not able to, or are no longer able to, work because their Motability vehicles have been taken away from them. That is the legacy that the Scottish Government inherits as it takes on responsibility for some disability benefits.
To build a fairer Scotland, we have a lot to combat and we need to radically use the powers that we now have, as small as those powers are and as frustrated as some of us might be about that. The significant change of direction in the use of assessments, in line with the legal requirements that were instituted by the Greens, is potentially a sea change. It should mean that we get more accurate decisions on benefit assessment, which would avoid putting people through assessments that often simply recreate evidence that was already there. We also need to look at the levels of support that we offer and at how broad the eligibility criteria are.
The current disability benefit for older people—attendance allowance—does not offer support for mobility, despite that being available for young people, and I am concerned that the Scottish Government plans to replicate that unfairness. The 20m rule was a cynical attempt to reduce spending at the expense of people’s needs, and it must end. I welcome the Scottish Government’s openness to ending that rule, and I hope that that will result in more disabled people getting the support that they need.
As will many others, those changes will require a significant reinvestment in social security, and that investment will need to be funded to a significant extent by higher taxes. That is why it is so important that we continue to make our tax system more progressive, raising funds from those who can afford to pay a bit more.
Income tax is fairer in Scotland as a result of the budget changes that were won by Greens, so we now need to rise to the challenge on local taxation that was laid down by Naomi Eisenstadt in “Shifting the Curve: A Report to the First Minister”. In that report, which was written almost four years ago, Professor Eisenstadt said that we had reached
“a central moment of political decision, an opportunity to introduce a much more progressive system, one that will have important implications, particularly for working households at or just above the poverty line”
and yet the council tax is still with us. It is still outdated. Most households are still paying the wrong amount and it still restricts the ability of local authorities to better fund public services, to reduce poverty and to build fairer communities.
That is why I lodged an amendment to today’s motion that underlines the importance of the cross-party talks on council tax reform, which I hope will result in the replacement of council tax with a progressive alternative that is urgently needed. Like rebuilding our social security system, introducing a fairer system of local taxation is a huge challenge, which I do not underestimate. However, the Parliament must rise to that challenge if we are to build a fairer Scotland.
My amendment mentions the need to review the Scottish welfare fund to ensure that it is able to support those who have been impacted by welfare reforms and other people who need urgent help with their income or to live independent lives. The welfare fund offers vital support to people who are suffering income crises, which are often brought on by the welfare reforms. I pay tribute to the local government officials across the country who help people in very difficult circumstances. Some 95 per cent of crisis grants are processed within the target time of two working days. That figure has improved over the lifetime of the fund, which reflects the dedication and hard work of those who process welfare fund applications. Now that the fund has been operating for a good few years, at a time of seemingly never-ending welfare reform, this is an appropriate moment to review the fund to ensure that it is able to help everyone who needs it.
The underspends that marked the early years of the programme are now largely a thing of the past in most areas, and the majority of local authorities spend around their full Scottish Government allocation, or indeed overspend it and provide additional funding themselves.
This year, a Menu for Change report showed that some local authorities do not always advertise their welfare fund or its availability, because they are concerned that they will have more applications than they are able to handle. If that is the case, it is clear that we need to urgently review the level of support that the Government is providing. For those reasons, I would appreciate the support of members across the chamber for my amendment.
I wish to address the motion’s focus on rising food bank use. We should be deeply concerned that the Trussell Trust has warned that the use of food banks in Scotland is at an all-time high, with 210,605 food parcels having been issued over the past year, a third of them to children. It is important to remember that food bank statistics do not reveal the true depth of the problem. About a third of food banks are not included in the most commonly used Trussell Trust statistics, and many people who are struggling to pay for food do not always use food banks.
I am over my time, so I will close for now and address more issues in my summing-up speech.
I move amendment S5M-20110.2, to insert at end:
“; calls for a review of the Scottish Welfare Fund to ensure that it can support those hardest hit by welfare reform; notes that the original report, Shifting the Curve, recommended that the Scottish Government should be ‘bold on local tax reform’, and believes it is imperative that ongoing cross-party talks on council tax reform result in a progressive local tax that will enable local authorities to better fund local services and promote fairness.”15:17
I am grateful to the Government for lodging the motion for debate today. As always, there is much common ground between our parties on this issue. Liberal Democrats, as do other parties that are represented in the chamber, have a vision for building a brighter future that is free from discrimination and intolerance—a United Kingdom that is more equal and fair, and a United Kingdom where we all have the same opportunities, regardless of where we come from or the circumstances of our birth.
I will start by giving the Scottish Government some credit. Flicking through the latest progress report, I see that there is a fair amount of purple in its pages. I note that 19 of the 50 actions are marked as having been completed: I congratulate the Government on that. I am glad to see some positive changes among those actions, including the Domestic Abuse (Scotland) Act 2018 and refugee families who are settling here getting quick access to assistance. However, much of what has been completed represents the low-hanging fruit, so we now need to reach much higher and to increase the scope of our ambition.
I will take a few minutes to cover the items that are currently “in progress” for delivery by the Administration. Included among those that are marked “in progress” is the reaching 100 per cent—R100—programme, which is due to be completed by 2021, although I am slightly concerned because we are starting to hear noises from the Government that suggest that we might need to move that date. I would like to hear some reassurance in the cabinet secretary’s summing-up speech about the date by which R100 should be completed.
Reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 is also in progress. My party has called for that for years, but I am concerned that its reform might have been kicked into the long grass. The timetable to deliver that during the current session is now very challenging. There is no guarantee that it will happen, despite all MSPs having stood for election on manifestos that support that. I am concerned that every day that we do not debate the matter in Parliament it is being debated in wider society and is the subject of hyperbole and misinformation.
Also marked as “in progress” is the commitment to put an additional graduate in every nursery in more deprived areas “by 2018”. That target was missed by a huge margin in August last year, by when it was due to have been met. Only half—234—of the 435 extra staff were in place on time, and even today they are still not all in post. I cannot understand why that is not marked in red in the progress report—perhaps the cabinet secretary could illuminate Parliament on that.
That brings me on neatly to funded childcare. Liberal Democrats succeeded in persuading the Scottish Government to expand free childcare, so we are grateful to it for the steps that it has taken. We made the case time and again that that is one of the most effective ways to close the attainment gap between rich children and poor children. Our parties are in agreement on that point—on the social leveller that nurseries represent.
However, as we have heard, roll-out has encountered problems. For example, uptake for two-year-olds is nowhere close to where we want it to be. Some providers are struggling to get by, at a time when business should be good.
Liberal Democrats want to take the expansion much further: we want free high-quality childcare for every child aged two to four, for 35 hours a week, 48 weeks a year. Working parents will get free childcare from when their child is 9 months old. That would close the gap between the end of paid parental leave and the start of free childcare provision. It would also begin to help to close the gender pay gap. We all know people—the vast majority of whom are women—who, in the face of astronomical childcare fees, have opted to stay at home rather than to return to work, or who go back to work for much-diminished time, and often miss out on opportunities for career progression.
A Liberal Democrat UK Government would give the Scottish Government the funding to match that commitment, which is the most ambitious in the UK. Making that a UK-wide shared endeavour would help to promote take-up and train enough staff.
There is no avoiding the fact that the current constitutional chaos hangs over everything good that we want to do in Scotland. Independence and Brexit would both mean less money to invest in children’s education and in transforming mental health services. We are fighting to stop Brexit, and to get a £50 billion remain bonus to tackle inequality and invest in public services. We want to prevent independence and, thus, avoid a decade of SNP-inflicted austerity, which is what the SNP’s own growth commission has forecast and which has, overnight, been confirmed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Implementing the SNP’s general election manifesto in an independent Scotland would lead to even more cuts than are in the Conservative plans for UK spending.
Meanwhile, the head of the Scottish civil service has warned the First Minister that her referendum planning means a “deprioritisation” of domestic policy. Our education and mental health services simply cannot afford further abstraction of Government time. Just yesterday, we saw Scotland slip further down the international rankings in science and in maths, having recorded its worst-ever results. Last week, we saw the worst child mental health waits ever recorded. The Government has denied that there is even a crisis. I want that to be the Government’s number 1 priority, because those services are the cornerstones of our vision for a brighter future.
I got into politics to make our country fairer. It is so much easier to do that without the constitutional stranglehold that is being applied to this country by both of those constitutional issues.
I turn briefly to the amendments. I cannot support Jeremy Balfour's Conservative amendment, because of what it would remove from the motion. Since 2015, the UK Government has made brutal and unnecessary ideologically driven cuts to welfare. The Tories single-handedly undermined universal credit by removing billions of pounds from the system.
On Labour’s amendment, we absolutely agree that universal credit is not working and is driving people to food banks, plunging them into cycles of arrears and leaving them destitute. Labour supported the introduction of universal credit, as did many poverty campaigners at the time. It desperately needs reform, but scrapping it altogether is impractical, especially given that Labour cannot tell us what it would replace it with. That would mean huge amounts of money being spent on yet more administration. I want that money to be spent on supporting people and on reforming universal credit in order to inject dignity and respect into the system.
On the Green Party’s amendment, I am persuaded by Alison Johnstone’s argument about the review of the social welfare fund, so we will support it.
I will close, because I have run out of time.
We move to the open debate, with speeches of six minutes. I have some time in hand and can allow extra time for interventions.15:24
I am pleased to speak in this important Scottish Government debate on achieving a fairer Scotland. As the MSP for the Cowdenbeath constituency, I say at the outset that it is absolutely unacceptable that children in my constituency are growing up in poverty, losing out on opportunities and do not have the life chances that other children take for granted. That shames me, and it should shame every single member of this Parliament—but shame is not enough: we must identify the structural issues that are at play and sort them out.
It could not be clearer that the key issue that faces people in my constituency, and people right across Scotland, is the lack of power to make a generational difference to people who are in poverty, because without power we cannot deliver the changes that we need, and without power we lack the tools that we need to fix the scandal of poverty in energy-rich Scotland. Of course, the power that I am talking about is the power of a normal independent country: the power to control all of our resources, the power to decide how our resources are spent, and the power to determine our own priorities, based on the needs of our people.
That also includes the power to have the Government that we actually vote for. For far too long, Scotland has been in an invidious position in that regard. Aside from any other considerations, that, in and of itself, evidences the stark fact that the union is simply not working. The appalling statistics that have been mentioned are a sad indictment of life under the union, with successive Tory and Labour Governments failing the people of Scotland and failing generations of children in Scotland.
Of course, that has in recent years been exacerbated by Tory austerity and welfare cuts, which have left families across Scotland struggling to pay their bills and feed their children. We know from analysis that was published last year that UK Government cuts will result in some £3.7 billion being cut from the social security spending in Scotland by 2021. We know, too, that the benefit cap is affecting more than 3,000 households, which are losing on average more than £3,000 a year. We know that 8,500 Scottish families have already seen their income being cut due to the universal credit two-child limit, and we know that about 5,600 couples in Scotland could lose up to £7,000 a year by 2023-24 as a result of the Tories’ changes to personal credit, news of which was slipped out by way of a written ministerial statement. What cowardice. Of course, we have also seen the hardship that has been caused by the flawed roll-out of universal credit, which has resulted in significant increases in recourse to food banks.
This is the Britain of the poorhouse. The situation is so bad that the UN special rapporteur reported that UK Government welfare cuts are
“punitive, mean-spirited and often callous”.
As the cabinet secretary said in her opening remarks, the rapporteur went on to say that the cuts are unnecessarily inflicting “great misery.”
However, in what is, indeed,
“a tale of two Governments”,
we in Scotland have seen the SNP Scottish Government taking strong and decisive action in the face of such cuts, by using the powers that we have to help to tackle poverty and income inequality, and to build a fairer and more prosperous Scotland. For example, as we have heard, there is the Scottish child payment, which is worth £10 a week per child. The first payments will be paid out for under-six-year-olds by Christmas 2020, on an accelerated timescale. I congratulate the Cabinet Secretary for Social Security and Older People for ensuring that that will happen. At its heart, the payment is designed to shift the curve of poverty fundamentally, and has been described by the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland as a
“game changer for child poverty in Scotland.”
I entirely agree with that description.
Just imagine if the Scottish Government had 100 per cent of the powers over the social security spend, rather than just 15 per cent, which I regret is the case at the moment—a situation that Labour and the Tories supported during the work of the Smith commission.
Another example of decisive action from the Scottish Government is the difference that the best start grant is making to families in Scotland. Furthermore, we can point to free school meals for children in primaries 1 to 3, which Labour voted against; to help with school uniforms; to the carers supplement, which Pauline McNeill referred to; and to free prescriptions. Those are all examples of the Scottish Government doing what it can with the powers that it has.
However, here’s the rub: at the same time as we see that much-needed investment by the Scottish Government to support low-income households, we also see some £100 million having to be spent every year on mitigating the worst impacts of UK Government’s welfare policy. That is money that, therefore, cannot be spent elsewhere. Indeed, as the UN special rapporteur concluded,
“mitigation comes at a price, and it is not sustainable.”
Westminster rule has come at a very high price for Scotland, and it is “not sustainable”. What kind of country wants to spend £200 billion on nuclear submarine replacement when we see so many people struggling to get by? What kind of country has, under successive Labour and Tory Westminster Governments, seen disabled people being treated so shabbily, with individuals having consistently to go through a long and arduous appeal process to get the benefits to which they are entitled in the first place? And what kind of country is content to preside over generations of children losing out on equitable chances in life?
Scotland has been too long in this condition. The Westminster system is failing Scotland, and the only way to secure real social justice in our country, and to unlock the potential of current and future generations, is to be a normal independent country.15:30
I welcome the progress report on the fairer Scotland action plan and I am happy to be speaking today, having spoken in the plan’s introductory debate back in October 2016. In that debate, I said that there is “no magic bullet” for achieving an instant reduction in poverty, and that remains true. It is important that we look at the overall picture, and that all the portfolios in Government work together as a whole.
The fairer Scotland action plan was built on that approach, with its five key aims covering a variety of policy areas. Number 3 of those five aims was about early years, education and health, and I will focus my contribution on the pledges that the action plan made around early years.
All of us in the chamber agree on the impact that education can have on a child’s life. It provides a clear route for each child to reach their full potential. Many view education as the most important factor in tackling poverty—and I can see why. Pledge 29 of the fairer Scotland action plan was to increase the number of hours of funded childcare entitlement from 600 to 1,140 by 2020. That pledge covered all three and four-year-olds as well as the two-year-olds who are in the greatest need. I know that all parties fully support that commitment, and we all hope that it succeeds. However, it is worth discussing the more concerning developments around that pledge, particularly with regard to how they affect children who need the most help in achieving the best start to their lives.
A problem that has surfaced across the whole country is the number of eligible two-year-olds who actually take up the provision. The Scottish Government set a target to double uptake for two-year-olds, and although I acknowledge that progress has been made on that front, it is nonetheless estimated that 40 per cent of eligible two-year-olds will not be using their entitlement by April 2021. As studies have shown, the option of childcare at that early stage has a greater effect on children from the most deprived backgrounds, so we should strive to increase that uptake further.
Getting the right start in life is invaluable. It helps you throughout your life and it forms the basis for success, and we want to give every child the chance to succeed. Although I acknowledge the potential of the Scottish child payment to help achieve that, it must—as I outlined earlier—be combined with consistency across Government portfolios.
It is important to highlight another issue with the childcare pledge. In 2016, the fairer Scotland action plan made reference to the creation of new jobs as a result of the pledge. Over the years, we have heard several estimates of the number of extra staff that are required to fulfil the pledge, and the most recent revision has reduced the figure to around 8,500 new staff. One reason why the figure has been revised down is that local authorities are recruiting staff who are already in the industry and who currently work for private, voluntary and independent sector nurseries. A recent survey by the National Day Nurseries Association confirmed that those staff are transferring to work in public sector nurseries and stated that nine in 10 PVI sector providers have lost staff in the past year.
Council nurseries are able to offer higher-salary packages for the same roles, due to a difference in the funding rates that are allocated to the PVI and public sectors. I have spoken before about the inequality in treatment, but today’s debate is not about that. It is about achieving a fairer Scotland. That staff drain is already affecting the sector, and I believe that it will have an impact on pursuit of the goal of a fairer Scotland.
It is always worth remembering that the need for childcare does not just start when a child turns two or three. Nurseries in the PVI sector offer an unparalleled flexible service for parents who wish to use childcare outside of typical work or school hours, or who have children under the age of two.
As I noted in the introductory debate on the action plan, paid work is a crucial step on the road to leaving poverty behind, which is a defining goal of the action plan. Young parents in particular face increased financial pressures, which can create barriers to moving out of poverty. Many mothers of young children want to continue their studies or enter work, but many of those jobs operate outside the usual 9-to-5 day.
The flexibility offered by the PVI sector enables those parents to enter employment sooner and more confidently than if they used council settings. However, there is a problem. The roll-out of the 1,140 hours has focused so heavily on building and expanding council nurseries that it has led to the drain in staff from the PVI sector. With the loss of trained and experienced staff, service quality at PVI sector nurseries is at risk and many will struggle to keep their services open. That has been witnessed in the nurseries that have closed or been sold in the past year.
In trying to make a fairer Scotland, an unintended consequence of the early years pledge has been the loss of vital services for those most in need. The action plan’s definition of a fairer Scotland mentions
“genuine equality of opportunity, stronger life chances and support for all those who need it”.
Will the member give way?
I am about to finish.
As we look ahead to the remaining years of the action plan and the future beyond that, I hope that we can all acknowledge the barriers to delivering those outcomes so that we can tackle them before it is too late.15:37
“punitive, mean-spirited and often callous”
are damning, to say the least, as is a reference to “unnecessarily” inflicting “great misery”. Those are not my words, but the words of the UN special rapporteur, in his report on the UK Government’s welfare cuts.
The Tories come to the chamber day in and day out, week in and week out, and month in and month out, calling for more money to be invested in a range of policy areas, despite their budget proposals last year, which would have cut £500 million of expenditure. The proposed tax cuts for the richest would have made the less well-off even worse off. That is an example of how the Tories do not want a fairer Scotland for everyone.
Another example is the comments of Michelle Ballantyne, the Tories’ welfare spokesperson, who said:
“There is no such thing as a bedroom tax”.—[Official Report, Social Security Committee, 21 February 2019; c 24.]
She also said that the rape clause is “fair”, because
“people on benefits cannot have as many children as they like”.—[Official Report, 24 October 2018; c 52.]
I do not understand how the Tories can think that their approach delivers a fairer Scotland. It could be argued that they are writing off many children and people who are on benefits at an early stage. I do not know whether any of the Tories who are in the chamber at the moment support Michelle Ballantyne’s comments. I would be happy to give way if any of them wanted to make an intervention. I see that there are only two, and that they do not want to.
I became involved in politics because I want my community and country to be better and fairer. I grew up in Port Glasgow and saw the devastating effects of the Tory Government’s policies on my community. Thousands left—they had to get on their bike, as Tebbit declared at the time—and there was an increase in alcohol and drugs misuse, which still afflicts my community today.
Annabelle Ewing spoke about the root cause. The root cause of many of the challenges that my constituency faces today started under previous Tory Governments. Those challenges have not been overturned in a few years by the Scottish Parliament with its limited powers, but the SNP Government is taking action, as the cabinet secretary set out in her opening remarks. However, while the majority of tax and spend policies and welfare powers remain at Westminster, Scotland will be at the mercy of those in charge there.
I was the first MSP to raise the issue of food banks in this chamber, and I will always support them. When we are presented with the evidence about how universal credit is affecting people, it ill behoves any Tory politician to defend a policy that is pushing more and more people into poverty and desperation. There will also be other effects on people’s physical and mental health.
The Trussell Trust highlights that, on average, there has been a 52 per cent increase in food bank referrals when universal credit has gone live. In the past year alone, there has been a 23 per cent increase in emergency food parcel handouts. How is that making Scotland fairer? It is not. When constituents come to my office looking for assistance to get food not to thrive but to survive, that clearly highlights a failure in the UK Government’s social policy.
From 3 September 2012 to 30 September 2019, Inverclyde Foodbank recorded the following statistics: there were 19,220 referrals, involving 24,996 adults and 8,630 children—that is 33,626 people. If the Tories think that that is fair, that says a lot about the world in which they live and about how out of touch the Scottish and UK Tories are. With the likes of Johnson, Jacob Rees Mogg—who has disappeared from the election campaign—and Priti Patel wanting to continue in Government after next week, the dystopian nightmare that thousands of people face, in my Inverclyde constituency and across Scotland and the rest of the UK, will only get worse if the Tories are successful. The annual report on welfare reforms estimates that the UK Government’s social security spending in Scotland will be slashed by up to £3.7 billion by 2020-21, which indicates that more of the same poverty and desperation will continue. How will that make Scotland fairer?
Without the actions of the Scottish Government, the situation in my constituency in this year alone would have been so much worse. If Ferguson Marine had not been taken over, 300-plus jobs would have gone, which would have resulted in those people going on the dole and 300 more families being adversely affected.
Earlier this year, Texas Instruments announced that it was closing its Inverclyde plant. However, thanks to the actions of the Scottish Government and the task force that was set up, Diodes Inc took over the plant. If that solution had not been found, more than 300 highly paid and highly skilled jobs in my community would have been lost. That would have meant more people getting on their bike to go somewhere else and, potentially, more people signing on. There would also have been implications for other public policy areas, such as health.
The Scottish Government is delivering to make Scotland fairer. There is still more to do—there will always be more to do—but the draconian policies of a Westminster elite with absolutely no consideration for the working class will only exacerbate the lack of fairness in my constituency and across Scotland.15:43
For many years, with the impact of the UK Government’s actions and policy directions, poverty levels and inequalities in Scotland have increased dramatically. The publication of the “Fairer Scotland Action Plan” is a welcome and comprehensive addition to the debate on how we can collectively improve our situation, with the action plan detailing the actions that are necessary for us to do so.
The foreword to the report by Marie-Therese Martin and Susan McMahon, who are poverty truth commissioners, encapsulates the malaise and hopelessness that existed prior to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and the wide-ranging conversations that were engendered throughout Scottish society as part of the referendum campaign. The feeling at the time is perfectly illustrated by the words:
“Previously we never thought to question our situation—to look at it, to talk about it, to ask ... what could make it better. It was like we were always waiting for the government or someone else to make a change.”
Since then, work undertaken by the Scottish Government and its partners from all sections of Scottish society has changed attitudes dramatically, and—despite limited powers—the Scottish Parliament has made striking improvements to UK welfare arrangements by funding mitigation measures for such things as the bedroom tax.
In the financial year 2018-19, the Scottish Government invested £1.4 billion in supporting low-income households, of which more than £2 million from the pupil equity fund was allocated to every school in my constituency as part of the drive to eliminate the educational attainment gap that currently exists—I very much welcome and appreciate that. The eradication of poverty has to be the highest priority for the Scottish Parliament, because all other aspects of inequality in our communities flow from that source. Poverty and all the other inequalities sleep in the same bed.
It is of particular concern that the UK Government’s austerity agenda and its draconian welfare policies have pushed thousands of additional families into poverty in Scotland—with the future of many more families at risk. It is well known that children who grow up in poverty face reduced educational attainment, poorer health and a shorter life expectancy.
The action plan, which was first published in 2016, contains 50 actions that are designed to tackle poverty, reduce inequality and build a fairer and more inclusive Scotland. Significant advances have already been made, and the introduction of the Scottish child payment of £10 per child per week by 2022 will prove to be a game changer and will be of enormous assistance to families who are living in poverty—women, in particular, will benefit from distributing it within their households. Another game changer for hard-pressed families will be the extension of free early learning and childcare from 600 hours to 1,140 hours each year for every three and four-year-old and for eligible two-year-olds, which will start in August 2020. The actions in the fairer Scotland action plan cover an incredibly wide range of issues—from low incomes to housing, education, health, social security, justice, human rights, employability and discrimination. It is a truly comprehensive plan.
Professor Alston, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, who has been mentioned, described Scotland’s plans as “ambitious”, and said that they include
“a promising social security system”,
“on a very different trajectory than England when it comes to the social protection of its population.”
That is some plaudit from a well-respected individual of world note.
With plans such as those and the full powers of an independent country, we would be able to eradicate what has been the scourge of Scotland for decades. We will remove poverty and inequality. I support the debate and the motion.15:49
I welcome the chance to discuss our vision for a fairer Scotland. I recognise that a number of positive developments have been taken forward in the current session by the Scottish Government and the Parliament when we have worked together to deliver on our aims. However, despite our successes, we have—as other members have said—much, much further to go.
The Conservative Government’s approach to welfare policy has been cruel and castigatory, and the Scottish people have not always been sheltered from its many effects by the Scottish Government, despite the levers at its disposal that would enable it, for example, to take better action to address fuel poverty.
The Government’s progress report is wide ranging and I recognise that there have been successes, but there are also challenges ahead. I have time to touch on only a few areas, but I echo my Labour colleagues’ commitment that a Labour Government would take a much more ambitious approach to the redistribution of wealth and power to create an equitable Scotland.
It is absolutely right that the Scottish Labour amendment refers to “tackling the climate emergency” as part of the vision for a fairer Scotland. I am disappointed that fair action on climate change has been omitted from both the original 2016 action plan and this year’s progress report. After all, the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2019 sets us on a path to net zero emissions that involves a far steeper trajectory than the Government has faced so far in its decade in power, and I do not think—despite the rhetoric—that the scale and opportunity of that approach have quite been appreciated yet.
Documents such as the one that is before us today should have a recognition of the climate emergency, and Scotland’s response, at their core. The shift in our economy and society needs management, strategy and guidance from those who work in the affected industries and have the relevant expertise, alongside Government. It also requires a statutory just transition commission with the freedom to work independently of Governments into the future and to look to the long term.
The climate crisis ties us all to a common fate, but it is the disadvantaged, globally and in Scotland, who will shoulder the burden. I will not stop pushing the Scottish Government until it starts to think proactively about the need for a just transition commission, rather than looking only at the next two years. Let us shape our future and see the necessity of change as an opportunity for the radical transformation of our society and economy for the better, leading to a fairer, more democratic and equal Scotland that is underpinned by radical tax policies and action by a UK Labour Government following—I hope—its election next week.
The Scottish Government’s ambitions in the action plan are welcome, but in almost every area the plan could go further. I stress the possibility of multibenefits as a result of Government taking holistic action across portfolios—something that all parties find challenging but which should be more effectively led by the Scottish Government. Taking on the poverty premium would mean a better quality of life for many, and it would help many out of fuel poverty. A home is a right guaranteed by the United Nations, and—certainly in Scotland—that should mean a warm home.
A more holistic approach is needed. Local authorities are suffering from a lack of capacity to fulfil their responsibilities, yet at the same time they are being given more to do. That signifies the much broader problem that our councils face: deep cuts alongside less control over how they spend their funding. Councils and their service users, working alongside the third sector, are crying out for more progressive alternatives.
The current situation translates into transport poverty, too. The modal shift to public transport and active travel is a significant issue, and there is stark evidence of the links between socially deprived communities and poor air quality. I urge the cabinet secretary to work across portfolios to ensure that more work is done to look at the Scottish index of multiple deprivation data and to explore the links, as recommended in the document “Cleaner Air for Scotland Strategy—An Independent Review: Final Report to the Scottish Government”. Action 14 in the original action plan includes the ambition to make support for rural areas fairer, which is important to many of my constituents in South Scotland. I am surprised to see that rural poverty is barely mentioned in the progress report, so I would welcome some further comment on it from the minister in closing today.
I also highlight a further concern with the SIMD. Its organisation into data zones of between 500 and 1,000 residents potentially disperses deprivation throughout a relatively large area. Can the cabinet secretary comment on whether that methodology could obscure pockets of real deprivation among those who are living in more geographically isolated areas? Would she consider the possibility of a review?
We always take on board ideas from other political parties, and we are happy to engage on that. We take rural poverty very seriously. We also hold and engage in a number of poverty truth commission events, which reflect the nature of, and differences in, poverty for people in communities across the country.
As for working across portfolios, Shirley-Anne Somerville and I have certainly done so to deliver the Scottish child payment. My portfolio also provides the resources to Derek Mackay and his portfolio to enhance our ability to make better use of the childcare roll-out and to ensure that there is an employability link-up, as well. If there are more things that we can do, we are keen to look into them.
I hope that that gives reassurance that we are committed to tackling rural poverty and to working across portfolios, because no single portfolio is going to provide the solution to child poverty.
I thank the cabinet secretary for that explanation.
Finally, I support the aims of improving chances for women and girls in the fairer Scotland action plan, and I would welcome an update on the efforts that are being made to encourage women to enter and re-enter careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and to close the gaps in those sectors.
I also welcome the recognition of flexible working, which can have a huge, positive impact on women and on unpaid carers in the workplace—the majority of whom are, of course, also women. They need understanding employers, not just in order to meet their caring responsibilities, but to find time for respite, which, to be frank, could have better support from the Scottish Government.
It seems that the success of the action plan rests on there being a huge step change in ambition and more joined-up government. More than 1 million people in Scotland live in poverty. Poverty and child poverty in Scotland are rising. Business as usual will not cut it for those people in hardship.
I also ask the Scottish Government to let the climate emergency give it the push that it needs to address that issue as well, and transform our economy and society so that they work for the many as well as the few, as we move towards net zero emissions.15:56
I will focus on two areas of the debate: making Scotland fairer for children who are living in poverty and wider issues around benefit take-up. In doing so, I will offer praise for the powerful and effective actions of the Scottish Government; however, I will also point to where it could perhaps go further. I think that that is the right thing to do during the debate, although I recognise that the Government can go only so far as the resources and powers that are held by this Parliament permit.
I am in no doubt about the game changer that the Scottish Government’s Scottish child payment will be. What do I base that on? Not just the testimony of those who are living in poverty in my constituency of Maryhill and Springburn, but the direct experiences that the Scottish Government has sought to garner from right across Scotland.
During challenge poverty week, in October, I attended an event that the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Institute for Public Policy Research Scotland hosted, to consider the Scottish child payment. The attendees included people from groups that work with families who are experiencing poverty; more important, people with direct experience of poverty were in the room. I was in no doubt about how supportive those people are.
The Scottish child payment will put an additional £10 per week per child into the hands of low-income families. It will help 410,000 children, in a quarter of a million households. The payment will dramatically assist all families and it will lift 30,000 children out of poverty, which is significant.
I pay tribute to the families and campaigners who were part of the give me five campaign, which asked for £5 per child per week. The Scottish Government listened and will deliver a tenner per child per week for low-income households. I say well done to campaigners, including the doughty terriers who are living in poverty and have been at the forefront of the campaign, and well done to the Scottish Government for not only delivering on that ask but surpassing it.
I want to consider how we can go further. I should set that in context by putting on record that there are constraints in that regard, given that there will have been a £3.7 billion cut to the welfare budget in Scotland by 2021 and a £2 billion real-terms cut to Scotland’s budget by the same time.
What additional asks are there? It is acknowledged, and statistics show, that children are most likely to be in poverty in families where there are under-6s in the household. There was talk of a premium, or another top-up, for such families. I know that that money simply does not exist right now—the Scottish Government has made a huge £180 million commitment—but we should not lose sight of that ask.
I spoke to families who talked about the additional costs of having teenagers in their households, particularly during the summer holidays. I pay tribute to the Scottish Government and Glasgow City Council for their work on holiday hunger. There is the idea of actioning a payment of the school clothing grant—we have data on that on the record—just before the summer holidays to assist with the extra costs. Again, we know that there is no magic money tree, but those are real asks for things that we could roll out in the future. I am under no illusions about the challenges around that, but those people made those asks, and it is important that I put them on the record.
Bob Doris started by telling members about the volume of the austerity cuts. What could we do with that money if it was not cut by the UK Government?
I will answer that in another way. The £180 million commitment to tackling child poverty is a unilateral decision by the Scottish Government. That is not happening anywhere else in the UK, but if the rest of the UK decided to follow suit, that would probably mean a £2 billion-plus commitment to tackling child poverty. As the money supply for Scotland, or how we get our own money back, is dependent on spending elsewhere in the UK, if the next UK Government made such a commitment, a Barnett consequential payment of approximately £180 million would come to Scotland. Just think what we could do with that.
I absolutely agree with Gil Paterson’s underlying point about why we should have to depend on spending decisions in London to dictate how much money we have to tackle child poverty in Scotland.
I want to talk about benefits uptake. Action 19 in the fairer Scotland action plan talks about helping
“people claim the benefits they are entitled to”
and action 48 talks about helping
“older people claim the financial support they are entitled to.”
I will provide two statistics about that, which are that around 40 per cent of UK pensioners—130,000 people in Scotland—do not claim the pension credit to which they are entitled, and only 31 per cent of working families without children claim the tax credits to which they are entitled. The Scottish Government is restricted in its abilities to address that and drive up uptake. That is because of the fiscal framework. If the Scottish Government had a targeted campaign to drive up pension credit and working tax credit uptake, the money could be clawed back by the UK Exchequer. That is disgusting. It is an appalling situation.
Action 17 in the fairer Scotland action plan says:
“We will make social security fairer where we can.”
With universal credit reserved to Westminster; the rape clause; the benefits freeze; the withdrawal of pension credit from mixed-age couples; personal independence payments and disability living allowance, which are soon coming to Scotland; and the claw-back of cash, if we help out with that situation, the only way to fulfil action 17 is to have every single social security power here in Scotland. In fact, we will only deliver action 17 of the fairer Scotland action plan if we have Scottish independence.16:03
In 2018-19, the Scottish Government invested more than £1.4 billion in supporting low-income households. Measures include free school meals, the pupil equity fund, delivering affordable homes, supporting people with council tax and the new social security measures. There is also a commitment to introduce the Scottish child payment, which is a benefit that is designed to tackle child poverty head on.
That investment should be welcomed by all parties in the chamber. We must also recognise that we are spending more than £100 million simply to mitigate the Tory Government’s assault on the welfare state, which is why we need all aspects of welfare to be devolved to this Parliament.
The motion notes:
“the 2018 annual report on Welfare Reform’s estimate that UK Government social security spending will reduce by up to £3.7 billion in Scotland by 2020-21”.
We need to think of how many people that will push into poverty, destitution or extreme hardship, and there could be worse to come. Those of you who watched the STV election debate last night will have seen Jackson Carlaw’s arrogant dismissal of questions about the Resolution Foundation’s analysis of the Tory manifesto. That analysis shows that child poverty is set to continue to rise under the Tory social security plans, reaching a 60-year high of 34 per cent, a figure that Jackson Carlaw appeared not to be aware of, or perhaps he just did not care about it. Either way, it was not a good look.
We need only to look at the Tory bedroom tax to see the harrowing effects on some of the most vulnerable people in society. A report commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions found that 78 per cent of people affected by the bedroom tax regularly run out of money by the end of the week or the month. It also revealed that only a third of people affected who applied for emergency support to pay the rent received any help, and that one in four of those affected cut back on spending on things like heating and electricity bills, while 44 per cent had to reduce spending on food. That is simply unacceptable in a modern, wealthy society.
In Dundee alone, between April and September this year, an astonishing 4,735 discretionary housing payments were made to those on low incomes. As we know, the Scottish Government’s DHP scheme is an extra payment to help with housing costs, including those arising from cuts to the local housing allowance and covering in full the impact of the bedroom tax. The total award value spent in Dundee city in that period was almost £2.5 million, with an average award value of £520, and I know that it has been a lifeline for many of my constituents.
The Government’s best start grant and best start foods scheme are also helping those in need. Studies have shown that the best start grant package is putting more money in the pockets of low-income families than the DWP system it replaced. Those grants are making a huge difference to my constituents, with almost 2,500 payments being made in Dundee. The vast majority—76 per cent—of the 3,265 applications processed from Dundee city were approved by Social Security Scotland.
Across Scotland, between December 2018 and September 2019, £17.8 million of best start grant and best start foods payments were made to support people. Those payments are making a big difference to families across Scotland who are being pushed to the brink by continued Tory welfare cuts.
This Government has been striving to mitigate the worst effects of the Tories’ austerity agenda. The best start grant and best start foods payments sit in stark contrast to the two-child cap, the benefits freeze, and the disastrous universal credit roll-out which was recklessly imposed by the Tories in government. This Government, in contrast, has sent a strong message about the kind of country that we can be. We can create a social security system that works to protect people, rather than treating those on low incomes with the hostility and suspicion that they have been subjected to under the Tories.
The Scottish welfare fund is an example of how we are working hard to achieve a fairer society that is built on compassion and kindness. New figures show that in the past financial year the fund made 1,385 payments to people in Dundee. A total of 440 community care grants and 945 crisis grants were awarded between April and June 2019 to people needing essentials such as food, heating costs and household items.
Looking to the future, I recently had the privilege of being asked to chair the new social justice and fairness commission, which will involve people such as our esteemed former chief medical officer, Harry Burns, who knows a huge amount about the work that will be needed to tackle health inequalities. The commission will work to show how, with full powers, Scotland could tackle poverty and create a fairer society and a more socially just country. The commission intends to outline its vision for a fairer Scotland—one that can be truly achieved only by its becoming an independent country with wellbeing and compassion at its heart. Presiding Officer, what a different and inspiring perspective that would be for the people of Scotland.
The last contribution to the open debate is from Bill Kidd.16:09
I begin by acknowledging the tremendous work that Aileen Campbell, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government and my very old friend, has done in leading the way in building a more equitable Scotland. I apologise for using that expression. As everyone here knows, I am too young to have any old friends.
I applaud the vision and ambition for a Scotland in which child poverty is no more, and where people from all backgrounds experience equality of opportunity. There has been a strong commitment from Aileen Campbell and her colleagues, and that commitment has had results: we already have a significantly reduced number of children who are living in poverty.
Looking forward, as has been mentioned it is anticipated that the new Scottish child payment will lift about 30,000 more children out of poverty. Families with children under the age of six will be able to claim that new benefit by Christmas 2020. The Child Poverty Action Group, which is independent of the Scottish Government, described the payment as a “game changer” in tackling inequality.
That and many other measures that have been effected by the Scottish Government make me excited about Scotland’s future. The changes let us see the outline of a Scotland where the ambition to end child poverty and, consequently, to break the cycle of poverty will be achieved.
Although discussion of that vision is uplifting, many people still face poverty daily. Since universal credit was introduced, food bank use has increased: following the introduction of universal credit, I am sad to say that five busy food banks are now operating in my constituency. The Scottish Government has already spent £100 million on trying to mitigate the impact of the UK Government’s welfare policies.
In economics, there is the well-known analogy of the rising tide of wealth. The analogy depicts a harbour in which, as the tide of wealth comes in, all boats rise. That picture means to illustrate that the wealthier a country becomes—or the wealthier individuals become—the better the economy as a whole, which therefore benefits society as a whole.
That myth has been proved to be untrue and harmful, but so many people still believe it, and we still hear it in the rhetoric of people, parties and ideologies, who argue not only that it is fine for the rich to get richer, but that that is better for us all. The growth of the UK’s economy, accompanied by the growth in food banks, evidences how untrue that myth is. It also affirms what Joseph Stiglitz, who is a former chief economist of the World Bank, said in his book, “The Price of Inequality”, which exposes the economic truths of why trickle-down economics does not work in practice. Instead, when the rich get richer, the economy and the rest of the population suffer, as a result.
Yesterday, on 3 December, the Equality Trust released a study on distribution of wealth in the UK. Its findings highlight how untrue the myth of the rising tide is. The study found that the UK’s six richest people control as much wealth as the poorest 13 million people. To provide context, I point out that recent data shows that more than 14 million people are living in recognised poverty.
That is why tax is important. Tax is not only about funding public services; fundamentally, it is about redistributing wealth. Wealth is not the only thing to be inherited: poverty, too, is inherited. That is why tackling child poverty is so important. If we look at the issues at hand—people having enough to feed their children and to heat their homes—there must be common ground for us all in the desire to fight child poverty.
People, regardless of where or to whom they are born, have inherent value. As soon as we understand that, we will start to prioritise public spending differently. However, that understanding of people’s worth jars with the reality that so many families and children face today.
If we look face-on at the findings of the aforementioned Professor Alston, the UN rapporteur, and if we are honest about the poverty that millions of people experience, we will be better placed to effect substantial change with relevant policies. I welcome the initiatives of the fairer Scotland action plan, which seek to create that change, and I commend the people who are working on its deployment for their ongoing dedicated work.
We move to the closing speeches. I call Alison Johnstone, to be followed by Sarah Boyack.16:14
The debate has been very interesting. The fairer Scotland progress report covers a huge range of policy areas. We have heard from several colleagues about Professor Alston’s comments, which are well documented and are, unsurprisingly, often cited in the chamber.
In closing on behalf of the Scottish Green Party, I will refer to the work of Professor Morag Treanor, who is a member of the Poverty and Inequality Commission. She attended a summit on women and austerity that I hosted in Parliament a couple of years ago. In her presentation, she highlighted that poor families pay 10 times more for a washing machine—something that we all use daily and weekly—than we might pay, simply because those families cannot, at moments of extreme crisis, get hold of the £250 that they need. When we looked at the matter in 2017, a washing machine was available from one retailer for £160, but families still could not get hold of that amount of money. It might as well have been thousands of pounds.
We looked at the case of a person who was going to end up paying £2,399 for a washing machine. Such people are penalised because of their inability to access what, to us, is a small amount of money. They are penalised because of inability to access mainstream credit or to set up a direct debit. There is even a case of a person in Dundee having paid £3,000 for a washing machine. I will not name the retailers, but if we go online, we can find that some apply annual percentage interest rates of 70 per cent.
I highlight that situation because it fundamentally underlines the importance of income to poverty. In Parliament, we speak of fuel poverty, food poverty and period poverty—but they all come down to the fact that some people do not, at the end of the day, have enough cash in their pockets to pay for the things that they need when they need them.
That also underlines why food banks are not the solution. People going to food banks in an emergency—which is something that I had thought we would never see in this affluent country—cannot become normalised, because that will not help people when they need other things, such as a washing machine. That is why I have focused on that issue to start with.
It has been an interesting debate. It is right that the Government highlights the negative impact of the Tories’ desire for the hardest of Brexits. It will negatively impact on people in Scotland—it will impact on our ability to provide high-quality jobs and to collaborate on research across the EU, and it could push 130,000 Scots into poverty.
My starting point today is the importance of income maximisation schemes to tackling poverty. We know that, where successful schemes exist—the healthier, wealthier children project, for example—they have ensured that thousands of pounds have found their way to the families on low incomes who most need access to that cash.
There has also been discussion, notably from Alison Harris and Alex Cole-Hamilton, of the importance of childcare in efforts to address poverty and the gender pay gap. In that regard, the flexibility that we need is not yet in place. I represent Lothian, but I have had correspondence from people across Scotland about the fact that they cannot access the childcare hours that they need in order to make work possible for them.
There has been some discussion, too, of the introduction of the real living wage. We really need that to become the norm, so any steps that the Scottish Government can take on it must be taken. It is key to have the real living wage at the heart of criteria for contracts being awarded and so on.
NHS Health Scotland produced a report entitled “Comparing the impact of interventions to improve health and reduce health inequalities”. It concluded that
“The most effective income-based policies for reducing health inequalities are likely to be those that disproportionately increase incomes for those with the lowest incomes.”
The child payment is hugely welcome, of course, but I ask the Government again to do everything that it can to ensure that it reaches all the eligible families, because there are still issues around take-up where provision is not universal. We know that when families are entitled to free school meals, take-up increases when it is universal. I am aware of situations in which there is no privacy around children being given free school meals. We have to make sure that no one in a class is aware that their friend receives free school meals as an entitlement.
On the radio this morning, Larry Flanagan of the Educational Institute of Scotland was clear about the impact of austerity in our classrooms. He spoke of cases that we have all heard about: teachers who have a toaster in their room and are providing breakfast and assisting with toothbrushing—things that were not previously expected of them and that, frankly, should not be required of them.
Jeremy Balfour suggested that people should not make promises that they cannot keep. I remind him that the Tories told us that no one would be worse off under universal credit. Sadly, that is not the case. Not only that, but universal credit has been proved to be entirely dysfunctional in terms of delivery, with a torturous five-week wait and the abomination of the rape clause, which was referred to as “double support” by Esther McVey.
So much harm has been done by UK welfare reform, so Parliament must do everything that it can to address the inequality that faces so many people in Scotland. I joined the “Scotland FORward” campaign for a devolved Parliament, before I joined the Scottish Green Party, so I find it hugely frustrating that we have to mitigate policies that have been made at Westminster. Philip Alston, the UN rapporteur, also commented on that; he found it entirely inappropriate, to put it mildly.
I realise that I am running out of time. The Scottish Greens will be pleased to support the Labour amendment, but we will not support the Conservative amendment because of what it would delete from the Government motion, which we will also support.16:21
This debate has been a great chance for us to look at what has been achieved and what more needs to be done to deliver a fairer Scotland. As Pauline McNeill said in her opening speech, which has been repeated by colleagues across the parties, we must not forget the reality of inequality and poverty in our own communities: 14,000 more children became homeless in the past year alone, so much more needs to be done.
We need to look at the detail in the report that was published yesterday. As several people have said, let us look at the checklist of what is being done, which is not yet enough. What has the Scottish Government learned from its gender pay ratios? How does it propose to ensure both flexibility and stability for workers? Why has the returners project, which was intended to bring experienced women back into the workforce after a career break and was due to launch in 2016, been delayed?
Given that the Government says that it has already met its target to reduce youth unemployment by 40 per cent by 2021, what will happen next? How will the Government ensure that that figure is not only maintained but reduced further? Without a UK Labour Government, we will not see the big increases in the Scottish budget that we urgently need—the £10 billion a year that would come to us. Finally, in terms of detailed questions, let us look at the commitment on the Young Scot transport card. It is now a smart card, but it does not give free transport for young people up to the age of 25. The targets need to be tough and they need to be pursued properly.
Last week, we debated violence against women, and I and others highlighted the fact that it is both a cause and a consequence of gender inequality. While we are still in the 16 days of action against violence against women, it is good to hear speakers from different parties talking about the centrality of eradicating inequality for women by tackling the quality of part-time and flexible jobs and making them available and attractive to everyone.
I ask colleagues to look at the work being done by Timewise to produce an updated flexible jobs index for Scotland in 2020. That will give us a new benchmark of the ratio of quality jobs open to flexible or part-time working and it will let us look at whether employers are building flexible working into the hire process. That is the opposite of the gig economy and insecure work—something tangible that will improve women’s lives.
As the cabinet secretary and others in the chamber have mentioned, far too many children in Scotland are living in poverty. Strikingly, the number who are living in families where one parent is in work is rising. That cannot be right. Steps such as committing to the rights contained in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child are positive and, as outlined by the UN special rapporteur, make a real difference for children living in poverty. However, what is key is to ensure that those measures are not just good rhetoric but are upheld, implemented and acceptable.
We cannot support the Tory amendment because it deletes the reference to the UN special rapporteur’s report. How can we ignore the austerity and the £3.7 billion of welfare cuts that are hitting families across Scotland?
Social security cuts, such as the despicable two-child cap, leave families and children to struggle. We welcome the introduction of the Scottish child payment but worry about the 58,000 six-year-olds who will lose out on the Scottish child payment when they turn seven. The payment for all children has not yet been introduced.
Inequality from birth is becoming more and more difficult to overcome. For example, the attainment gap in education between the wealthiest and poorest children is stagnant, with a gap between the two groups equivalent to three years’ worth of education. As many members have commented, we need a future workforce that is skilled in STEM to help us to tackle the climate emergency. However, the figures that were released today show an attainment gap in science of 98 points between the richest students and the poorest. Yesterday’s PISA results are deeply disappointing.
Our amendment calls for—and Scottish Labour believes in—a joined-up approach to tackling the climate emergency. The need for that approach was acknowledged by the cabinet secretary and it has to run across everything so that, by 2030, we have not just achieved our climate target, but dealt with the growing inequalities and insecurities that people face across Scotland through a lack of jobs and investment.
We need low-carbon community infrastructure now, to deliver on fuel poverty and deliver community benefits and warm homes for everyone. The transition to net zero by 2045 has to be guided by a just transition commission that is statutory, independent of Government and long term, so that the right voices are heard and no one is left behind.
The debate has enabled people to dig into the detail and look at the bigger principles. If the aims of the fairer Scotland action plan are commendable, its impact is critical. Pauline McNeill said that we have to ensure that we do not see an increase in poverty despite the progress that has been made. That must cut right across Government. We would not be doing our jobs as parliamentarians if we did not hold the Scottish Government to account. Although there has been progress, poverty in Scotland has increased. Scottish Labour would take a very different approach—a more ambitious one—from both the Scottish Government and the UK Government, to initiate not just a shift in wealth but a shift in power, in order to bring about long-term change for the many, not the few.
At decision time, we will support the Green amendment alongside ours, as both of them add to the Scottish Government’s motion. We are critical, but we are prepared to be constructive and to work together. Many members have commented that the UK Tory welfare policies are pushing people into poverty, and we will absolutely not support the Tory amendment today.16:27
I am pleased to be closing for the Scottish Conservatives in this important debate.
As many members already know, before I became a member of the Scottish Parliament, I spent almost two decades working alongside people who have disabilities and learning difficulties. That work opened my eyes to the constant struggle that many of those people endure in their everyday lives. Indeed, my past experience was recognised when I was asked to open the Perth and Kinross conference on making where we live better.
Having a home, a job and hobbies gives people the opportunity of having a lifestyle, and individuals who have disabilities require that. As a result of my work, I fully understand the importance of discussing and raising awareness of the discrimination that people who live with a disability still face, despite the action plan having been in place for approximately three years.
The fairer Scotland action plan was launched in 2016, and it had five key ambitions for 2030. Three years on, however, there is still much work to be done. We have to acknowledge that there has been some progress, but poverty, the disability employment gap and the disability pay gap still exist.
As I have said previously, 26 per cent of disabled people in Scotland are likely to have no qualifications compared to 10 per cent of non-disabled people—that must change. We need to increase the opportunities for disabled people to enter the workplace and we need to support them to ensure that they can achieve their goals. They have goals and ambitions, and that is quite right, but only about 50 per cent of disabled people of working age are working, compared to approximately 80 per cent of non-disabled people of the same stage. Employment rates vary greatly according to the type of impairment that a person might have.
The member is focusing on the position of disabled people, and rightly so. However, in the light of the fact that the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities concluded in 2016 that austerity policies and the pursuit of welfare reforms amounted to a systematic breach of disabled people’s human rights, is the member not embarrassed by his Tory party’s record?
Annabelle Ewing makes an important point, and I acknowledge that there are some difficulties, but I firmly believe that the UK Government is tackling the matter and is attempting to ensure that individuals get the opportunity and respect that they deserve.
People with mental health conditions have considerable difficulty ensuring that they get employment. The employment level among them is sitting at about 21 per cent, and the employment rate for people with learning disabilities is hovering at around 26 per cent.
The fact is that, after housing costs have been taken into account, 20 per cent of Scotland’s population, or 1.03 million, have been living in relative poverty between—
Will the member give way?
I want to make some more progress.
There are more economically inactive people in Scotland. The rate for those between the ages of 16 and 64 is about 22 per cent, and that is far too high. In addition, we have heard today about the Scottish Government’s figures, according to which a quarter of Scottish children are living in relative poverty. We have heard that the UK Government and the Scottish Government have put actions in place to support those individuals. I pay tribute to those who have done work in that regard to date. There is still much to be done, however, especially when it comes to employment. If we can get people into employment, that will take them out of the situation of poverty in which they may find themselves.
The cabinet secretary spoke about the progress that has been made, referring to what the Scottish Government has done, and she and others have criticised the Westminster Government for what it has achieved to date. As I have said already, the Westminster Government has done more to ensure that more people are in work. That is the best way to ensure that living standards grow. Benefits are there as a net—
Will the member take an intervention?
No—I want to make some progress.
Benefits are there as a safety net.
A safety net?
The safety net is there, and it works for many individuals. We have a strong economy, and that is what is required to ensure that people get the opportunity to work.
Members have spoken about respect.
Will the member take an intervention on that point about the safety net?
No—I wish to make progress.
Members have spoken about respect, and I believe that that word is and should be used. Action groups should be in place to ensure that we look after families.
Jeremy Balfour talked about the failings that have taken place in the education system under more than a decade of SNP Government. Education policy is failing a generation through lost opportunities. However, if people get the right education and the right involvement, they will get into employment.
Pauline McNeill talked about homelessness statistics and the need to go further to ensure that poverty is tackled in that respect. Young people who are suffering illness or poor mental health need to be treated better. We have already seen some of the statistics that cover that.
Alison Johnstone talked about the assessment process and the need to progress the approach that is taken in that regard, and she mentioned local government supporting welfare funds.
Alex Cole-Hamilton talked about the targets that have not yet been met. Although 19 out of 50 actions are in progress, there is still a lot of work to do. The Scottish Government needs to meet the targets to ensure that it is not letting people down.
Alison Harris talked about the need to ensure that education represents the proper path and the best start in life. Giving a child the chance to succeed brings them the opportunity that they require.
We in the Scottish Conservatives are fully committed to making Scotland a fairer place for everyone in society, regardless of their gender, disability, race, sexuality, age or religion. We obviously agree that opportunities must be available in order for people to be able to fulfil their potential and become active members of society. The Scottish Conservatives and the UK Conservative Government have worked tirelessly to ensure that the United Kingdom is a fairer place for people to live and work.
I support the amendment in Jeremy Balfour’s name.16:34
We have heard in the debate about the action that the Scottish Government is taking to tackle poverty and to make Scotland a fairer, more equal society.
We have also heard about the scope of the challenge that we face. Brexit is still looming on the horizon, and we have lived with a decade of UK Government cuts to welfare. That stands against a backdrop of social security spending in Scotland being cut by an estimated £3.7 billion by 2021.
Last year, we invested £1.4 billion in supporting low-income households. That included over £100 million to mitigate UK Government welfare cuts.
Since the Scottish welfare fund was established in 2013, nearly £210 million has been paid out, to almost 350,000 households. Those are households in crisis, accessing emergency funding to help with the costs of essentials.
In addition, the Scottish Government has been mitigating the bedroom tax in full, using discretionary housing payments, since 2014-15. We remain committed to doing so until the tax can be abolished at source through universal credit. We are reliant on the Department for Work and Pensions to deliver that. For the current financial year, we are allocating £53 million for bedroom tax mitigation, supporting around 70,000 households.
That we even have to invest that money each year was described by the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, as “outrageous” and “unsustainable”. I am not surprised that Professor Alston is regularly quoted in debates, given the strength of the evidence that he saw, and the strength of the comments that he made based on that evidence.
Professor Alston also made it clear in his report, which was published in May this year, that the UK Government’s austerity cuts and welfare reforms, such as universal credit in its current form, the two-child limit and abhorrent rape clause, the benefit cap, the benefit freeze, and the sanctions regime, have been pushing more and more people into serious hardship, food bank use and rent arrears. I say to Alexander Stewart that I am sorry, but it is not working for people the length and breadth of the country.
Although many social security and employment levers remain reserved to the UK Government, the Scottish Government will use all the powers that it currently has to work towards achieving a fairer and more equal society, with opportunities for everyone to fulfil their potential.
In Scotland, we have taken a completely different approach in our devolved services—treating people with dignity, fairness and respect. We rightly recognise our expenditure as an investment in the people of Scotland. To see that principle in practice, we need only look at the establishment of Social Security Scotland. We believe that social security should be there to support people to get the financial support they are entitled to, when they are entitled to it.
I have talked before about hearing directly from people who fear the DWP brown envelope coming through their door. The Tories should be ashamed of that and of the barriers that they have put in the way of people, the rhetoric that they have pushed, the poverty and hardship that they have created and the damage that that is having across our society.
I have heard that employment helps people out of poverty, and I heard it again today. I totally agree with that principle, but we do not hear the whole of what is going on with people in employment—low-paid jobs, jobs in which it is difficult for people to get the hours that they require and jobs that do not pay sufficiently. We do not hear from the Tories about fair employment. Decent hours with fair pay are needed. That is why the Tories should also be ashamed about the research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that highlights that, across the UK, in-work poverty has been rising faster than employment, driven almost entirely by poverty among working-age parents.
This year, we will make payments of around £350 million through our seven new benefits, with more on the way. Members have already heard from Aileen Campbell, at the beginning of the debate, about the benefits of the best start grant, the carers allowance supplement and, of course, the game-changing Scottish child payment, which we are working hard to deliver by the end of next year.
Many of the contributions from members today have focused on the impact that poverty is having on their communities. Social security is not the only way to tackle it, but it is one way to get money directly into the pockets of people who need it.
I very much hope that, in the short time that is left, the cabinet secretary will comment on the failure of the Scottish Government to recognise the climate emergency in the action plan and the update to it.
I was just about to talk about the consensual and constructive tone that was taken by Labour today and to say why we are willing to support the Labour amendment.
I recognise the absolute importance of the climate emergency, as does the Scottish Government, which is clear from the discussions that we have had in the chamber—not necessarily today, given how much we have squeezed into this debate, but certainly on other occasions, when Roseanna Cunningham and others have spoken.
Pauline McNeill talked about the uptake of benefits. I appreciate her personal determination to ensure that we do all that we can to automate those benefit payments whenever possible. She mentioned the concept of a stand-alone benefit rather than a top-up benefit for the Scottish child payment. That simply cannot be done in the time that we have available. If we were to do that, we would not be able to deliver the payment scheme in the timeframe that we are looking at, which is by Christmas next year. However, I am as keen as she is on the concept of automation, which is why we are trying to find ways to link the information that is involved in the Scottish child payment with that which is involved in the best start grant payment. That is one example of an area where automation would be helpful, and I know that she has mentioned others in the past.
Sarah Boyack spoke about the fact that many of the welfare cuts directly impact on women. She spoke passionately about the inequality of women, and I absolutely concur with her remarks about the importance of recognising that.
In relation to the Scottish child payment, Sarah Boyack also spoke about children who will turn six. We are delivering the payment early for under-six-year-olds, who will receive the payment by Christmas 2020. We simply cannot continue to pay benefits when children reach the age of six, because we simply do not have the necessary data from the DWP. We are asking the DWP to give us that information and to bring forward the timetable for us getting it. However, it is simply not possible for us to pay a benefit to people if we do not have the data that we need to ensure that their eligibility is checked. I assure Sarah Boyack and others that we are considering that seriously, but the issue comes down to the data that is available.
Alex Cole-Hamilton and others spoke about the importance of early years and childcare. The Scottish Government is determined to ensure that those two-year-olds who are eligible for places take them up. Additional work is being done to ensure that that happens, and we are seeing an increase in the number of two-year-olds who are registered for funded places. Authorities are determined to work as hard as possible with their partners to prepare for August 2020 in every way that they can. Obviously, we recognise the absolutely integral role that private providers will play in that.
We agree with what Alison Johnstone said about the importance of income maximisation. That is why the Scottish Government is funding Citizens Advice Scotland to run its money talks teams and is backing the new Carnegie UK Trust’s loan fund, which delivers affordable lending. Alison Johnstone is absolutely right to say that we need to consider the ability for someone to access funding at a time of crisis. I absolutely agree with her about the importance of the take-up of the Scottish child payment. There is no point in any of us putting in work to deliver a benefit if those who are entitled to it do not know about it and are not encouraged and supported to apply for it.
Many in the chamber will have seen Channel 4’s “Dispatches” programme on Monday night, which featured children who are affected by poverty. Given some of the contributions from the Conservative members today, I assume that they did not see it, so I suggest that they catch up with it. It was, quite simply, heartbreaking to watch young people talk about the impact of poverty on their daily lives, on their education, on their health and on their mental wellbeing.
We are clear-eyed about the scale of the challenge that we face. Tackling poverty and improving the lives of anyone in Scotland who needs help requires ambition and determination, and this Government has the plans and actions to put that into practice.
Professor Philip Alston said that the “spirit” of the welfare state is “alive and humming” in Scotland, while it is on the wane in the rest of the UK. That is absolutely right, and it could wane even further if we face more years of Tory austerity and welfare cuts. Professor Alston is absolutely right to talk about the fact that it is
“not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster rolled into one”,
and the fact that poverty is leading to “tragic consequences.” Scotland has had enough of those consequences, which we did not vote for and do not agree with but which are imposed on us anyway. We have done so much with the limited powers that we have, and we could do so much more if this Parliament had the full powers to create a fairer Scotland.