Meeting date: Wednesday, November 8, 2017
Meeting of the Parliament 08 November 2017
Agenda: Business Motion, Portfolio Question Time, Junior Minister, Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Homes First
- Business Motion
- Portfolio Question Time
- Junior Minister
- Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3
- Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill
- Business Motion
- Parliamentary Bureau Motions
- Decision Time
- Homes First
Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill
Before we begin the debate, I am required to say that, as members will be aware, at this point in the proceedings the Presiding Officer is required under standing orders to decide whether, in his view, any provision of the bill relates to a protected subject matter. Put briefly, that is whether it modifies the electoral system and franchise for Scottish Parliament elections. If it does, the motion to pass the bill will require support from a supermajority of members. That is a two-thirds majority of all members, which is 86. In the case of the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill, the Presiding Officer has decided that, in his view, no provision of the bill relates to a protected subject, so the bill does not require a supermajority to be passed.
The next item is the debate on motion S5M-08696, in the name of Angela Constance, on the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill.15:35
I am pleased to be opening this debate on the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill. The passing of the bill will mark a historic milestone on the road to eradicating child poverty.
This morning, I had a lovely visit to St Catherine’s primary school in the south side of Edinburgh. I went there to find out about how its popular breakfast club is setting children up for the day and enabling them to make the most of their learning. They asked me to wear the wrist band that I am wearing. These wrist bands are given to children when they perform well, so I hope that I can live up to the expectations of the children of St Catherine’s this afternoon.
As is customary, I will start by thanking everyone who has been involved in developing this important bill. My thanks go to the clerks of the Social Security Committee; and I am grateful to the committee convener, Sandra White, and the members, who have helped to shape the bill and who have been constructive throughout the process. The fact that such critical legislation has cross-party support and that we have worked collaboratively to strengthen the bill is an achievement that we all share. I am also grateful to the Finance and Constitution Committee and the Delegated Powers and Law Reform Committee for their careful consideration of the bill.
I also thank the many stakeholders who have supported the bill, from responding to our initial consultation to giving evidence or engaging directly with me and officials. I am grateful for their views and contributions and, although I will not be able to mention them all, I pay particular tribute to the following groups.
The coalition to end child poverty helped to improve the bill in a number of ways. The Scottish Youth Parliament, among others, usefully and powerfully represented the views and interests of young people. Oxfam Scotland played a valuable role in helping to prepare for the introduction of the Poverty and Inequality Commission. The local reference group, which represents local authorities and health boards, has been developing practical guidance on the local duty.
In particular, I extend my sincere thanks to the ministerial advisory group on child poverty. The group’s expertise and guidance have been invaluable in getting us to this point, and its legacy is a strong foundation for the new Poverty and Inequality Commission.
The bill benefited greatly from the input of the Social Security Committee and that has led to a number of changes since introduction. First, the range of subjects to be included in delivery and local action plans was usefully extended. Secondly, parliamentary scrutiny has been strengthened, and ministers now need to make a statement to Parliament when publishing delivery plans and progress reports. Thirdly, a forward-looking aspect to local reports has been agreed, requiring local authorities and health boards to outline the action that they propose to take in future years.
Establishing an independent Poverty and Inequality Commission was a manifesto commitment. It appeared as action 3 in the “Fairer Scotland Action Plan”, and it was delivered in July this year when Douglas Hamilton was appointed as commission chair, and Naomi Eisenstadt and Kaliani Lyle were appointed as deputy chairs. The commission has a remit to advise ministers on child poverty and, crucially, on any issue it sees fit.
I have worked hard to find a solution to the problem that was identified at stage 2, which was that making the commission a statutory body under the bill would limit its remit so that it would be able to focus only on child poverty. Today, as I said, I have introduced a draft order under the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 to meet Parliament’s aspirations for a statutory commission with a wide remit. The order will mean that the existing commission can move on to a statutory footing from July 2019, ensuring that that independent body can advise ministers on the first delivery plan, which is due in April 2018, and on the progress report, which is due in June 2019.
For me, it has been vital to protect the commission’s wide remit. The commission was set up specifically to provide ministers with independent advice on a wide range of poverty and inequality issues facing our country. Child poverty is an obvious first focus, but the commission will also be able to look at how we should address economic inequality, intergenerational inequality and the high risk of poverty that is faced by minority ethnic groups, among other challenges. I have argued strongly to keep that wide focus, because making progress on those deep-rooted problems requires expert and independent advice.
The bill signals the importance that we as a Parliament and as a country place on tackling the unacceptable levels of child poverty across Scotland. In 2015-16, one in four children were living in relative poverty after housing costs, and the Scottish Government fundamentally disagreed with the United Kingdom Government’s decision to remove the targets and associated duties from the Child Poverty Act 2010. That led to the introduction of the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill, which reintroduces income targets, but with even greater ambition.
The UK Government’s new approach, focusing on so-called workless households, ignores the fact of the growing number of families who are in work and at the same time in poverty. In 2015-16, 70 per cent of children in poverty lived in a household where at least one adult was in employment, and the continued cuts to welfare spending, which in Scotland will amount to an annual cut of £4 billion by the end of this decade, are making things much worse. Work used to be a way out of poverty, but for too many that is no longer the case and rates of pay and the number of hours available are just not enough to ensure that their children have a bright future.
Meeting our ambitious targets to eradicate child poverty by 2013 will be challenging and it will feel at times as if we are fighting with one hand tied behind our backs in the face of the cuts which, according to the Child Poverty Action Group, will see the biggest increase in child poverty since the 1960s and mean that more than 5 million kids across the UK are growing up in poverty.
The Scottish Government is already taking positive action. The programme for government announced the £50 million tackling child poverty fund, and we are taking advice from the commission on where funding can have the biggest impacts. We are introducing the best start grant by summer 2019, which will provide cash payments to lower-income families and offer increased financial support in those crucial early years. We will be providing free access to sanitary products in schools, colleges and universities and, following a pilot programme in Aberdeen, we will consider how to support women on low incomes. We will be providing a financial health check guarantee to ensure that families with children on low incomes claim all that they are entitled to, and we will support Scotland’s credit union sector so that more people have access to affordable and ethical alternatives to high street banking and pay-day loans.
All of that is on top of our existing programme to deliver 50,000 warm, affordable homes and our help to close the poverty-related attainment gap, and we are taking the next steps towards the near doubling of funded early learning and childcare. We are also introducing a new socioeconomic duty for the public sector.
We all know that the 2030 targets are highly ambitious and challenging, but poverty is not inevitable. As we have seen during the passage of the bill, there is a genuine cross-party desire to place those targets in statute and then take action to meet them. If everyone plays their part, the targets are achievable and we can transform the prospects of generations to come. The bill is the crucial next step.
That the Parliament agrees that the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill be passed.15:44
We very much welcome the all-party agreement that there now is on the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill, and I agree with much of what the cabinet secretary has said. It is an important piece of legislation and the tone in which it has been debated today is a significant and welcome change from the tone at stage 2. The bill has had a good passage through Parliament. I still think that the stage 1 debate that we had in the chamber a few months ago was the single best debate that I have had the privilege of taking part in, with notable contributions from Alex Neil and my friend and colleague Jamie Greene, among many others.
The bill was not very powerful when it was introduced into Parliament. Everything that we and the other Opposition parties have done to the bill over the past few months has been done to make it stronger and more robust. The bill contains very ambitious targets, and it will be difficult to meet them. The amendments that we have made on interim targets and on delivery plans, which we discussed earlier, and the measures to put the Poverty and Inequality Commission on a statutory basis will all help the Government and public authorities throughout Scotland to meet those very ambitious targets as best they can.
In particular, I welcome the amendments that we have made to section 7, on delivery plans. We on the Conservative benches do not believe that an anti-poverty strategy can be effective if it focuses only on income. Of course we have to focus on income, among other things, but we do not believe that the focus should be solely on that. All of us on these benches welcome the fact that the delivery plans will now have to make express reference to education and the attainment gap, housing, the availability and affordability of childcare, employment and employment prospects, the skills training of parents and families and considerations pertaining to health. All those features are already in the Scottish Government’s child poverty measurement framework and child poverty action plan, and it is important that they are reflected in the bill, which is soon to be an act.
We wanted to go much further. We wanted the bill not merely to measure child poverty but to take direct steps to tackle and reduce it, particularly at source. In addition to the four income-related targets, we wanted a target on unemployment. Some of the briefings that we were sent for today’s debate from the third sector pointed out that 30 per cent of children living in poverty in Scotland live in families where no one works. The employment prospects of parents and carers are still a directly relevant and material consideration when we think about child poverty.
We also wanted a statutory target to take steps to reduce the attainment gap. Of course, there is already a statutory duty to have regard to the attainment gap, but that is plainly not enough. The attainment gap is getting worse, not better. Numeracy levels among children from our most deprived communities are getting worse and not better, and the attainment gap is growing and not narrowing. The PISA—programme for international student assessment—results show that Scottish education is going backwards and that England and Northern Ireland now outperform Scotland in every category, as do the Republic of Ireland, Estonia, Poland and many other countries. We wanted the bill to take direct action to require ministers to address that. At least the delivery plans will now have to do that, even if there is not the statutory target that we wanted.
The bill is stronger than it was when it was introduced into the Parliament and, as I said, I welcome that. However, on its own, the bill will do nothing to lift even a single child in Scotland out of poverty—we should be under no illusions about that. All the attention now turns to the delivery plans and the holistic approach that they will require ministers to take.
I wish Angela Constance and her ministerial team well in meeting those targets. They are ambitious, it is right that they are ambitious and the Scottish Parliament will today send our country the strong message that we are united in saying that the targets should be met. We can make child poverty history in Scotland, so let us get to it.15:50
I thank the clerks to the committee and especially Mark Brough and the legislation team. It is quite remarkable how they followed all the amendments that members wanted to make, so I particularly wanted to mention them.
It has to be recognised that there is some ingenuity in using the Public Services Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 to get us to where we are now and make something that started as a commission only for child poverty into a wider Poverty and Inequality Commission. In my book, whoever had that idea has to be commended.
The Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill sets out targets to reduce relative poverty, absolute poverty, low income and material deprivation, and persistent poverty. As we know, one in four children live in poverty. We have one of the worst records in Europe on that. I agree with Adam Tomkins that the bill is simply about measuring levels of poverty, but it is by using the powers of this Parliament and working with local authorities in taking the relevant measures that we can make a difference. The Scottish Government will have the full support of the Labour Party in its attempt to achieve that in this Parliament. The delivery plan is the main mechanism for setting out Government policy and allowing the Parliament to see how that policy will attempt to reduce child poverty.
The fact that there is child poverty in 2017 in a first-world economy such as ours is a national scandal. The life chances of hundreds of thousands of children are affected because they live in very low-income households. We all agree that no child should be robbed of their childhood years because they are poor.
All members have their own special interests with regard to how to make a difference, and I will mention two of mine. I supported Adam Tomkins’s amendment that aimed to broaden out the educational attainment issue. To me, it is really important that all children get the chance to learn a musical instrument. That is very good for children from low-income households, and a lot of work has been done on that. In order to close the attainment gap, it is also important that children have parity when it comes to tutoring support in their education. Some work needs to be done by this Parliament and local authorities to make sure that poorer children get the same access to tutors in school as children from wealthier families.
Seventy per cent of children who live in poverty are in working households, which is an awful lot of children. Bright but poor children can lag up to two years behind wealthier children. A toddler in a poor household is two and a half times more likely than a child living in more affluent circumstances to have poor health, and by the age of five there can be a gap of up to 13 months in vocabulary. Welfare reforms have deepened that crisis and, sadly, it will get worse. The report that we discussed yesterday, “The Austerity Generation”, could not have been published at a more poignant time.
I am pleased about our achievements at stage 2 of the bill, and together, across the parties, we have made a bill that is worth supporting tonight, at the end of the stage 3 process. I have been keen to highlight the issues of lone parents and those with a disability, and I am pleased that they are now in the bill and will have to be addressed by ministers.
This morning, I chaired with Alison Johnstone a round-table discussion on the automation of benefits, which is mentioned in the bill. That involves exploring whether local authorities can ensure that those who are already eligible for a benefit such as housing benefit can be cross-matched to establish their eligibility for certain other benefits. The idea behind that is that many people do not come forward to fill in complex forms and jump through hoops in what is a very complex process.
This morning, I was struck by the story of a mum with four children who had been claiming housing benefit and who was unaware that she was eligible for the clothing grant. By matching her entitlement data, Glasgow’s financial inclusion team was able to issue her directly with a voucher for £280 for her four children. She was astonished to receive it, and she phoned up the team to ask whether she was really due the money. She said that it was not possible to imagine the difference that that £280 would make.
I see that I must wind up. I thank Jeane Freeman for the interest that she has taken in the issue. I hope that, with the help and support of other members in the Parliament and of local authorities, we will consider how we can widen the scope of the bill to maximise the eligibility for benefits of the people who need them the most.
We have a little time in hand. Speakers in the open debate can have up to—the phrase “up to” is key—five minutes.15:55
I welcome the opportunity to participate in the debate. As a member of the Social Security Committee, I would like to thank everyone who took part in our scrutiny of the bill, including my MSP colleagues on the Social Security Committee and other committees.
The passing of the bill will make clear the commitment of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament to eradicating child poverty. It will provide an overarching national aspiration and focus diverse minds, organisations and approaches on a clear shared goal. For those reasons, I fully support the bill and thank the Government for introducing it.
As we have heard, the bill sets out four ambitious headline statutory income targets, which are supplemented by robust interim targets. Those are accompanied by stringent reporting requirements at national and local level. All of that will be underpinned by the setting up of the statutory Poverty and Inequality Commission.
In conjunction with the many other measures that are being taken by the Government, the bill will play a central role in tackling child poverty by galvanising and focusing action on clear income-based targets that must be met by April 2030. If Parliament supports the bill this evening, as I hope it will, we can rightfully be proud of the huge step forward that it represents.
However, as we celebrate Scotland’s step forward, it is important that we reflect on the fact that the actions of the UK Tory Government are pulling us back at the same time. I appreciate that that does not make comfortable listening for my Scottish Conservative colleagues, but I am afraid that it is the reality of the context in which we are working to tackle child poverty in Scotland.
The Child Poverty Action Group report that was published earlier this week, which states that cuts to universal credit will push 1 million more children into poverty by 2020, is merely the latest addition to the damning dossier of evidence of the harm that is being done by Tory welfare reform. We should remember, too, that we are debating the bill because the UK Tory Government took the disgraceful decision to scrap its own child poverty targets. People will come to their own conclusions on how much of a priority tackling child poverty is for the UK Tories.
In contrast, the Scottish Parliament is doing what it can to mitigate the situation and to be proactive, but there are limitations on what we can achieve when so much resource is being invested in mitigation.
I agree with much of what the member has said about the conduct of the Conservative Party, but does she agree that we cannot address child poverty when we cut local government budgets year after year? Local government is on the front line in the fight against poverty and inequality.
I thank Neil Findlay for that intervention and I agree that local authorities play a huge role in tackling child poverty. The Social Security Committee heard many examples of that. It is true that local authorities must receive appropriate funding.
Because of the resource that we are having to use to mitigate the Tory welfare reforms, it can feel as though we are being dragged back when we are trying to press forward; it is as if we are running to stand still. We must make it clear that, by pressing ahead with the roll-out of universal credit, the UK Tory Government is actively choosing to push more children into poverty. Our current starting point is that one child in four lives in poverty. That is challenging enough but, under the policies of the Tories, that figure will have increased before the bill even hits the statute book.
I whole-heartedly welcome the support of Tory MSPs for the bill, but they must know that it is not enough just to support policies to tackle child poverty; it is also necessary to oppose those that increase it. I urge them to stand up for Scotland’s children by joining the rest of this Parliament and using whatever influence they might have with their UK colleagues to call for an immediate halt to the roll-out of universal credit.
Our pressing duty as Scotland’s Parliament is to do all we can to protect and support children who are growing up in Scotland today. We also have a duty to future generations of children to ensure that the actions that we take will mean that they are born into a fairer and more prosperous society. Not only that, but we have a wider duty to send a clear message that child poverty, wherever it exists, is unacceptable, contravenes a child’s fundamental rights and cannot and must not be tolerated.
In passing the bill today, we as a Parliament will take a crucial step forward in meeting that duty to our children and giving all children in Scotland an equal chance to succeed and thrive.16:00
Although I am at present a member of the Social Security Committee, I was not involved in the scrutiny of the bill, and I give credit to all those on the committee for taking the bill and making it, I think, a lot better than it was when it started off. It shows the strengths of the Parliament that, at stages 1 and 2 as well as today, we have seen colleagues from different parties coming together to get the best results for the whole of Scotland. It should reassure us and give us hope that, as we move forward with stages 1 and 2 of the Social Security (Scotland) Bill in due course, we can reach consensus on that bill, too.
Clearly all parties agree that it is wrong for a child to be in poverty today, and the bill helps the Scottish Government and us as a Parliament to refocus on the fact that, in order to tackle the issue and meet the ambitious 2030 targets, we need to work together. It cannot be done by one commission, one Government or, indeed, a number of individuals; we need the Scottish Government to work together with local authorities. In that sense, I agree with Neil Findlay with regard to the question that he asked a few moments ago. We need to see local authorities delivering on this and ensuring that they play an important role.
Does Jeremy Balfour agree that the UK Government has a role to play, too, for example in halting the disastrous roll-out of universal credit?
I totally agree that the UK Government has a role to play, but I do not accept the member’s final remark or that universal credit is the disaster that he has painted it as. As a party in Scotland, we have made our views very clear and we will continue to do so in taking the issue forward both here in Scotland and across the United Kingdom.
Local authorities must also work with the third sector, which has a growing role to play in this. After all, third sector organisations are often the ones on the ground, delivering local services, and they know the local people in a community. I hope that we will see everyone working together, collectively, on this matter.
I welcome the independence of the Poverty and Inequality Commission, which will be able to report to not just the Scottish Government but the Parliament. It can act as a helpful friend to us and the Government, helping us to see whether we are moving in the right direction and at the right speed.
My slight concern is that, so far, we have spent a lot of time focusing on targets. That is right, because if we aim at nothing, we will hit nothing, so we need targets. However, targets in themselves do not automatically produce positive outcomes, and we need to keep very focused on the outcomes that we are looking to achieve. In that respect, I agree with what my colleague Adam Tomkins said in his opening remarks. Finance, income and money form a key factor, but we must look at other reasons for people being held back in poverty, be they education, housing or other things that we as a Parliament are responsible for, and we must remain focused on tackling those inequalities as well as the income issue.
It is clear that the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government have limited finances to spend on any area, so we need to focus our spending in the right direction. If we are genuinely going to look at things such as child poverty, we must realise that spending money on things such as baby boxes simply does not produce what we want. I attended some of the briefings that Alison Johnstone attended, and I cannot see spending £5 more on child benefit as a particularly appropriate—
Will the member take an intervention?
The member is closing. He has 10 seconds left.
I do not see that as the right way. The 25 per cent of people who are in poverty would benefit from that, but the 75 per cent who are not in poverty would benefit as well.16:05
I congratulate the cabinet secretary and all our Opposition spokespeople counterparts on the productive and amiable way in which the bill has been handled.
Setting targets is important, and the bill is an important platform on which to build an effective child poverty strategy. The key challenge for us now is in how we will make that happen to ensure that we achieve the targets by 2030 and the interim targets between now and then.
I agree with Adam Tomkins that this is not just about cash income for poor families. Assistance with educational attainment, employment, housing and a range of other things is part and parcel of a child poverty strategy. However, the reality is that, given the current situation, we will not solve the poverty problem if we do not start to inject substantial amounts of cash into the pockets of families with children that are living in poverty. I am not saying that putting cash into their pockets is the whole answer, but it is a prerequisite of achieving the targets. Despite the difficult financial situation that the Government faces, it should look to make a start in this year’s budget for next year, and I have two suggestions to make.
First, more or less across the chamber, we have rightly been annoyed and angered by the fact that the third child of people who live in poverty is no longer entitled to child tax credit. As a matter of urgency, the Government should see whether it can plug that gap. That would not cost a lot of money, as the policy applies only to third or later children who were born in or after April 2017 to families that qualify for child tax credit, but it would let us rectify a moral outrage, let alone something that is making child poverty worse.
Secondly, there is a big debate to be had about whether we should target more through child tax credit increases and topping them up in the Parliament or go for universal benefits. In the light of the immediate financial situation that we face, I hope that the dedication of sums such as £150 million and £300 million to child poverty is being talked about and planned for over the next couple of years. According to the Scottish Parliament information centre, just under 500,000 children in Scotland currently receive child tax credit and, if we topped up every child tax credit, it would cost £150 million a year to give them an extra fiver a week. If we had a spare £300 million, I would rather give those kids an extra £10 a week than apply the increase through child benefit for the simple reason that eradicating or reducing child poverty is the number 1 priority.
We do not have the powers that we would like to have to tax people who are much better off and do not need the universal benefit.
What does Mr Neil say in response to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s finding that tackling poverty by increasing the value of benefits but not addressing the underlying drivers of poverty “has failed”? Those are not my words but the words of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which has said that that strategy for tackling poverty “has failed” to tackle poverty in the United Kingdom.
I am afraid that you will have to be brief, Mr Neil.
The point that Mr Tomkins raises is precisely the point that I made earlier, which is that we must tackle both aspects. We must tackle all the underlying issues, including the fact that 70 per cent of children who are in poverty live in households in which someone is in work. The reason why they are in poverty is probably that the person who is in work is not getting the living wage. We must tackle that situation in the same way as we tackle the 30 per cent figure that was alluded to by Mr Tomkins.
There must be an overall strategy. However, if that strategy does not include putting additional cash resources into the pockets of those families in which children are living in poverty, it will fail. Putting in additional cash resources must be part of the jigsaw—part of the plan or strategy—and on top of all the other things that are being done. If we do not attack poverty at its root and provide a cash injection, many of our other objectives, such as reducing health inequalities and closing the educational attainment gap, will not be met. I therefore hope that the next step will be taken very quickly and comprehensively.16:11
I started this week by doing something that all members do: meeting children from one of the schools that visit the Parliament and answering their questions. They asked me a question that such children almost always ask: “Why did you want to be an MSP?” The answer that I give to that question is the same answer that is given by every MSP, from any party, whom I have known in my time in politics. I am an MSP because I believe that this country can be better and I think that I know what we have to do to achieve that. In all sincerity, that is what all of us seek to do. That being the case, surely we can seek no greater improvement than the eradication of what Pauline McNeill rightly called the scandal of 260,000 children’s lives blighted by poverty and their life chances constrained by that scourge.
I also say to the children who ask me that question that, although that is why all MSPs are here, we differ—sometimes very significantly—on what has to be done to make the improvements that we all want to see. The origins of the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill lie in the fact that we differ on that issue. They go back to the income inequality targets to eradicate child poverty that were set by a Labour Government way back in 1999 and legislated for in 2010 and the changes that came about with the change of Administration in the UK Government in 2010 and the repeal of those income inequality targets. There was a difference in view over the approach that should be taken to eradicate child poverty.
I think that I am right in saying that it was the Scottish Government’s disagreement with the repeal of those targets that led to the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill. In my view, the Scottish Government was absolutely right to disagree with that repeal, and the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament have taken a very creditable approach to the matter. The bill was, therefore, born from both our agreement about our purpose and our disagreement in the past about how we should act on it. That is very much what our Parliament is for. When we, in Scotland, wish to take a different view or approach from that which is taken in the rest of the United Kingdom, the Scottish Parliament empowers us to do so, and that is what we are doing today in order to protect vulnerable children.
The Scottish Parliament was made for times such as this. We know that the number of children in Scotland who are living in poverty has increased by 40,000 in the past year. If there is a right time to act, this is it. Today, we commit to reversing that trend and moving instead towards the eradication of child poverty.
The legislative road to hell is, of course, paved with good intentions. We can all think of things for which we have legislated—a statutory right to a particular waiting time, for example—that we have then failed to deliver despite the promises that the legislation held. Alex Neil is absolutely right that the key is our willingness to do what is required in order to move towards and reach the targets.
The other day, I finished the most recent biography of Clement Attlee. There was much in that book about how the 1945 Labour Government implemented the Beveridge report and attempted to defeat the giants that Beveridge said stood in the way of progress: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. Today’s work in this Parliament has a direct link to that approach. It is to our shame that, to a degree, those giants still roam our country.
The 1945 Government legislated for the means to change things, passing the Family Allowances Act 1945, the National Insurance Act 1949, the Pensions (Increase) Act 1947 and, of course, the National Health Service Act 1946. As we commit to the noble end of eradicating child poverty by 2030, we must do so in the sure and certain knowledge that we will have to take difficult and challenging decisions in areas such as tax, benefits and public services, because the measure of the sincerity of our commitment will be our willingness to create the means to achieve that end.16:16
I thank those whom I have not thanked previously—the legislation team, the clerks, my MSP colleagues and the small team in my office. I will also mention, as others have, One Parent Families Scotland, the Scottish Youth Parliament and Oxfam.
Today is a really important day for the Scottish Parliament. By putting targets for the reduction of child poverty back into law, we are saying that child poverty in a country that is as well-off as Scotland is not acceptable and that the Parliament will expend every effort to reduce it significantly as we work to eradicate it. As we have heard, the latest statistics show what a huge challenge that is. There has been a 4 per cent rise in relative child poverty in just one year, between 2014-15 and 2015-16. That is a rise of 40,000 children, to 260,000 children, which is more than a quarter of a million children in this country living in poverty.
Peter Townsend, who was one of Britain’s leading experts on poverty and one of the founders of the Child Poverty Action Group, defined relative poverty as someone having an income
“so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are, in effect, excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities.”
That means no swimming lessons, no trips to the cinema and no having friends round to play after school. Five pounds may not be a lot of money to Jeremy Balfour, but to many families the lack of that sum means that their children cannot join in.
Will the member take an intervention?
I will not take an intervention at this point, and I will not take lessons from Mr Balfour, who supports the random discrimination of the two-child limit and the abominable rape clause.
In setting the challenge of significantly reducing child poverty, we must rise to it urgently. The Parliament and the Scottish Government need to develop the clearest and boldest strategy for combating the ill effects of so-called welfare reform and for boosting the incomes of our poorest families.
Last week, the Institute for Fiscal Studies projected another rise in relative child poverty in Scotland by 2020-21. It projects that the rate could reach 29 per cent by then, which would be 300,000 children. The IFS says that a third of the rise in relative poverty will be a direct result of tax and benefit changes, which is surely shameful. It predicts that the two-child limit on child tax credits alone will lead to a 2 per cent rise in relative child poverty across the UK. In the face of those cuts, we will need to raise the incomes of our poorest families significantly.
The Scottish Government’s more generous best start grant is a good beginning, and I welcome that, but we need to go further. Investment in income maximisation services that help folk to access the benefits to which they are entitled can help families to increase their incomes by thousands of pounds. We have seen evidence of that, and I welcome the fact that the Government accepted my amendment on the subject at stage 2. It is important that the bill’s delivery plans and local child poverty action groups will refer to income maximisation.
As I said when I spoke to my amendment 42 on child benefit top-ups, we will have to consider using the powers to top up benefits and perhaps also to create new ones. I appreciate that there are different views across the chamber on how that might be achieved, but it is a good start to put a requirement to consider topping up in the bill in order to start the debate. I thank members for agreeing to my amendment on that.
I accept that the Scottish Government is already spending a significant amount of money in attempting to mitigate welfare cuts. As someone who supported devolution before joining the Green Party, I appreciate how frustrating it is that we cannot be more proactive and are constantly reacting, but we can do more and we must do it with the powers that the Parliament will have. Research by the Greens has shown that the new benefit cap is removing thousands of pounds a year from the homes of some 11,000 children in Scotland.
Members across the chamber have made improvements to the bill, and it is widely recognised to be significantly improved compared to how it began. Adam Tomkins put significant effort into placing the Poverty and Inequality Commission on a statutory footing, and, to its credit, the Scottish Government has accepted that. Indeed, the Government accepted a number of Opposition amendments, such as those lodged by the Greens and by Pauline McNeill and Jackie Baillie of the Labour Party, all of which have made the bill more robust. The parties have worked together well to improve the bill, and I hope that we will continue to take that approach with the Social Security (Scotland) Bill.
The targets in the bill represent a major challenge to which we must rise. We should be ashamed that, in this wealthy country, many of our children live well below the average accepted standard. We must break that cycle, and passing the bill is only the beginning. The delivery plans will need policies that are more radical, far reaching and better funded than anything that we have had before. I pledge that the Greens will play their role in that on-going process.16:21
I declare an interest, in that I served as convener of the Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights. Having worked in and alongside charities and groups that campaign to end child poverty all my adult life, I am pleased that so many of them were afforded the opportunity to influence the bill.
Lobbyists do not always have a good name, but I recognise the continuing efforts of Peter Kelly and Carla McCormack of the Poverty Alliance, John Dickie and Jenny Duncan of the Child Poverty Action Group, and my good friend Chloe Riddell of Children 1st, all of whom are first-rate champions in this area. It was my privilege to serve alongside them for nearly 15 years and I am delighted that they were given the chance to impart their expertise throughout the passage of the bill, because they have added to it considerably.
I am proud to lead for my party on the bill. I thank the Scottish Government for its inclusive approach. Parliament works best when the Government opens its doors to people of all parties. I welcome the amendments on the statutory commission, on which I note that the Government has moved a considerable distance, for which I thank it.
Naturally, the bill commands the support of the Liberal Democrats. I am heartily glad that that support is shared across the Parliament. There is now a recognition in this chamber that our efforts to tackle the scourge of child poverty must go far beyond just the financial health of our nation’s families. I refer to the range of other forms of poverty that are in many ways as pressing as financial poverty and which might have as profound an impact on life outcomes. There is poverty of aspiration, whereby children grow up in families that have experienced generations of unemployment and economic inactivity and do not seek social mobility for themselves; poverty of attachment, particularly among the 15,000 children in our care system who will find it difficult to form lasting adult relationships due to childhood trauma and loss; and poverty of health, whereby poor housing, health inequalities and depression diminish life outcomes and life expectancy.
We as a Parliament need to take a whole-system approach to child poverty. By introducing the targets in the bill that we will pass this afternoon we are throwing our cap over the wall, but it is on the delivery of progress against those targets that we will be judged. Put simply, the bill sets the destination, but it is now up to us to determine the means of travel and to put passage upon it. The delivery plan’s inclusion of measures that relate to physical and mental health is a fantastic start.
I welcome the introduction of local child poverty action reports. Such reports will need to be book-ended by proactive efforts on the part of local authorities to plan ahead, through the community planning and children’s services planning processes.
I welcome the amendments that will boost equalities provision, especially in areas of child poverty that are particular to protected characteristics. We needed to include such provision in the bill, because experience shows us that existing impact assessments do not always cut it, despite the good intentions behind them.
I am grateful to Adam Tomkins for his efforts to flush out a statutory definition of “educational attainment”. I agree that a definition is necessary and suggest that when we are working with the Government to that end—I look forward to doing so—we will need to look beyond the Scottish index of multiple deprivation areas and include the young people in Scotland who are looked after and who have care experience, whose education outcomes are some of the worst in this country.
Poverty is an adverse childhood experience that can have lifelong effects. We must link poverty reduction with high-quality trauma recovery and family support, because if we do not do so we will not end cycles of intergenerational trauma, and our successors in this Parliament will still have to debate the issue, decades from now.
Today we have an example of this Parliament working at its best. The people who sent us here would rather that we had more days like this, when we chart a course to achieve a common purpose, without acrimony and with steely intent. I assure the Government of our support for the passing of the bill tonight.16:26
As other members have done, I thank the Social Security Committee clerks for all their work. I also thank the stakeholders and groups who took the time to write to us and give evidence, who helped to shape the bill that is before us at stage 3.
For the benefit of members who are not members of the committee, I should say that when the committee first looked at the bill it was suggested that its title should be changed to “Child Poverty Targets (Scotland) Bill”, because it seemed to focus only on targets. However, the evidence that we heard in subsequent meetings showed that the bill could and should be about much more than targets, albeit that targets are important—indeed, when the bill is passed, Scotland will be the only part of the UK that has statutory income targets in relation to child poverty.
As members said, poverty comes in many guises—it is to do with housing, education and other issues. That is why we wanted to look at child poverty much more broadly. I thank committee members, the cabinet secretary and the Scottish Government for the work that they did together in that regard, in recognition of the fact that addressing poverty is not just about targets.
Two areas stand out in committee members’ work with the Scottish Government. The Poverty and Inequality Commission came up in committee at stage 1 and stage 2, and we have considered the commission at stage 3, too. I commend members and the cabinet secretary for their work on the issue. It is important that we do not take a narrow view of child poverty—the issue is bigger than that. The cabinet secretary has sent the committee a letter—I think that we got it from the clerks about five minutes before today’s debate started—which says that the
“draft Public Services Reform (Poverty and Inequality Commission) (Scotland) Order 2018 ... is a practical, pragmatic way of delivering a statutory Poverty and Inequality Commission with a wide-ranging remit.”
That is important. The cabinet secretary went on to say of the draft order:
“It will improve the exercise of public functions, having regard to efficiency, effectiveness and economy, by allowing a single statutory body to provide the wide range of independent advice on poverty and inequality that Parliament and stakeholders clearly support.”
As members have said, it is because the Parliament and Government have worked together that we have reached this point. Things might not have been easy during stage 1 and stage 2, but we have got here and I congratulate everyone on their work.
Child poverty is such an important issue. It is absolutely fantastic that we have introduced and agreed on a bill on child poverty. That brings me to my next point. Members have mentioned the delivery plans, which are really important. We should recognise that the delivery plan will be prepared for different periods. The first delivery plan is due in 2018, which is not that far away. We will see how that goes—indeed, we will be able to hold the Government to account on that. The first delivery plan will provide a baseline, so we will be able to measure progress. The delivery plan is not pie-in-the-sky thinking; it is real and it will help the children who are living in poverty.
I am pleased that we are all working together on this issue. However, there is absolutely no doubt that, with the changes to universal credit and the benefits system, more and more children are living in abject poverty. We cannot forgive the UK Government for that. I would ask, as Ruth Maguire, Alison Johnstone and others did, that someone—anyone at all—speaks to the Westminster Government about this issue. I do not know how that would work—perhaps someone from the Conservatives could do that.
Universal credit has been proven to drive more people into poverty. I do not want to cite individual constituency cases, but I must say that people are dying because they have no money whatsoever. They do not have money to pay the rent, let alone to buy food or to heat their homes. That is a huge issue. I would be very grateful if we were all to realise that dealing with child poverty is not just about our doing something different here in the Scottish Parliament. It is a Westminster issue, too. We cannot get away from that.
We all remember the Billy Connolly sketch in which he talks about someone coming to the door and the mum asking the children to hide in their beds by pulling the duvet over them—but the duvet is actually old army coats. Some kids still have to live like that. They pretend to have blankets when in fact they are using old coats to heat them up in their beds. We cannot do that to our kids in Scotland, or anywhere else for that matter. At least, with this bill, we can make a start on tackling the issue of poverty.16:32
I am very pleased to participate in the debate. Members may recall that I spoke in the stage 1 debate on the bill in some detail. That was probably one of the more difficult speeches that I have delivered in Parliament, because the subject has a striking personal resonance. However, this debate is much bigger than me, it is much bigger than any MSP in the chamber today and it is much bigger than any of the words that have been spoken in the debate.
I approach today’s debate with the same tone as before and with the same earnest expectation that when we work together on legislation such as this, the Parliament produces meaningful output. There is nothing headline grabbing in what I have to say.
Child poverty, and poverty more generally, is a serious issue that needs to be tackled in Scotland and throughout the UK, and it cannot be disputed by anyone in the chamber that doing so will require all our commitment. Moreover, as the Scottish Parliament is now listed in the bill as a consultee in the creation of the delivery plan and will review the progress reports that are laid before us by the minister, there is an increased duty on us to engage in the plan and monitor its relative success, or otherwise.
Alison Todd, the chief executive of Children 1st, summed up nicely the importance of the bill when she said:
“By creating a framework to hold this and future governments to account for their efforts to eradicate child poverty, this Bill marks a crucial milestone in achieving that vision.”
I could not agree more.
The issues that I raised in the stage 1 debate centred on tackling poverty through education and closing the attainment gap, the lack of a delivery plan beyond measuring and setting targets and the lack of a more grass-roots research approach looking at generational poverty and the importance of household worklessness.
At previous stages of the bill’s progression, we have been encouraged by the Government’s willingness to make amendments. As a result, the bill that we are considering is far more robust than it was before. That is to be welcomed. On the plus side, we welcome the addition of interim targets set out on a statutory footing rather than in secondary legislation, and the establishment of an independent statutory commission, which will help us to hold to account the Government of the day.
However, as my colleague Adam Tomkins mentioned, the Conservatives would have gone further on employment targets. In my view, robust plans and targets to reduce the number of workless households in Scotland would go a long way to reduce poverty in said households. I do not need to go into great detail, but I have first-hand experience of the direct link between unemployment in the home and poverty. It has been and remains my view that employment can be the most impactful step out of poverty.
I add my voice to concerns around the atmosphere of the setting of targets. Although targets are meaningful, I hope that we do not fall into the mindset that the setting of targets is an end in itself, rather than a means to an end.
I see the success of the bill as being that we will take tangible steps to tackle, reduce and eventually eradicate child poverty. The focus is not on simply meeting targets. As we review interim or progress reports, we should be honest with ourselves if targets are not met, and ask why they were not met and what will change.
The point that I would like members to take away from today’s debate is that the focus cannot be solely on income, either. Although it is an important metric, it does not take into account things that members on the Conservative benches have highlighted such as quality of housing, parity of healthcare provision, educational attainment, skills, and access to the workplace.
The bill is a prime example of the impact that Holyrood can have when it actively seeks to find consensus and work in a co-operative manner to tackle some of the deep-rooted issues that transcend political cycles and partisan disagreements. In my speech in the stage 1 debate, I said that I do not think
“that one party or another holds a magic wand that will eradicate child poverty”—[Official Report, 1 June 2017; c 82.]
and that good ideas will come from all sides.
I believe that those ideas have led to where we are today, but let us not pat ourselves on the back too readily at decision time. What is said and passed in Holyrood today must be delivered on the streets of Scotland tomorrow.16:36
I am grateful to speak in the stage 3 debate on this very important bill. I thank colleagues on the Social Security Committee and all the third sector organisations and other organisations that contributed to our making the important bill that is in front of us today. I thank the Government for the constructive manner in which it engaged with us all, and I thank all the clerks who assisted us. I share the opinion of members who think that the process on this bill showed the Parliament at its best and what can be achieved by working together on what the cabinet secretary rightly said is “the road to eradicating child poverty”, and poverty itself.
In my constituency of Edinburgh Northern and Leith, I see instances of child poverty that would be unacceptable to all—as such instances would be unacceptable in any other part of Scotland. This summer, the Spartans Community Football Academy raised money to tackle holiday hunger. National statistics have been quoted: almost one in four children in Scotland is officially recognised as living in poverty. According to the IFS, that figure is predicted to increase. Just this week, the Trussell Trust published figures that show that the use of food banks in Scotland has risen by 20 per cent in the past year.
As we pass the bill, a hugely pertinent and upsetting challenge is before us. That is frustrating, given that so much child poverty is unnecessary. Scotland is an incredibly advanced country with a strong economy—the UK has the ninth-biggest economy in the world. We must ask ourselves how it can be that we have so much child poverty.
In today’s debate, we have heard about the complexity of the causal factors of child poverty and poverty more widely, which transcend the powers of this Parliament and go into reserved matters. I am glad that the Conservatives acknowledged that we need good-quality policies across the spectrum in the other Parliament that governs Scotland. We heard this week—which is living wage week—that one in five Scots earns less than the real living wage. Figures from the Resolution Foundation this year on inequality of wealth, the damage from welfare reform and the problems with the roll-out of universal credit are clear for all to see. All of those create a huge challenge and, while some are more to blame, all are responsible.
The holistic approach taken in the bill to targets and interim targets, the cross-party effort on the delivery plan and the emphasis on a cross-Government approach, with a willingness from the Conservative benches to press the UK Government on matters, give us all an opportunity to let the start of something happen today. There is a clear statement not just in passing this law but in the commitment from all sides to galvanise and focus on addressing child poverty.
Iain Gray spoke powerfully about going out to school groups and people asking him about his number 1 aim when he went into politics, which was to help other people. Tackling child poverty could not be a clearer or more important aspect of that. When we politicians speak to young people in this era, who have been through a decade of austerity, we see that the idea of overcoming child poverty and tackling poverty per se has perhaps become abstract, if not unobtainable. I worry about the normalisation of poverty in our society, particularly given the welfare reform agenda of the Westminster Government and some of the other challenges.
If we have cross-party support as we do today, that gives us the ability not only to pass a meaningful law—with the delivery plans, robust targets and all the other aspects of the legislation—but to start a process of regalvanising ourselves as a nation, with hope, determination and optimism that we can tackle child poverty meaningfully and robustly. I hope that we will take that leadership from today, roll it out across the years ahead and deliver the targets that are in this piece of legislation.
Thank you. The closing speeches follow. I call Mark Griffin.16:42
I congratulate the cabinet secretary and her officials, members of the Social Security Committee and its clerks and all the outside organisations that have put in so much to take the legislation from the bill that was introduced to the one that we have in front of us. Unlike Jeremy Balfour, I come to the child poverty bill late in the day, and I thank Richard Leonard for taking my place on the Social Security Committee, which allowed me time to spend with my wife and our daughter at a critical time for us.
We welcome the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill as an opportunity to create a cross-Government strategy that tackles the roots of child poverty. This is the first meaningful cross-portfolio action that the Government has taken to challenge poverty, and it is long overdue in this Parliament. The bill must be followed by bold and effective policy making in some of the ways that Alex Neil mentioned, including, crucially, use of the Scottish Parliament’s social security powers.
Targets will not, in themselves, reduce child poverty. The figures are stark; they have been quoted by a number of members, but are important to restate: there are 260,000 children living in poverty in Scotland, an increase of 40,000 in one year. As the cabinet secretary pointed out, 70 per cent of children in poverty are in working families. Pauline McNeill pointed out that children from more deprived backgrounds lag two years behind wealthier ones at school, and a toddler in a poor household is two and a half times more likely than a toddler in a more affluent household to suffer from a chronic illness. If we in this place are truly serious about tackling child poverty in Scotland, we need to think about those underlying issues as part of a complete and holistic approach to meeting the targets set out in the bill. In that respect, I fear that we may, at times, fall short of the mark. We showed in government, as Alison Johnstone mentioned during the debate on the amendments, that despite the challenges, things can be done differently: the last Labour Government lifted 120,000 kids out of poverty in Scotland.
Our approach to this legislation has been consistent through the whole process. As a result, there have been amendments to include the Poverty and Inequality Commission in the bill, and the Government has agreed that the commission should be put on a statutory footing. It was and is essential that the group that is tasked with advising and holding the Government to account is independent and that its future is assured.
We, along with others, have also put pressure on the Government to use the Parliament’s new social security powers, through amendments that force the Government to lay out why any delivery plan does not include using the powers at the Government’s disposal to top up benefits. For example, the Government should have to set out why it is not topping up child benefit, knowing that a £5 a week top-up could lift 30,000 children out of poverty.
We have asked the Government to consider the unique challenges, including financial challenges, that are faced by single parents, families that include a disabled person and families that include someone with a protected characteristic, and to reflect those in the delivery plan.
We have ensured that interim targets appear on the face of the bill and that delivery plans are linked directly to bringing down child poverty. Any plan must include an assessment of the contribution that the proposed measures will make to the targets and how that assessment has been arrived at.
We have ensured that when progress towards the targets is not made, the plans are scrutinised and altered, if appropriate.
Presiding Officer, as they say, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. The passing of this legislation in itself will not lift a single child out of poverty. The proof of the pudding will be in the delivery plans that the Government puts in place and the funds that are allocated in the budget to tackling child poverty.
We welcome this legislation as the first step towards tackling the scourge of child poverty and look forward to the Government taking bold and radical policy decisions that are backed up by substantial resources to make a real difference. Thank you.
Thank you, Mr Griffin.
I call on Michelle Ballantyne to close for the Conservatives.16:47
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I first apologise for my late entry to the chamber due to the early start.
I am very pleased to close this debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives. We on these benches have supported the laudable principles of this bill from stage 1. We have sought never to supplant its aspirations, but to support and strengthen the prospects of their achievement.
This bill is now far stronger than when it was introduced. I commend all parties, and the Scottish Government, on their efforts to build cross-chamber consensus to buttress the provisions of the bill.
As my colleague Adam Tomkins has highlighted, we particularly welcome the Scottish Government’s support for the Conservative amendments to section 7. In embedding on the statute book an obligation on ministers to take steps to address the educational attainment gap, we see a real and important improvement to the bill.
We know that educational underattainment is one of the key drivers of child poverty, and it was apparent to most in this chamber that the Scottish Government’s child poverty strategy, or indeed any child poverty strategy, would not work if it was centred around a myopic focus on income. A wider, joined-up approach is vital.
It is for that reason that I find myself hoping that we have not missed an opportunity: to confer legal requirements on ministers to reduce the number of children in Scotland who grow up in workless households; to imprint on the statute book a duty on ministers to take steps to mitigate family breakdown; and to legally compel the Scottish Government to address the manifest impact of alcohol and drug addiction on child poverty.
I wonder why the member is so concerned about workless households when many members have talked about the higher percentage of people who are still in poverty while they are in work. Does she not agree that that issue must be a higher priority?
Fundamentally, that is because 30 per cent of children in poverty are in workless households. It is about the continuation of a problem and about aspiration, as other members said.
Iain Gray highlighted the fact that the existence of the Scottish Parliament enables us to act in a way that is right for Scotland. That is the principle on which we have come together to talk about the bill.
Alex Neil said that the key to the bill will be how we take it forward. I was really pleased that he acknowledged that it is not income alone that will take us forward. He also made two more interesting suggestions, but I will leave those for the cabinet secretary to respond to.
Alison Johnstone made some nice statements about all the contributions that have been made, across the chamber, and highlighted that working together underpins the discussions that have taken place around the bill.
Alex Cole-Hamilton hit the right note when he talked about the other impacts of poverty. The poverty of attachment is something that I have seen through my professional life, and I certainly acknowledge that the poverty of aspiration needs to be addressed. He also highlighted the importance of community planning and the need to ensure that looked after and accommodated children have a voice in the process.
Can the member understand how offensive the term “poverty of aspiration” is to people who simply do not have enough money?
Yes I can, because I have worked with a lot of children who have been in that position. I have always tried to ensure that the children I have worked with know that money is part of the process but also that believing in oneself and having the confidence to move forward is really important, and that can be achieved in a number of ways.
The Scottish Conservatives will be supporting the bill tonight. Notwithstanding some disagreements about process and approach, the bill encapsulates the importance and impact of parliamentary scrutiny. Thanks to effective opposition from the Scottish Conservatives and from other members of Parliament, some significant improvements have been made throughout the process, on interim targets, a statutory commission and the strengthening of section 7.
The future trajectory of child poverty in Scotland now depends on the delivery plans: will they amount to a tinkering around the edges, or will they be tough, robust and proactive in their approach? I sincerely hope that the Scottish Government opts for the latter. In any case, we must be prepared to be fluid and flexible in our efforts as we go forward. It is a commitment to tackling the drivers of child poverty, and not the setting of targets, that will improve the lives of our most vulnerable and impoverished children.16:53
I hope that in approximately 10 minutes we will all stand united, as a Parliament, to pass the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill. I know that the UK Government does not have its troubles to seek—most of them are of its own making—at the moment, but I hope that it will take stock and note that our Parliament is united in saying that we will not lie down, we will not walk away, and we will not give up on the challenge of tackling the rising levels of child poverty in this country. We will take that challenge head-on.
Mr Tomkins graciously said to me that he wishes the Government good luck with the bill. Let me reciprocate: the UK Government will not be let off the hook while it still controls 85 per cent of welfare spend in Scotland.
To Michelle Ballantyne, I say that 30 per cent of poor households might indeed be “workless”, to use her word, but as we heard earlier, that means that the parents, carers or guardians of children in 70 per cent of households that are considered to be poor are actually working for their poverty. That has to be a damning indictment of our current society.
The Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill is our collective statement of intent to tackle the causes and the consequences of child poverty, as well as being recognition of the central importance of income—or, indeed, of lack of income. It is our statement of intent, as a Parliament, not just to tackle but to end child poverty. However, as most members from across the chamber have rightly acknowledged, statements of intent are all very well, but it is what we do that counts.
On that note, I want to say that neither I nor the Government was under any obligation, or any manifesto commitment, to introduce the bill. We chose to do so. The reasons for choosing to introduce the bill have been echoed across the chamber.
We fundamentally opposed the UK Government’s scrapping of the statutory income targets. I refute the suggestion that the bill was weak when it was introduced: it was certainly stronger than anything that had existed before at UK level and, as Alex Neil rightly pointed out, we now have a stronger platform from which to move forward. The scale of the challenge that we face—the biggest increase in child poverty since the 1960s—is profound. I do not know about anybody else in the chamber, but that keeps me awake at night.
The other aspect that I will mention in relation to supporting the bill is that it is, at its heart, absolutely the right thing to do. We could have said that we would not reintroduce the targets that successive UK Governments failed to meet, because we do not have all the levers and the majority of tax and welfare powers remain reserved, but I chose not to do that. As members including Iain Gray did, and despite not knowing what the future holds in terms of our economy, in terms of Brexit or in terms of the constitutional future for Scotland, I came into politics to make Scotland a fairer place: I know that I have no monopoly on that.
The question that we will ask ourselves today and every day is this: what can we do today, and what can we do now to make a difference? Although I will always contend—not surprisingly—that our job of meeting the ambitious and challenging targets would undoubtedly be easier with more powers, I acknowledge that, under any constitutional settlement, the job of eradicating child poverty will always be challenging and will never be easy. That does not mean, however, that it is not achievable. The challenge that we will all face in Parliament is to find ways to do more than just mitigate austerity and welfare reform, but instead actually to lift children and their families out of poverty. That is where the delivery plans are absolutely crucial: they will detail the comprehensive action that will cover our economy, education, the benefits system, housing and health.
We will, no doubt, return to the debate time and again. Ben Macpherson was absolutely right to say that we must all guard against the normalisation of poverty, because poverty is fundamentally wrong on every level. I know that we will, as a Government, have to make decisions that are difficult, and decisions that at times will seem to be impossible. The Tories will, of course, have to answer for the impact of so-called welfare reform, but in fairness we will all have difficult questions to answer.
I know that we will all seek to be guided by the evidence of what works in the current and future contexts—not least, the work and advice that we will receive from the independent statutory Poverty and Inequality Commission. Needless to say, we will debate and disagree over what that evidence is or is not, but there is an opportunity to build consensus on what the right thing to do is, and on what the evidence tells us.
As a Government, we are prepared to have that debate, whether it is a debate on tax or on our new social security powers. What I am crystal clear about is that, as a Government, as a Parliament and as a country, we will have to pull together as never before. What will have to be evident when we publish our first delivery plan is that tackling child poverty must be at the very heart of everything that we do. In that regard, absolutely none of us will be let off the hook.
Ending child poverty is the biggest challenge that we face as a Parliament and as a country, and we all have a responsibility and a role to play. All of us, whether in Government, Parliament, councils, businesses, the third sector or civic Scotland, will have to work together in new ways.
In a minute or so, we will, I hope, stand united—even if just for that moment in time on the journey between now and 2030—to pass the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill, which I believe will be an historic next milestone on the way to confining child poverty to the history books. The time for talk is over; it is now time for us to act.