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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 09 June 2021

Agenda: Portfolio Question Time, Coronavirus Acts Report, Climate Emergency, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Social Justice and Fairness Commission Report


Social Justice and Fairness Commission Report

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The final item of business is a members’ debate on motion S6M-00164, in the name of Neil Gray, on the Social Justice and Fairness Commission report. The debate will be concluded without any questions being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the publication of the Social Justice and Fairness Commission report, A route map to a fair and independent Scotland; considers the report advances the debate about how to make Scotland a fairer nation as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, both under the devolved powers available to the Parliament and in looking towards an independent Scotland, and notes the calls for people in the Airdrie and Shotts constituency and across Scotland to engage with the issues raised constructively.


Neil Gray (Airdrie and Shotts) (SNP)

I thank colleagues from across the Parliament, particularly those from Opposition parties, who supported my motion to allow this short debate on the report of the Social Justice and Fairness Commission to take place.

I was honoured to be asked by the First Minister to lead the commission alongside Shona Robison. Creating a fairer Scotland, tackling poverty and giving people the security to live their lives well is, I am sure, why so many colleagues here are in politics, and it is especially close to my heart. I am not only keen but fiercely adamant that impoverishment and destitution cannot and will not any longer be a part of any child’s or family’s experience of growing up in Scotland.

I am grateful to my commission colleagues, who brought experience, expertise and exceptional talent, to Julie Hepburn and her secretariat team, and to all those across Scotland who fed into our work, from academics to expert charities, and from stakeholders with lived experience to trade unions and political campaigners. The list of people who gave input is as vast as the task in hand. However, the wealth of knowledge and understanding of that greatness only adds to the creative and ambitious programme to ensure a fairer and more prosperous Scotland for all the reasons that are set out in the report.

We did the bulk of our work during the pandemic, so the impact that it has had on all our lives has informed much of the report. Clearly, the priority that we all face right now is getting through the health effects of the pandemic. Thereafter, and hopefully before long, the nation will have a decision to make about whom we want to set the priorities of our economic recovery. Where do we want the decisions about how we recover to be taken?

It will not be good enough just to plot a path back to where we were at the end of 2019: we must do better. I have no doubt that there is a desire for that here in Scotland, but for us to achieve it will require radical change.

Our report is not just about the policies that could make Scotland a fairer independent nation; it is also about how we could make decisions better. It focuses on democratic renewal, involving people more in policy making, expanding the use of citizens assemblies and participatory budgeting, and more community ownership and wealth building. We already see the benefits of policy co-production in the way that Social Security Scotland was built. We get better policy making when it is not just done to people but done by those who need and use the service the most.

The second element that will help us to ensure that we do policy making better is agreeing a set of values that will be the compass guiding us. A written constitution would obviously help that, as would agreeing the principles of how we create a wellbeing economy. That work is already under way, with the First Minister taking an international lead as part of the Wellbeing Economy Alliance.

Finally, the report focuses on the policies that could create a wellbeing economy, and the commission sets out a series of ideas that would help to drive down poverty, provide security to our citizens and make the economy work for our people, rather than the other way round.

Our report is deliberately not a traditional costed election manifesto; it creates a vision for what Scotland could look like three or four parliamentary sessions after Scotland becomes independent. It is about the work that will need to be done if we want to achieve a good society through building consensus and state building. One party created the national health service, but its success is now based on cross-party consensus that it is a cherished asset.

Many of the areas that we suggest should be looked at to build a fairer Scotland require radical reform that cannot be achieved overnight. A land value tax would require time to implement and phase in. It would take time to pilot a universal basic income and then assess whether that or a minimum income guarantee would be the best route to take to drive down poverty and drive up wellbeing.

Of course, we do not require the powers of independence to achieve all that we have suggested in the report. That is why I was pleased to see much of our report feature in the Scottish National Party’s ambitious manifesto for May’s election—doubling the Scottish child payment, community wealth building and a minimum income guarantee.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I want to pick up on the point about a land value tax. I should declare that I own and farm 500 acres. Last year, mixed farm incomes were £8,100, on average, which is hardly enough to survive on. How would farmers cover the land value tax that the report proposes if their income was only £8,100?

Neil Gray

The creation of a land value tax and how it would be implemented would be open for discussion and consultation with key stakeholders, such as Edward Mountain and fellow landowners, to ensure that it was fair and equitable.

As we heard yesterday from Shona Robison, the Scottish Government is already starting work on how a minimum income guarantee could work under the current devolved settlement. It will obviously be a huge challenge as we have hybrid social security and tax systems that are partially devolved, and we in Scotland still rely on decisions of the United Kingdom Government being the right ones for us.

Such a guarantee is about more than social security: it is about combining wages, social security and services to ensure that we have what we need as citizens and do not fall below a certain level. That is achievable, but there are clear challenges caused by the fiscal framework and the interaction with detrimental decisions made by Westminster. For example, the looming cut that will end the £20 per week uplift to universal credit will wipe away the benefit brought to many families by the Scottish child payment. That proves to me that we need independence so that we can direct our resources to our agreed priorities and so that we are not hamstrung or held back by the austerity economics and austerity of ambition of successive UK Governments.

Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

From our previous encounters in the Westminster Parliament, I know and admire how passionate Neil Gray is about these matters. Does he accept that this Parliament has the means to address the uplift to universal credit, if a majority here feel that the issue should be addressed? Is it not correct to say that we have the means to top up reserved benefits?

Neil Gray

The Scottish Government is already taking action with targeted support to address that. What is at stake is that a hybrid system of social security, such as we have in Scotland, is being undermined by decisions taken at Westminster. The £20 per week Scottish child payment, which we are looking forward to, could be completely undermined after the removal by the UK Government of the £20 uplift to universal credit. It is beholden on Stephen Kerr to direct his efforts to persuading his colleagues in London to ensure that that does not happen later this year.

We need an immigration system that works for Scotland and for those who choose to make this country their home, instead of unlawfully housing our fellow human beings in squalor or ripping them from their community in dawn raids. We should have a social security system that provides a real safety net and does not dehumanise people in assessments or impoverish them to the point at which food banks are a de facto extension of the Department for Work and Pensions. We can and must do better.

This short debate will not cover all aspects of this substantial report. There is much in there about drug reform, land reform, housing, immigration and more. It not only provides a blueprint for how we set the priorities to create a fairer Scotland but gives policy ideas to achieve a good, compassionate and wellbeing society.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Please bring your remarks to a close.

Neil Gray

I hope that the report and this evening’s debate will start a healthy and positive debate on what we can achieve and will take us towards that goal.

If we accept that poverty levels are dictated by the policies of the Scottish and UK Governments, I hope that we can unite around a central goal. We should be creating a fairer Scotland that eradicates poverty. Our debate should be about how we get there. I look forward to hearing ideas from all sides.


Stuart McMillan (Greenock and Inverclyde) (SNP)

I congratulate Neil Gray on securing this important debate and I welcome him to the Scottish Parliament. I place on record that I was a member of the Social Justice and Fairness Commission. I apologise for the fact that I must leave before the end of the debate.

It was a privilege to become a member of the commission. Some of our discussions challenged orthodoxy and the tinkering at the edges that can be the easy thing to do. Thinking about the type of Scotland that we should all want should bring us together as a Parliament, but I know that that will not happen. The report offers a conversation starter towards consensus about the kind of Scotland that we want to build with independence and about how best to get there.

The commission believes that independence will let Scotland build on the foundations that have been laid under devolution by the Scottish Government. The report states:

“We contend that eradicating poverty in Scotland is the single most important ambition that the government of an independent Scotland could seek to achieve.”

Professor Philip Alston, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has said:

“Devolved administrations have tried to mitigate the worst impacts of austerity, despite experiencing significant reductions in block grant funding and constitutional limits on their ability to raise revenue.”

He went on to say that

“mitigation comes at a price, and is not sustainable.”

That comment answers the question that Stephen Kerr put to Neil Gray a few moments ago.

Mitigating UK Government welfare reform and Tory welfare policies prevents the Parliament and the Scottish Government investing to make society better for everyone.

In government, the SNP has already introduced a range of progressive policies such as the baby box, as well as game-changing poverty-reduction measures such as the Scottish child payment and best start grants. However, there is still more to do.

I commend Sharon Dowey for her earlier comments on John Scott, who was certainly well thought of and well regarded across the chamber. In her first speech in the Parliament, she said that she got involved in politics to make a difference. So did I and every other member of the Parliament. However, being ambitious for Scotland and helping to lift people out of poverty will not happen with the glass ceiling of devolution and with one hand tied behind our backs; it will happen when we have the full powers of independence. [Interruption.] I would normally take an intervention, but I have to continue. I am sorry.

Brexit and the pandemic have certainly had major impacts on the lives of us all, and they will shape our country and communities for decades to come. It will take decades to pay off the pandemic debt. However, the UK faced the same situation after world war two, and that should not limit our ambition for our people and our country.

My constituency has some of the most challenging statistics in Scotland. Those statistics are people, and I want my constituents to have a better future.

The debate about a just transition that members heard this afternoon ties in with the social justice report. If we want a socially just and fairer Scotland and our communities to be more resilient, people should read the report, consider and discuss it, and use it to engender more debate about the type of Scotland that we all want.

The status quo is finishing. A fair, independent Scotland is the prize that is coming, and it will be won.


Stephen Kerr (Central Scotland) (Con)

I say to Stuart McMillan that I am very ambitious for Scotland within the United Kingdom.

I congratulate Neil Gray on securing the debate, which is among the first members’ business debates in this session.

The report is unoriginal and uncosted, and that slips it into the territory of snake oil sales. It is a utopian fairy tale that has been drawn up by the SNP to distract the people of Scotland from its failures in government. It has been designed by the SNP to allow it to avoid accountability and to stoke up a grievance agenda. The Parliament already has the powers to address the most pressing issues that Scotland faces today. It is the SNP’s dismal record in government that should be subject to debate, scrutiny and accountability.

The executive summary of the report states:

“The democratic renewal that independence offers is an opportunity to re-imagine our approach to local democracy. There is a strong argument for radical reform of local government, guided by the principle of empowering communities across Scotland to take the decisions that affect them.”

The SNP does not need independence to empower communities across Scotland; it needs to give them proper funding and to respect the decisions that are made by local councils. Between 2013-14 and 2018-19, the SNP Government cut local government spending in Scotland by 7.5 per cent.

The SNP also takes the attitude that it knows better than local councillors. It overturned more than a third of planning decisions that were made in Scotland’s councils in the previous parliamentary session. If that is not a power grab, I do not know what a power grab is.

The report states:

“Those struggling with addiction need to be heard and empowered to be at the centre of their own treatment and recovery.”

The Scottish Government already has the powers to allow those with addictions to be heard and empowered. However, on the SNP’s watch, Scotland has had a record number of drug deaths for six consecutive years. The SNP likes to complain that legislation is to blame for that, but there are three and a half times more drug deaths in Scotland than there are in England and Wales, which have the same legislation. The report correctly calls for co-operation. Perhaps, in the spirit of co-operation, the Scottish Government can reach out to the UK and Welsh Governments to learn what they are doing to help those who suffer from addiction.

Co-operation between Scotland’s two Governments would also promote immigration to Scotland. With an increasingly elderly population, it is vital that Scotland is seen to be open and welcome. Sadly, the rhetoric that is associated with the nationalist movement makes Scotland feel like a hostile environment for many of our English friends. Banners saying things such as “England get out of Scotland”—

The Minister for Social Security and Local Government (Ben Macpherson)

Will the member take an intervention?

Stephen Kerr

Yes, of course.

Ben Macpherson

I would just like to relate to Mr Kerr that his statement is incorrect. Net migration from the rest of the UK to Scotland is positive, and it has been for many years.

Stephen Kerr

I accept the facts, but it does not help when the nationalist movement creates a hostile environment, using banners saying things such as “England get out of Scotland” or when senior parliamentarians at Westminster—

Stuart McMillan

Will the member give way?

Stephen Kerr

I will just finish my point. It does not help when senior parliamentarians at Westminster endorse tweets that tell English tourists to eff off and go home. The First Minister and her Government should be calling out and condemning that kind of activity.

Stuart McMillan

As an English Scot, I certainly agree with Mr Kerr about some of the terrible things that have been said, and I am quite sure that English Scots who support the yes campaign would agree. However, I have to highlight that some of the individuals whom Mr Kerr has just spoken about are not members of the SNP.

Stephen Kerr

I did not actually say that they are members of the SNP, but I would point out that Ian Blackford is definitely a member of the SNP—he is the SNP group leader at Westminster.

For social justice and fairness to emerge in Scotland, we do not need a change in the constitution; we need the Scottish Government to change how it exercises its powers. Rather than seek grievance, it should seek to create equality of opportunity for all Scots. Rather than have people’s lives shaped by their postcode, the SNP should seek a levelling-up agenda that leaves no one behind. The SNP should focus on bringing us together, because Scotland is more powerful when we work together. Doing all of that and more would be working in the national interest, but I fear that the SNP will continue to work in the nationalist interest.


Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

I am pleased to speak in my first members’ business debate of the new session, and I am exceptionally pleased to speak on such an important subject. I am just sorry that I did not hear Stephen Kerr’s speech in advance, because I could have used all my time to rebut the nonsense that we have just heard.

I congratulate my new colleague Neil Gray on his excellent opening speech and on bringing the debate to the chamber. I also thank him for his exceptional work as a member of the Social Justice and Fairness Commission.

In order to get somewhere, everyone needs a route map for their journey. The commission’s report shows how the people of Scotland can live in a fairer and more equal society—one that values wellbeing, eradicates poverty and ensures that no one is left behind. I certainly want that for my grandchildren, and this is the map that we need to get us there. The report highlights many key elements that are needed to improve life for everyone. We know that society is unequal—it seems as though it always has been—but this is our chance to change it, albeit with limited powers until we are a normal independent country.

Yesterday afternoon in the chamber, we heard harrowing stories about people who are living in poverty and the struggles that they face every day. This is Scotland in 2021, and that should not be happening. We heard, among others, the Tories—including Stephen Kerr—who are responsible for most of the poverty that has been created in Scotland, say that we should use the powers that we already have. However, as Neil Gray said, much of that is in our manifesto. The SNP Government has introduced the baby box and other game-changing poverty reduction measures such as the Scottish child payment and the best start grant, among many others.

With independence, we could do so much more. We would not have to mitigate harmful Tory welfare policies. We could reverse Tory welfare policies such as the abhorrent two-child limit, the vile rape clause and the cruel five-week wait for universal credit. We could have a welcoming and inclusive immigration policy and renewed employment rights under a fair work agenda, and we could get rid of unpaid work trials, zero-hours contracts, and fire-and-rehire legislation.

Warm, affordable housing is a basic human right that is sadly non-existent for too many people. That situation must—and could—be addressed with radical new thinking about the social rented sector. A bold drug policy based on harm reduction and recovery is now happening, and a conversation about decriminalisation is long overdue. Under the UK Government, our pensions are the lowest in Europe; with independence, we could lower the age of qualification and pay a fair rate. That is the least that the older citizens of Scotland should expect.

The commission also proposes establishing pilots of two key models of social security: universal basic income and the minimum income guarantee. Those could be the springboard to winning the battle against poverty.

Stephen Kerr

That is all well and good, but, when setting out a vision for the future that the member believes can be achieved only in an independent Scotland, she must also tell people how that will be paid for. That might not be a very popular thing to say in tonight’s debate, but we have to be able to pay for such things. How will all those aggrandisements—more pensions, more benefits, more everything—be paid for?

Rona Mackay

That was a bit of a facile comment. All those initiatives will be costed. We will produce a white paper, as we did in 2014. We do not ask people to take a leap of faith on things that are uncosted.

Stephen Kerr

They are uncosted.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Please do not intervene from a sedentary position, Mr Kerr.

Rona Mackay

There is much more in the Social Justice and Fairness Commission’s report—far too much to highlight in four minutes. I thank everyone—not just the elected politicians, but the many innovative members—who worked on producing the report. The report is the start of a life-changing, nation-changing conversation that puts human rights at the heart of every decision, and it provides a map that I would be happy to follow. I applaud its vision for a Scotland that I want to live in and in which future generations can flourish.


Michael Marra (North East Scotland) (Lab)

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate secured by Mr Gray. I am happy to discuss issues of social justice wherever and whenever we can. We owe it to the people of Scotland to have such discussions as frequently as we can, and we owe them honesty about the difficult choices that we have to make.

I had not read the report prior to the debate being announced, but I have read it since and have found it an interesting document. I have the utmost respect for Dr Eilidh Whiteford, in particular. I was privileged to work for her at Oxfam for a number of years. I know that she has an extraordinary commitment to the poorest of the world and has served people in many countries on issues of poverty.

I was interested in a particular quote:

“policies must be grounded in consensus across our society, and able to weather changes in government and economic downturns.”

That talks to some of the hard work of politics, which is building a consensus of the whole population and seeking unanimity—or, at the very least, permission—from people to make progress. I have to say that I see little evidence of that in the division that we see daily between the yin-yang opposition of those who are yes and those who are ultra no. We saw that in the most recent election, which had a divisive campaign fought between two extremes that thrive on each other. That approach will not deliver what is required for social justice. A country that is divided 50:50 will not have the consensus to build any kind of vision for the future. That is the challenge that faces the SNP and the nationalists if they think that they can achieve an independent Scotland.

The issue of political leadership comes to the fore. Your party has not been an ally of those of us who have, for our entire lives, argued for progressive taxation. It is quite clear that, for the past two general elections, you have specifically committed to opposing Labour’s progressive taxation reforms.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Please address your comments through the chair.

Michael Marra

Sorry, Presiding Officer. I will get used to it at some point.

Mr Gray talked about Labour’s creation of the NHS, which was achieved by facing down vested interests. Through negotiation and persuasion, the case was made for the NHS. I want to talk about the difficulty of that in relation to tax and, in particular, SNP taxation policy. How we pay for the many great aspirations that are set out in the report is a salient point.

I will go through the history of SNP taxation policy. In the SNP’s first term in office, we had the council tax freeze, which was entirely regressive and targeted. The impact was cuts in services for local people—often the poorest, the disabled and those who required services. We continue to see the multibillion-pound impact of that. In the SNP’s second term, we had the Laffer curve economics advocated by John Swinney in the run-up to the independence referendum. That was a completely ridiculous policy that claimed that lower taxes would result in higher growth. In its third term, we had Andrew Wilson’s growth commission, which was austerity on steroids. At the most recent election, the SNP went back to council tax freezes.

The issue is about how we pay for the kind of policies that are being proposed and how we build some form of consensus on that.

Neil Gray

I appreciate Michael Marra’s approach to the debate, which, up until the last couple of paragraphs, had been constructive. I think that we have common cause in a number of areas that are covered in the report, and I look forward to working with him and other colleagues in taking it forward and finding consensus. Does he accept that a number of recommendations in the report, such as those on land value tax and other streamlining and progressive elements, that would move us towards a fairer taxation system require the full powers of taxation, which we do not currently hold?

Michael Marra

I certainly do not agree that there are no versions of land value tax that could be implemented now without further powers.

That brings me on to the point of the many things that are in the report that could be delivered now. Council tax reform has been promised for 14 years and has been completely undelivered, and LVT provides an opportunity in that regard. There is probably a majority in the Parliament for a version of that policy, so the Government should bring forward proposals. It should also do so on land reform, local government reform and the creation of new, enhanced benefits. We were told in 2014 that it was necessary to have independence to deliver transformative childcare but, two months after a no vote, that policy was put in place.

The report is another list of things that cannot be done. Frankly, the main contradiction in it relates to the growth commission report that was produced by Andrew Wilson and his colleagues, which is the evil twin of the document that we are considering today.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

Please bring your remarks to a close.

Michael Marra

I come back to the central issue that if, on the one hand, we have a report that says that we have to do less and we will have less money—austerity on steroids—and, on the other hand, we have a report that says that we have to spend much more, that poses the question about how any of it can be achieved. I fear that the report will go the same way as the poverty czar and many other warm-word promises and that it will not deliver what the people of Scotland desperately need.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I see that Paul Sweeney has pressed his request-to-speak button. If you are seeking to make a speech, Mr Sweeney, it will have to be very short, because you were not on the list, and I have had to fit you in.

I call Emma Roddick, to be followed by Mr Sweeney.


Emma Roddick (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

Before I start, I declare that I worked on the paper that we are debating.

What I really love about the paper is that it is not a complaint or a whinge about a lack of money, and it is not an attack on anybody; it sets out a positive vision. It gives a list of possibilities and explores not only what we could do as an independent Scotland with the full levers of power, but what we can do now.

The first proposal in the housing section is a recognition of the need to build not only more homes, but the right homes that are energy efficient, accessible and have a varied number of rooms. That comes alongside a proposal to modernise the existing housing stock, which is welcome, as it would tackle the large emissions of CO2 equivalent from buildings as well as tackling fuel poverty, which is an all-too-familiar concept for residents of the Highlands and Islands.

The paper also suggests that an expanded social housing sector can raise standards in the private sector. Although we must support the building of affordable homes, particularly in rural areas through things such as the SNP Government’s rural housing fund, we cannot make policy that relies on landlords’ good will. We need regulation alongside house building. Expanding the social sector might be a great way to bring down demand and therefore prices, but I do not buy that that will mean that the landlords who have neglected their properties and ignored the pleas of their tenants to fix issues will suddenly feel the need to raise standards.

That is why I welcome the second proposal, which focuses on moving away from seeing homes as a means of asset appreciation towards seeing them as a place to live. The right to buy did not just eat up our housing stock; it twisted the idea of what a house should be. People purchased council houses for a few thousand pounds. Their value has rocketed and many have since been sold to absentee landlords for 20 times the price at which they were sold off. Properties that were intended for affordable rent are now owned by landlords, who charge residents hundreds of pounds more in rent per month than their next-door neighbours are charged, which is neither just nor fair.

That is why it is so welcome that the paper proposes offering first refusal on former right-to-buy properties to the local authority at market rate. We must stop seeing residential properties only as investment opportunities and assets from which the rich can expect guaranteed returns, but in which the less wealthy can expect only to be ripped off.

We cannot justify dozens of homes lying empty for all but two months in the summer while people wait for a home for years in temporary accommodation or have to move out of their local area just for the chance to find an affordable property. We cannot justify absentee landlords buying multiple homes in Skye and elsewhere in the Highlands and Islands at extortionate rates, sight unseen, because they know that the price will keep going up; and we cannot justify celebrating that house prices continue to rise well out of reach of the most optimistic aspirations of our young people.

The paper’s recommendations are a great start in righting those wrongs. If the paper can set the tone for this session of the Parliament, then we are in for a great one. Let us continue to dream big about how to create a Scotland with social justice and fairness at its heart.


Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

Thank you, Presiding Officer, for your indulgence in including me in the debate.

I will offer a couple of observations based on my experience of being on universal credit until last month. I pay tribute to Neil Gray’s work on the issue; we discussed its importance in our previous lives in the House of Commons. Frankly, I do not care how we do it, we need to get the money into people’s pockets by whatever means and with whatever innovation necessary to do it. That is what this Parliament is about.

As my colleague Michael Marra said, Labour is keen to work constructively in that endeavour. A good example is the opportunity to look at universal credit, which is already woefully insufficient and makes the cost of being poor far harder for people. That destroys potential and means that people’s ability to function as citizens is denied, which is a bigger cost to the community in terms of healthcare, housing arrears and all sorts of other knock-on effects that are hugely disastrous for local communities.

My calculations are that roughly 110,000 people are on universal credit in Scotland. To scale up that payment with a £20 per week uplift means that it would cost £114 million to deal with the matter in Scotland—to exercise sovereignty over it, if you like. It would be useful for the Parliament to consider that right away. The figure pales into insignificance when compared with the costs of, for example, the overspend on the CalMac Ferries or the Rangers Football Club malicious prosecution compensation of £100 million. Let us look at ways in which we can fix the problem now.

Neil Gray

I appreciate Paul Sweeney’s experience of the matter in recent years, and I welcome him to his place. Does he accept that on top of the issues around the £20 per week uplift that Stephen Kerr and I debated, there are structural issues in relation to universal credit that the Scottish Government cannot address? The Trussell Trust says that the five-week wait is the number 1 issue that is driving food bank use, which is an issue that has to be resolved at Westminster.

Paul Sweeney

I thank Mr Gray for his point. He is correct, but that is why we need to build constructive dialogue. Antagonistic rhetoric has often been a comfort for many people, but let us consider what technical opportunities there are to constructively engage on the issue.

The member makes a good point about the five week wait. It certainly was not a pleasant experience for me. I did not use the advance, because I had sufficient savings to deal with that period myself, but I realised that I was not able to find out what I would be paid until a week before the payment was made. People are living in limbo and do not know what they are going to get. I did not even realise until earlier this year that I was also eligible for new-style jobseekers allowance. No one is practically advising people on what they are entitled to. I also had to apply for a council tax reduction, which is a separate bureaucratic procedure, and pursue other ways of income maximisation. Those are things that we could deal with better in Scotland by having an approach of applying once and getting everything that you are entitled to. Let us try and figure out how we can do that; our civil servants are capable of figuring that out.

Dealing with Department for Work and Pensions employees on the front line, I found them to be hard-working and kind people who are trying to be constructive, given the circumstances. They are Scottish civil servants; they just happen to work for a master that it is not particularly constructive or helpful. There are ways in which we can deal with that and help to advance the cause in Scotland. I would like us to realistically explore how we could enhance universal credit in Scotland and deliver an output that would be highly effective for our citizens. There is a way to do that and I would like to work constructively with other parties to deliver it. With a ready, willing and capable approach from the Parliament, we can deliver something constructive for Scots.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I call Ben Macpherson to wind up the debate.


The Minister for Social Security and Local Government (Ben Macpherson)

For me, as for so many others, including Neil Gray and most of the other speakers in the debate, achieving greater social justice is one of the main drivers of my political activism and commitment. We can and must create a fairer society. Therefore, I thank Neil Gray for securing today’s debate on the Social Justice and Fairness Commission’s report and the issues that it covers, and all those across the chamber who have contributed to the debate.

I welcome Stephen Kerr to the Scottish Parliament. Although he has been provocative in much of what he has said in Parliament so far, I believe that he has been acting in good faith, but I encourage him to acknowledge that the election has passed and that we are now in a different era. If he is serious about being constructive, I urge him to consider the nature of his arguments and the background to his remarks. When I intervened on him, I made the point about the migration statistics. Also, on planning law, it is important to acknowledge that the reporter is independent.

On several occasions in the chamber, Mr Kerr has talked about the need for the Scottish Government to reach out to the UK Government. I have had several ministerial posts and, unfortunately, the engagement with the UK Government has never been meaningful, so if he can improve that in relation to the matters that the Social Justice and Fairness Commission’s report deals with and more generally, I encourage him to do that.

I warmly welcome Michael Marra and Paul Sweeney to the Scottish Parliament. They made important points about taxation in the context of the issues that the report raises, but in recent years, when it comes to achieving social justice, we have had no serious budget proposals from the Labour Party, and I hope that their entering Parliament will mean that that position will change.

Paul Sweeney made thoughtful and powerful points on universal credit, but as Stuart McMillan rightly emphasised, we cannot be a Parliament of mitigation. We already spend £60 million a year on mitigating the effects of the bedroom tax. What I have never really understood about Labour’s position is why it would not want to bring the powers here so that we can do things differently and comprehensively. That is relevant in relation to progressive taxation. Although we control a number of aspects of income tax policy, we have no control over dividend income tax, so we do not have complete control over all the relevant areas.

Michael Marra

It is one thing to talk about making more use of progressive taxation, but would it not be a good starting point for the SNP Government not to put in place further regressive taxes, as it has done over the past 14 years?

Ben Macpherson

I do not accept that. With the powers that we have had, we have sought to provide a stimulus and to have a fair taxation system. Of course, when it comes to income tax, we have the fairest arrangement in the whole of the UK. [Interruption.] We have the fairest income tax system in the whole of the UK, in that those on the lowest incomes pay the least tax.

I also pay tribute to Emma Roddick for her work on the commission and for the points that she made about housing. I am sure that the Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice, Housing and Local Government, Shona Robison, will be glad to have engagement with her on those points and others.

It is clear that, overall, the political will exists in the Parliament to bring about social justice. It is simply that we do not have all the powers that we need, and that is what the report rightly highlights. Nonetheless, we all seem to want to create a Scotland where everyone can have the best start in life and lead the best life that they can, even if some of us disagree on the best way to get there.

Recovery from the pandemic is our overriding focus right now, but how we recover matters. It is true that we need to use our current powers well and wisely, but we also need a clear route map that looks beyond our current powers to the kind of country that Scotland could and should be. That is what the commission’s report provides. It offers a substantive analysis of what is possible under the current powers of devolution, and what will be possible with the full powers of independence.

Time will not allow me to cover everything that I would like to in my summing up, so, as other members have done, I will focus my remarks on a few significant aspects of the report, the first of which is social security. The Scottish Government shares the ambition that is set out in the report for a social security system that provides income security for people who need it.

We are committed to the principles of dignity, fairness and respect, drawing on people’s lived experience as we continue to build a system that is focused on individuals’ needs. We have established experience panels to help us design our social security system, and their input has been fundamental to building a better system, directly informing changes to service delivery.

Throughout the pandemic, Scotland’s social security system has continued to ensure that people are paid the money on which they rely, while maintaining our focus on the safe and secure delivery of the devolved benefits.

With powers over 15 per cent of social security spending in Scotland, we are already delivering 10 benefits, seven of which are brand new and unique in the UK. However, efforts to tackle poverty in Scotland must include efforts to change Westminster’s damaging welfare policies. Covid-19 has highlighted, once again, the shortcomings of the UK approach, including the five-week wait for first payments of universal credit, which Neil Gray emphasised, the two-child limit and the benefit cap, all of which needlessly and unjustly continue to push families deeper into poverty.

As the social security minister, I will continue to call on the UK Government to make changes to ensure that people can rely on the safety net that they have paid into and to match our ambitions to tackle child poverty. However, because the Scottish Government’s calls, and those of organisations, have gone unheeded, we need to have the powers over social security in order to create a fairer system in Scotland. Indeed, we need all the powers to deliver social policy as cohesively as possible.

As I have said, that equally applies to taxation policy, too. It also applies to employment law. Therefore, until we secure independence, or powers over employment law, we will use the powers that we have to prioritise fairness, taking our first steps towards a minimum income guarantee with the establishment of a steering group informed by lived experience and expertise.

I could say much about other issues that are in the report, including community empowerment, land reform, immigration and drugs laws. The report highlights a range of challenges for the Parliament and our country as we begin to recover from the pandemic and move forward together.

The overriding question for us all is this: how do we deliver a fairer Scotland—a wellbeing society that values and cares for everyone who lives here? Also, how do we make life better for everyone, create greater social justice and ensure that no one is left behind? What constitutional arrangement would enable us to deliver that vision as effectively and quickly as possible?

This Government firmly believes that having all the powers of independence is the best way to achieve that vision, which is why considerations about the constitution are directly related to considerations around social justice. The report that we have debated today demonstrates that relationship and I look forward to many more debates in this parliamentary session on how—together—we can build a fairer society in Scotland.

Meeting closed at 18:53.