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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 27 November 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Poverty (United Kingdom), Violence against Women, Committee Announcement, Decision Time, NHS Highland (Bullying)


Contents


Poverty (United Kingdom)

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is a statement by Aileen Campbell on the interim findings of the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, on United Kingdom poverty. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of her statement.

14:20  

The Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government (Aileen Campbell)

Just over a week ago, the UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, issued interim findings from his 12-day visit to the UK. He did not pull any punches in his devastating critique of the UK Government’s deeply flawed approach to welfare reform and the damage that is being done to the wider social safety net.

Professor Alston’s report is a damning indictment of the systematic failings of the UK Government, which has overseen the first sustained rises in poverty in recent years. Those sustained rises in poverty threaten to engulf almost four in every 10 children in Scotland by 2030—a prospect that Professor Alston described as

“not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.”

I agree with that assessment.

Professor Alston’s message is clear: in a country as wealthy and prosperous as the United Kingdom, current levels of poverty and deprivation are already completely unacceptable, and the projected further increases would be an attack on the very fabric of our society.

The rapporteur set out very clearly that welfare changes have been a political choice rather than a necessity. As he pointed out, the UK Government could have made the choice to end austerity in its recent budget. He said:

“Resources were available to the Treasury at the last budget that could have transformed the situation of millions of people living in poverty, but the political choice was made to fund tax cuts for the wealthy instead.”

The Resolution Foundation has said that next year’s proposed spending of £2.8 billion on tax cuts will disproportionately benefit higher earners. For £1.5 billion—almost half that cost—the UK Government could have ended the benefit freeze. In Scotland alone, the four-year benefit freeze has been the biggest reduction in welfare spending—it reduced spending by around £190 million in 2018-19, and it will have reduced spending by around £370 million by 2020-21—and is impacting on 930,000 children.

Professor Alston said:

“the Department for Work and Pensions is more concerned with making economic savings and sending messages about lifestyles than responding to the multiple needs of those living with a disability, job loss, housing insecurity, illness, and the demands of parenting.”

He also pointed out that the savings that were supposed to have been delivered have just been transferred to other public services.

The costs of austerity have fallen disproportionately on people in poverty, women, minority ethnic communities, children, lone parents and disabled people. Professor Alston spoke of the gendered nature of the cuts that have been imposed and their detrimental impact on children. He called for regressive policies, such as the benefit cap and the two-child limit—with its abhorrent rape clause—to be reversed. I hope that his remarks will add weight to the repeated calls of Scottish ministers and many others for exactly the same changes.

Professor Alston’s findings add to the weight of evidence of fundamental flaws at the heart of universal credit. Those defects have been well aired in this Parliament so I will not repeat them all, but I want to pick up on one: the initial problem that people face, which is the in-built minimum five-week wait for payment of universal credit. The wait can be much longer for some people. Advance payments that are intended to bridge that gap are required to be paid back at a rate that substantially reduces household income. That is austerity by design: it pushes people into debt and rent arrears and towards emergency funding and food banks, just as they start receiving the benefit.

Again, the human cost is on people’s health and wellbeing. No one should go hungry because they cannot afford to eat, no one should be anxious because they need to borrow money to put the heating on, and no one should worry about being made homeless because endless delays mean that their rent might not be paid.

Professor Alston’s findings are the latest in a long line of reports that evidence the damage that universal credit is inflicting on people and the communities in which they live. When the UN rapporteur, the National Audit Office, the UK Work and Pensions Committee, devolved Governments and countless charities and other stakeholders keep telling us the same thing, we must listen.

I welcome the comment by the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that she wants to deliver

“a fair, compassionate and efficient benefits system.”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 19 November 2018; Vol 649, c 567.]

However, warm words are not enough. Change is needed to end austerity and to make universal credit fit for purpose. As the rapporteur pointed out, the choices are political choices that can be reversed easily. Amber Rudd must take heed and take the decision that her predecessors failed to take. She must stop universal credit now and fix the problems. To do otherwise and ignore the repeated warnings is to risk condemning a generation of children and their families to a lifetime of poverty that they will struggle to rise out of.

That is before we even start to consider the unknown impacts of Brexit. The rapporteur has highlighted that those on low incomes appear to be “an afterthought” and that no consideration has been given to what will happen to poverty levels following departure from the European Union. That is one of many impacts that the UK Government has given no consideration to.

We have called on the UK Government to publish an impact assessment that sets out the impacts of various Brexit scenarios on poverty. It is essential that the UK Government has a fully formed plan for the potential futures that it is considering. It must set out robust action to ensure that those on low incomes are fully protected against the negative impacts that will be delivered by any form of Brexit—in particular, the disaster of no deal.

I turn to Professor Alston’s findings regarding Scotland. As part of his visit, the rapporteur spent two days in Scotland, meeting ministers including the First Minister and me, key Scottish Government officials, organisations that represent a wide range of interests, and children and disabled people. I welcome the rapporteur’s recognition of the fundamentally different approach that Scotland has taken to poverty, social security and, of course, human rights.

We have much to be proud of. We have established a new social security agency with dignity, fairness and respect at its heart; we have already delivered a valuable top-up to carers allowance; and we will commence the first enhanced best start grant payments before Christmas this year. We have launched fair start Scotland, which is a dignified approach to employability support that does not rule by the fear of crippling sanctions and is backed by up to £20 million each year on top of the levels of funding that the UK Government provides. Our Scottish welfare fund, which provides much-needed support for individuals in crisis, is backed by £38 million of investment each year. That funding is not provided across England. In 2018-19, we are spending over £125 million, which is £20 million more than last year, on welfare mitigation and supporting those on low incomes.

However, I would prefer to be investing that money in pulling people out of poverty. We can only mitigate the worst of the cuts, because welfare spending in Scotland is expected to have reduced by £3.7 billion in 2020-21 as a result of UK Government welfare reforms since 2010. The fact that we have to spend any of our resources to protect against another Government’s policies is, as the rapporteur rightly said, “outrageous”. He also noted:

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

The price of mitigating that full cut for this year alone would be equivalent to three times our annual police budget or the entire annual budget of both NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde and NHS Lothian.

As the special rapporteur has made clear, austerity and welfare cuts are not a necessity—they are a political choice. In Scotland, we are making a different choice. As a Parliament, we have united in saying that the current levels of child poverty are unacceptable and that we will take the radical action that is needed to change the fortunes of the 230,000 children in poverty today and the generations of children to come. That radical action starts with our first tackling child poverty delivery plan, which outlines the range of actions that we will take to lift children out of poverty, including working towards introducing a new income supplement, investing in intensive key worker support to help parents to enter and progress in the labour market, and our significant investment in early learning and childcare across Scotland.

Through those measures and the wide range of other actions that we are taking, we are using the powers of this Parliament to demonstrate to those at Westminster that there is another way forward that puts fairness, equality and human dignity at the centre of our approach. We are not doing that solely because it makes economic sense; we are doing it because it is the right thing to do. I ask that parties across the chamber unite in calling on Westminster to make the necessary changes or to devolve the powers to allow us to make the changes ourselves.

When Theresa May became the Prime Minister, she spoke of the urgent need to tackle the “burning injustices” of the UK as a top priority. The rapporteur’s report shows that it is high time that she started to deliver.

Michelle Ballantyne (South Scotland) (Con)

Professor Alston notes that although Scotland has

“the lowest poverty rates in the United Kingdom”—

in part, that is because it benefits from the highest amount per capita spent on public services—it also

“has the lowest life expectancy and the highest suicide rate in Great Britain.”

Health and mental health are devolved matters. Will the minister recognise that, when it comes to poverty, her Government has to take responsibility for its record in those areas, and to address the issues at source?

Aileen Campbell

Although I have responsibility for policies to do with tackling poverty, it is absolutely the commitment and the priority of the whole Government to do what it can, within the powers that we have, to improve everybody’s life chances.

Of course we have public health challenges: they are articulated in the report. This Government is taking the actions that are necessary in order to ensure that people have enhanced wellbeing, and to reverse some of the challenges that we face.

However, the finger of blame points fairly and squarely at the UK Government for its systematic cuts to social security, its welfare reform and the continued politically and ideologically driven austerity that Professor Alston said “could easily be reversed” if the UK Government were to decide to do so.

The UK Government has a choice of two futures: it can continue to give tax benefits to the wealthiest people, or it can change tack and gift a better future to the people of Scotland and the UK. Thus far, it has singularly failed to do that. The politically and ideologically driven motivation for welfare reform will be very difficult for this Parliament to shift. In order to do so, we need to ensure that we have the powers here or, at least, to make sure that we press hard for the UK Government to change tack.

Michelle Ballantyne is shaking her head. She would do well to make the same passionate representations to her colleagues down at Westminster.

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of her statement.

It really is shocking that the UK has had such a damning UN poverty report that completely exposes the Tory approach to welfare as an ideologically driven political choice, in which austerity disproportionately impacts on women, children, minority ethnic communities, disabled people and people who live in poverty.

Is the cabinet secretary aware that Professor Philip Alston said in his press conference that universal credit is a system that could have been designed by “a group of misogynists”? As members will know, that system is driving normalisation of food banks, baby banks and toy banks, which are kinds of charity that should not be the norm in a rich country where families should, instead, have increasing household incomes.

Although the report credits the Scottish Government for mitigating some of the effects of Tory welfare policy, it is not enough today to just attack the Tory Government. Will the cabinet secretary take immediate action to lift 30,000 children out of poverty by implementing the £5 child-benefit top-up, by rolling out North Lanarkshire Council’s club 365 scheme across Scotland, as was recommended by the poverty and inequality commission, and by using its powers to reverse the abhorrent two-child limit? Scotland’s children in need cannot wait any longer for radical action.

Aileen Campbell

Yes—I saw that Professor Alston had said damning things about the gendered nature of the UK Government’s social security cuts and austerity measures. The rape clause and the two-child cap epitomise its gendered approach. Elaine Smith and I—indeed, members across all parties—agree that that needs to stop.

The way in which Elaine Smith articulated her question suggested that we are doing nothing, and are sitting idly by and just letting it happen. We are not: we are making concerted efforts in the here and now to protect the people of Scotland as best we can. Our actions include spending £125 million on mitigation to mop up to the UK Government’s mess of failed policies. They include all that we have set out in the child poverty action plan, which is backed with £50 million to help children across the country. They include the £3.5 million that we are spending on dignified responses to food insecurity, and they include the work that Shirley-Anne Somerville is doing to establish the new social security agency, the work of which is based on dignity, fairness and respect.

That is not the totality of our work. We are progressing the income supplement to lift children out of poverty, as Elaine Smith described, following campaigns that led to that announcement. We will continue to work on a cross-party and reasonable basis to make that happen.

We are doing a lot of work in the here and now to mop up another Government’s mess. If we had the powers to do so in this Parliament, we would surely do a lot more to help the people of Scotland.

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green)

Professor Alston said that the local preparations that he saw for the introduction of universal credit, which is a UK Government welfare reform,

“resembled the sort of activity one might expect for an impending natural disaster or health epidemic.”

What we have seen is only the tip of the iceberg; the major challenge will arise when the bulk of people who are on existing benefits are transferred from next year.

What additional steps is the Scottish Government taking to help local authorities, the third sector and communities to prepare for the final managed migration stage of the roll-out, given the UK Government’s refusal to halt the roll-out, despite ever-increasing evidence of the damage that universal credit’s many flaws cause?

Aileen Campbell

The points that Alison Johnstone makes have been clearly heard by my colleague Shirley-Anne Somerville, who engages regularly with the UK Government. Amber Rudd has been pressed on those points to ensure that she listens to the recommendations.

We have regular engagement with local authorities and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities across a range of ministerial portfolios to ensure that authorities feel that the necessary support is in place for them to cope with managed migration. We also continue to work with third sector organisations, which often have the agility to respond to the needs of people who face destitution or poverty. We will continue to work with COSLA, the third sector and others whenever we need to do that, so that they feel supported as they support people across the country.

Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD)

I am grateful for early sight of the cabinet secretary’s statement. On Brexit, Professor Alston said that

“anyone concerned with poverty in the UK has reason to be very deeply concerned.”

Given that many people who rely on social security and the welfare state might have voted to leave on the understanding that the UK’s doing so would increase the money that goes into the Exchequer, and given that nobody voted to become poorer, does the cabinet secretary agree with my party that those people should be offered the chance to revisit their decision in a people’s vote?

Aileen Campbell

I agree with Alex Cole-Hamilton that nobody voted to exit the EU in the referendum in order to become poorer. Some of the promises that were made in that referendum campaign have been called into question.

I remind Alex Cole-Hamilton that the people of Scotland voted to stay in the EU. The First Minister has made it clear that she has never ruled out, and would not stand in the way of, a people’s vote.

Given the impact of Brexit on the most vulnerable people across the country, we must continue to work hard and to do whatever we need to do to plan and to support local authorities and the third sector in the way that Alison Johnstone asked us to, so that we are fully prepared for the impact of Brexit. The most vulnerable people will be hit hardest; people who do not have financial resilience or security stand to lose most.

The UK Government has a lot to consider, given the shambolic way in which it is progressing Brexit. It needs to think hard not only about Professor Alston’s report but about the impact of Brexit, which will consign many more people to much more heartache in the years to come.

Angela Constance (Almond Valley) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary agree with the UN rapporteur that it is

“patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty”

in the UK and that

“British compassion”

has been

“outsourced”

and

“replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited, and ... callous approach”

to tackling poverty?

Aileen Campbell

Certainly, the values that this Government is focusing on are the values that are written into the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018. Those values are dignity, fairness and respect—none of which can easily be found in much of what the UK Government has attempted to do through welfare reform, austerity and social security cuts. With the rapporteur himself describing the cuts as “draconian” and the sanctions as “cruel” and “inhuman”, it seems that he agrees that there has been a departure from those key values of fairness, respect and dignity.

Oliver Mundell (Dumfriesshire) (Con)

Does the cabinet secretary agree with the special rapporteur when he says, of devolved welfare powers,

“it is clear to me that there is still a real accountability gap which should be addressed. The absence of a legal remedy or a more robust reference to international standards in the Social Security (Scotland) Act is significant and should be addressed”?

What does she plan to do about that issue?

Aileen Campbell

The whole point and purpose of the 2018 act—the whole premise on which it has been created—is to have human rights firmly at its heart. With the social security charter, there is direct accountability to Parliament as well.

As I said in answer to Patrick Harvie last week, of course we will take on board what the rapporteur says, but certainly everything that we do and will continue to do in our policies across the whole of Government has human rights at its heart, as written into the very foundations of the 2018 act.

We will take on board the rapporteur’s comments, but Oliver Mundell should be looking a wee bit closer to home—to his own party—to see that human rights are certainly not part of the UK Government’s approach.

Bruce Crawford (Stirling) (SNP)

Is the cabinet secretary aware that today, despite the UK being the fifth richest country in the world, as many as 14 million people live in poverty, including as many as 4 million children? Is she also aware that under the Tories’ watch, 600,000 more children have fallen into relative poverty? Does she agree with me that that is the biggest failure in public policy this century which, according to the UN, is a result of massive cuts to social security and misguided reforms to welfare payments?

It is noticeable that the Tories are not even prepared to stand up in the chamber today to defend their own Government. That shows us the shameful position of the UK Government.

Aileen Campbell

Bruce Crawford spoke about 600,000 more children falling into relative poverty as a result of the UK Government’s policies. That is 600,000 reasons to do something different—to take a different path and to try to reverse the cuts that the UK Government has inflicted on so many.

It is a disgrace that UK Government policies are driving the first sustained rise in poverty levels in recent years. That is why this Government is taking a different approach and a different tack; that is why our tackling child poverty delivery plan lays the blame for rising child poverty levels firmly at the door of the UK Government; and that is why we will continue to take the actions that we need to take to reverse, as best we can, the cuts that the UK Government has made and to protect the most vulnerable, to lift children out of poverty, to take forward the policies that we know will work and to give children in this country a better future.

Mark Griffin (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I am grateful that the cabinet secretary has said that the Government will use its powers to create a new benefit and that it is working towards a new income supplement. Given that thousands of children are being caught by the welfare reforms now, will the June report confirm not only the budget for and the value of the income supplement but its timeous introduction in the next financial year?

Aileen Campbell

We are working to develop the income supplement in a way that ensures that we have the maximum possible reach and that we support as many children as we can in order to lift children and families out of poverty. Certainly, we will continue to keep the member informed of the progress that has been made. We are continuing to work with organisations such as the Child Poverty Action Group and Poverty Alliance Scotland to make sure that we get this right. It is complex work, but we are committed to its success. We know the impact that it will have on people and families across the country.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary agree with the UN rapporteur’s assessment of the UK Government policy that

“If you got a group of misogynists together in a room and said ‘how can we make a system that works for men but not women?’ they wouldn’t have come up with too many other ideas than what’s in place”,

and does she agree with me that by embedding equalities and human rights assessments into decision making, the Scottish Government can and will do better for women?

Aileen Campbell

Absolutely. I agree with Ruth Maguire and with the UN rapporteur’s assessment that UK Government policy is having a disproportionate impact on women across the UK. That is why, if we had these powers in Scotland, we would not have measures such as the two-child limit or the appalling rape clause that goes along with it. [Interruption.] I hear sedentary comments from the Labour benches. The Labour Party must stop weaponising the policy. We want to work together in order to make a difference to the lives of women across the country.

I underline that we are doing what we can with the powers that we have through the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 and measures such as the best start grant, which will improve the financial support that is available to low-income mothers—and not just on the birth of a first or second child; there will be no cap on the number of children. Human rights and equality will continue to be embedded in our policy approaches across the country, and not just in my portfolio. When we are able to help women across the country, we get better decisions.

Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

It is noted in Professor Alston’s report that

“in Glasgow only 3% of local welfare fund applications were decided in a day”

compared with 99 per cent of such applications elsewhere. Will the cabinet secretary promise to review why there is such a disparity?

Aileen Campbell

I think that Glasgow City Council has a different assessment of that, but the Government will happily look into the issue to determine the truth and how we can make any necessary changes or improvements.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

The UN special rapporteur slams successive UK Governments, stating that they have

“presided over the systematic dismantling of the social safety net”,

and adding that universal credit and welfare cuts have

“undermined the capacity of benefits to loosen the grip of poverty.”

Does the cabinet secretary share my concern that that dismantling, for instance by turning tax credits from an entitlement into a benefit, which is now subject to sanction, is pushing families further into in-work poverty?

Aileen Campbell

I know that the member’s committee has investigated that real and increasing problem. One of the main factors that influence levels of in-work poverty is social security, so the cuts that will reduce social security spend by £3.7 billion in 2020-21 alone will only serve to compound the already high levels of in-work poverty. In Scotland, two thirds of children who are in poverty come from homes in which an individual works and one third come from homes in which an adult works full time. That is unacceptable and it signals that families are working damn hard and never getting out of the bit. That is something that we need to turn around.

Other factors include hours and hourly pay, which are not keeping pace with the cost of living. There is no doubt that, if the powers over social security and employment were at least devolved to the Parliament, we would be able to take much more action to pull people out of poverty. With the powers that we do have, we are already making sure that people benefit from the living wage—Scotland has a disproportionately high number of people who are in receipt of the living wage. We are using the powers and the influence that we have to push the improvement forward.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

The rapporteur is clear about the link between cuts to local government funding and poverty. What does the Scottish Government think about that, given that Scottish Government funding to local authorities has fallen by 7.1 per cent since 2013-14 but the funding to the Scottish Government has fallen by only 1.8 per cent? In addition, the rapporteur raised concerns about the “lack of awareness” of the Scottish welfare fund. What does the Scottish Government intend to do about that?

Aileen Campbell

We continue to treat local government fairly with the funding settlement that is agreed. Alongside that settlement, we are spending £125 million on mitigation and £3.5 million on dignified approaches to food and security, and Shirley-Anne Somerville and her team are carrying out work on the social security agency. We continue to engage in partnership with local government to protect those who are most vulnerable.

When it comes to the Scottish welfare fund, we will do what we can. If there are ways in which we can make improvements, we will look into them. To date, 306,000 individual households have been helped through the fund and we will continue to do what we can to help even more.

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

The UN special rapporteur said that he was shocked at the Scottish Government spending £125 million on welfare mitigation. As the MSP covering Coatbridge, it is not a shock to me, as referrals to the local food bank and cool school uniforms are going through the roof, people are suffering with universal credit and North Lanarkshire Council is implementing heavy cuts to key services. Does the cabinet secretary agree that the Scottish Government has to spend much more than that to mop up the damage of UK austerity? Has the Government done an analysis of those figures?

Aileen Campbell

The member is right to point out again that we are mopping up the mess and the consequences of decisions that have been made by another Government. As he has articulated, we will be spending a lot more to mitigate the worst impacts of UK austerity, for example through the council tax reduction scheme and increased funding to support employment programmes. We are actively considering and conducting analysis that brings that together. I will continue to work with the member and will let him know when we continue to make progress on that.