Meeting date: Tuesday, June 8, 2021
Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 08 June 2021 [Draft]
Agenda: Time for Reflection, Point of Order, Topical Question Time, Covid-19, Tackling Poverty and Building a Fairer Scotland, Business Motion, Decision Time, Tariff-free Trade Deals
- Time for Reflection
- Point of Order
- Topical Question Time
- Tackling Poverty and Building a Fairer Scotland
- Business Motion
- Decision Time
- Tariff-free Trade Deals
Tackling Poverty and Building a Fairer Scotland
I remind members that social distancing measures are in place in the chamber and across the Holyrood campus. I ask members to take care to observe the measures, including when entering and exiting the chamber. Please only use the aisles and walkways to access your seats and when moving around the chamber.
The next item of business is a debate on motion S6M-00263, in the name of Shona Robison, on tackling poverty and building a fairer country. I invite all members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak button now.15:26
I am pleased to open this debate on the urgent need for us to tackle poverty and build a fairer, more equal country. We have to seize the opportunity, build on our strong efforts to date and use every lever at our disposal to bring about the change that is needed to tackle the problem. I extend an invitation to work across the chamber and Scotland as a whole to build a team Scotland approach to tackling poverty and, in particular, child poverty. I look forward to the first round of meetings that I have set up with Opposition spokespeople. I will consider any constructive suggestions that are made.
We already invest around £2 billion each year in support of people on low incomes, including more than £672 million that is targeted at children. We have a strong focus on people who are at greatest disadvantage, including people with disabilities, and we are supporting innovative action with our £50 million tackling child poverty fund. However, we must do more, which is why we have committed to a wide range of ambitious action to be delivered in the first 100 days of the parliamentary session, maintaining the tremendous pace of change throughout the Covid pandemic.
Tackling poverty is a priority across all ministerial portfolios, as no one action will bring about the change that is needed. All parts of Government and broader society must work together to impact the drivers of poverty reduction—increasing household incomes from work, reducing costs on essentials and maximising incomes from social security. Eradicating poverty and building a fairer, more equal country must be a national mission for the Government, our Parliament and society. We must try, where possible, to unite and work together to create a fairer Scotland.
Backed by £1 billion of additional funding, our response to the pandemic shows that we can make change happen at the pace and scale that is required to support people and improve their lives. We want to build on that can-do approach.
I support the cabinet secretary’s aspiration of moving as fast as we can to alleviate poverty in Scotland, but does she recognise that, as her Government has taken only 2.8 per cent of the welfare provisions that are available to it and which the Department for Work and Pensions has said that it is ready to hand over, she is not moving at the pace that the Scottish people would like?
As Alex Cole-Hamilton knows, social security is a priority for us. That is proved by the fact that we have introduced 10 Scottish benefits, seven of which are brand new and unique in the United Kingdom, including the Scottish child payment, which has been described as a “game changer”. From its announcement in late June 2019 to being started in February this year, the new payment has been achieved at great speed, which is an unmatched feat in the UK. Let us focus on the positives, instead of talking down our social security agency, which is doing a very good job.
We delivered free school meal support during all the school holidays and periods of remote learning for children from low-income families, which helped to tackle food insecurity during the pandemic. We will continue that support and expand it to all primary pupils in the first 100 days of this session of Parliament.
In our first 100 days, we will also complete the roll-out of the 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare. I have set out the next stage of our ambition to expand childcare further and develop a wraparound childcare system, which will provide care before and after school all year round. That system will make an important contribution to children’s development and will unlock the potential of parents in the labour market.
We will also deliver our £20 million summer programme for pupils, which will help children socialise, play and reconnect; £7.5 million from our tackling child poverty fund will back that essential investment to support the wellbeing of all children and young people.
Through two pandemic support payments of £100 to low-income families with children, we put money directly into the pocket of those who need it most. Building on that approach, we will in effect pay the Scottish child payment for families who are not yet eligible for it, through the introduction of a bridging payment of £520, £100 of which will be paid to families this summer. We will also reach around 500,000 households as we provide £130 to every household that received council tax reduction in April.
I am pleased to be able to make two further announcements. First, building on the practical support that we offered during the pandemic, we will provide the British Red Cross with a further £250,000 to continue its cash first crisis support to those most at risk of destitution. That includes help to those whom the UK Government’s hostile policies, which exclude them from most mainstream support, including the Scottish welfare fund, have impacted.
Secondly, in recognition of the importance of listening to families who are affected by poverty, we will trial family wellbeing budgets, which will be delivered in partnership with the Hunter Foundation, to put families firmly in control of the support that they need and to help improve people’s wellbeing and capabilities.
Where we have the powers, we are making a difference to people’s lives. Nowhere is that more evident than in our approach to housing, through which Scotland has led the way in the UK. Almost 100,000 affordable homes have been delivered since 2007—more than 68,000 of which have been for social rent—which is making a significant difference to people across the country, particularly families with children.
In the previous session of Parliament, I had a bill on fair rents ready and waiting for the Government to adopt, but the Government did not support the idea of rent controls. Renters need protection now more than ever. Can the cabinet secretary confirm that the Parliament will at long last recognise that rent controls will be required to achieve that protection?
The member will be aware that we are introducing a new rental strategy and, of course, affordability of rents is part of what we have to consider. I am happy to meet with her about that issue, as I want to work with the chamber on all these things.
We want to deliver a further 100,000 affordable homes by 2032, and our aim is that at least 70 per cent of those homes will be for social rent to help tackle child poverty and homelessness.
To tackle poverty effectively, however, we must deliver a fair work future for Scotland. We are working hard to do that now, but we are constrained in the powers that are available to us. We cannot accept a future in which two thirds of children who live in poverty come from working households and people are forced to rely on benefits to top up their earnings. We have to transform workplaces to tackle poverty and long-standing labour market inequalities, such as the disability employment gap and the barriers to employment that people from minority ethnic backgrounds face.
With full powers over employment, we could as a minimum ensure that all employees receive the real living wage and that their wages represent the true cost of living; outlaw unfair fire-and-hire tactics to prohibit employers from dismissing employees and subsequently re-employing them on diminished terms and conditions; and ban inappropriate and exploitative use of zero-hour contracts to give people certainty about their working hours and to ensure that they can plan their lives and incomes. That is why I have asked all party leaders to support our request to the UK Government for the full devolution to this Parliament of employment powers, so that we can make the changes that are needed if we are to tackle poverty.
Social security, too, is an important tool in tackling poverty. Again, the powers in that regard do not all lie in our hands. Some 85 per cent of spending remains at Westminster, alongside income replacement benefits such as universal credit and employment and support allowance.
The pandemic provided further evidence—if evidence was needed—that the UK welfare system is not fit for purpose and risks undermining hard-won progress. It is the system on which people in Scotland have to rely, and we should not have to mitigate the effect of policies with which we disagree. For example, last year we spent £80 million on discretionary housing payments, to mitigate in full the bedroom tax and support people with their housing. We could be investing that money in other measures. We need to move beyond mitigation, and if we had the powers here, we would be able to do so.
The removal of the £20 uplift to universal credit will be a callous act, which will push 60,000 families in Scotland, including 20,000 children, into poverty. It will result in families who are unable to work receiving, on average, £1,600 less per year than they would have received in 2011—a decade ago. That is a massive threat to the progress that we can make here. We could double the Scottish child payment, on one hand, only to see, on the other, the money removed by Westminster welfare policies. Surely no one in this Parliament thinks that that is in any way a good idea or a fair system. We need to make significant investment, putting money into the pockets of the people who need it most. That is why the Scottish child payment is so important; it does just that.
We have urged the UK Government to make the changes that are needed and to scrap harmful policies such as the two-child cap, the rape clause, the benefit cap and the five-week wait for universal credit. It is unfortunate that our calls, as well as those of many charities and organisations and even the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, have been ignored.
It is time for full powers to come to this Parliament, so that we can make a difference. We have shown what a difference we can make, with a public service that is based on human rights, has respect and dignity at its heart and is viewed as an investment in the people of Scotland—we enshrined those principles in law. We are using our powers to tackle poverty head on. The Scottish child payment is currently £40 every four weeks for every eligible child under six, and we are committed to doubling the payment to £80 so that it has an even greater impact. That, alongside our best start grant and best start food cards, means that we provide more than £5,300 of direct financial support to a family by the time their first child turns six—and there is further support for subsequent children, because we do not put a cap on the number of eligible children.
Those payments are making a difference to low-income families and helping them to access the essentials that they need. The support is unmatched anywhere else in the UK.
Cabinet secretary, will you bring your remarks to a conclusion, please?
Our next steps will build on the strong foundation that we have set. We will take changes forward at pace. No member of the Parliament, whatever their political beliefs, should underestimate the scale of the challenge that we face. I want to take things forward, and I will be pleased to work with any member who wants to join me in doing so.
That the Parliament agrees that tackling child poverty and building a fairer, more equal country should be a national mission for the Scottish Government, the Scottish Parliament and society; acknowledges that action is required across all the drivers of poverty reduction, including delivering fair flexible work, affordable, accessible childcare, sustainable transport options, affordable housing, and reductions in the costs of living; commits to tackling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on poverty and inequality; recognises the impact of UK Government welfare cuts and policies that exacerbate poverty, including the two-child cap, which could remove £500 million from the incomes of families in Scotland; recognises the positive action of the Scottish Child Payment and notes the Children and Young People's Commissioner Scotland’s assessment that removal of the £20 uplift to universal credit will effectively “knock out the benefits that the Scottish Child Payment brings into families”, undermining the work and mission of the Scottish Parliament to eradicate child poverty; urges the UK Government to devolve all employment and social security powers to the Scottish Parliament, in order that it may take the further steps needed to make workplaces fairer, including through payment of the real Living Wage, and to establish a Minimum Income Guarantee, so that everyone has enough income to live a dignified life, and calls on the UK Government to match the ambition of the Scottish Parliament to eradicate child poverty.
I call Miles Briggs to speak to and move amendment S6M-00263.1.15:38
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I take this opportunity to welcome you to your new role in the Parliament. I also welcome Shona Robison back into the Government, and I welcome all the Opposition spokespeople to their roles in this new session of the Parliament.
I also pay tribute to Aileen Campbell and Jeane Freeman—I am sure that the cabinet secretary just forgot to do that—for the work that they did in the previous session. I thank them for the constructive work that they undertook across the parties. We might not agree on everything, but I know that we all come to this Parliament with a determination to make a difference.
I thank all the charities and organisations that provided useful briefings ahead of today’s debate, and I thank them for what they have done during the pandemic, too. I very much look forward to working with them during this parliamentary session.
This debate is being held as we start to emerge from the global pandemic and as the impacts of the lockdown restrictions are starting to be truly realised. The negative impact that the pandemic and the lockdown restrictions have had on people’s health and on their mental wellbeing specifically is obvious, but the long-term impact that they will have on the economy and people’s life opportunities is still to be fully understood. As with any economic shock, the most vulnerable people in our society will be the most negatively impacted.
As Crisis said in its briefing for the debate, there is deep concern that the economic impact of the lockdown could push more people into homelessness. Even before the pandemic, more than 5,000 adults were sleeping rough at least once a year, and the number of children living in temporary accommodation in Scotland had reached its highest level since records began. It is therefore clear that we need to see action and a renewed collective mission to end homelessness in Scotland.
I very much welcome the steps that have been taken during the pandemic to provide emergency accommodation, but local authorities throughout Scotland, especially in our cities, face critical housing pressures and there are growing concerns that people will find themselves back out on the streets after the lockdown restrictions are lifted and the emergency funding for councils ends. We must take action on that now, which is why our amendment specifically calls on the Scottish Government
“to establish a national Housing First programme across all local authorities”.
The charities and organisations that work across the sector have put forward a comprehensive ask to help to prevent homelessness. I want to see a renewed focus brought to that by the Government’s response, including a new approach to preventative homeless policies, with rapid rehousing and the recommendations of the homelessness prevention review group fully implemented. I hope that the cabinet secretary will agree to my request, which I made when I wrote to her, for a cross-party round table as soon as possible to look towards that mission.
I am happy to agree to that.
Miles Briggs is quite right that it was remiss of me not to thank Aileen Campbell and Jeane Freeman. I put those thanks on the record.
Will Miles Briggs acknowledge that the five-week wait for universal credit pushes many households into financial difficulties and can exacerbate homelessness, as the analysis conducted by Crisis found?
That is where discussions with the Treasury and cross-party discussions are very important. Throughout the pandemic, universal credit has been a vital safety net, and we need to ensure that those talks continue.
There is welcome cross-party support for a number of policy interventions to tackle child poverty. Conservative members want to see that work speeded up and the Government delivering on that. In particular, the Scottish Conservatives support the doubling of the Scottish child payment as soon as possible. I would welcome the cabinet secretary’s confirmation, in her closing speech, of when that is likely to take place. Many people in the sector still want to find out whether there will be that doubling in this financial year.
The Scottish Conservatives also support the extension of free school meals to all primary school pupils. Douglas Ross and my party have led calls for that.
We all know from our families and constituents about the heartbreak and impact of losing a loved one during the pandemic. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I am very tight for time.
We know about the impact that bereavement has had on loved ones, families and constituents, from their not being able to arrange a proper send-off for a loved one to their working from home and often grieving alone. I would like to see the Government make progress on bereavement and look towards what can be done. That is why our amendment calls on ministers
“to improve the support available to individuals and families in Scotland who have lost loved ones”
and for longer-term change. The amendment calls on the Government
“to reform Carer’s Allowance and extend payments for up to six months”
for bereaved individuals in Scotland.
As we start the new parliamentary session, I want to see, above all, a real change in approach from ministers that will deliver better cross-portfolio working to tackle poverty and inequality. A key issue for me, which I hope we can see early action on, is the reform of access to healthcare services for people who are homeless or living with addictions. I have already had constructive meetings on that issue with the Minister for Drugs Policy, Angela Constance. Indeed, I raised the issue throughout the previous parliamentary session—in fact, I raised it with the cabinet secretary during her time as the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport. I am disappointed that we have seen very little progress in the provision of and access to healthcare services for people who face those issues. All those powers lie with us, in the Scottish Parliament.
Last week, I received an email from a constituent who is living in temporary accommodation. They said:
“Homeless people are treated as 2nd class citizens. We are not even allowed to register at normal GP surgeries. We are only allowed to attend the one Homeless Practice! It only opens twice a day and if you need medical attention then you have to queue up outside and only the first 10 people in the queue can be seen.”
That is a real health inequality in our country and an example of what has to change. I hope that it and many other issues will get the full attention of the Scottish Government and the Parliament and that we will genuinely work across the parties to achieve that.
The next five years must focus on the social and economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. For many of the most vulnerable people in our society, we need to make sure that the Government and the Parliament focus on working across the parties to respond to the challenging and changing circumstances that we will face.
I move amendment S6M-00263.1, to leave out from “recognises the impact of” to end and insert:
“notes that the Scottish Ministers have been responsible for introducing the 11 new benefit payments devolved by the UK Government through the Scotland Act 2016; further notes that the Scottish Ministers promised to set up those benefits by 2021 but have failed to deliver on this promise; recognises the concerns that the economic impact of lockdown could push more people in Scotland into homelessness, with over 5,000 adults sleeping rough at least once per year and the number of children living in temporary accommodation in Scotland reaching its highest level since records began; calls on the Scottish Government to act now to establish a national Housing First programme across all local authorities, to get people into safe and stable housing as quickly as possible, and further calls on the Ministers to improve the support available to individuals and families in Scotland who have lost loved ones and for them to reform Carer’s Allowance and extend payments for up to six months after bereavement.”15:45
It is a great privilege to open the debate for Scottish Labour. I welcome the cabinet secretary to her new role and look forward to working with her and the Government.
In Scotland today, 1 million people live in poverty. We are set to miss the child poverty targets that we set ourselves in law; half of families living in poverty have a disabled person in them; precarious work is all too common; 400,000 people still earn below the living wage; 83,000 people are on zero-hours contracts; more than 200,000 people use food banks; and the pandemic threatens to bring even further precariousness to people’s lives. However, when we need it the most, our social security system fails us. One Government is implementing welfare reforms each of which is worse than the last and the other is failing to use the powers that it has and is taking too long to deliver the change that people in Scotland need.
We cannot go on like this. We have to go hard and fast on poverty and inequality, but neither the UK Government nor the Scottish Government is doing nearly enough. While the UK Government continues to impose the two-child limit, cuts the incomes of people on legacy benefits and ends the universal credit uplift, it cannot claim to be serious about human rights or ending poverty. That is why, when I meet the shadow DWP team every week and add the voices of the people of Scotland to those of the millions of people elsewhere who need those policies to end, we discuss all the ways that are open to us in the UK Parliament to end those rules as soon as possible.
However, members should not fall into the trap of believing there is nothing we can do here, in Scotland. In my experience, when people say that we cannot act, it is because they have not seen the potential to do so—and we have so much potential in Scotland. That is why the amendment that we have lodged, which I have spent the past few days developing with colleagues across the chamber, focuses on action that we can take right here, right now, starting with social security.
The Scottish Government can and should use all the powers that it has to establish a minimum income guarantee in Scotland. That would include using all the levers available to it to increase income from work, to reduce housing and transport costs, to support people who cannot work and to make payments to protect the people who are furthest from economic equality, such as lone parents, disabled people, carers and students. If the Government does that, we will support it.
Doubling the Scottish child payment and adding a £5 supplement for families with a disabled person in them would help to protect those groups from poverty, too, and it would bring their income up to the level that they need to flourish. That is why we believe that the Scottish Government should do that immediately—not in five years’ time.
All that we are doing right now with the powers that we have over disability benefits is improving their administration. I concede that that needs to be improved, but our ambitions must be bigger than administering disability benefits a little bit better than the Tories did. Several years after getting further powers in the area, we are still using the rotten old DWP rule book and it is still the people whom the DWP says deserve the support who get it.
We did not set up the Scottish Parliament to be the DWP lite—I think that we all agree on that. We are here to transform lives, which is why, ahead of the debate, we asked all the parties across the chamber to seize the moment and do things differently. Our amendment asks the Government to move swiftly on disability assistance, to open eligibility for it so that people with fluctuating and mental health conditions can access it, and to pay it at a rate that meets the extra costs of being a disabled person. Disabled people cannot wait; we need to work with them to achieve that now.
There are an estimated 788,000 unpaid carers in Scotland, and they need us to go hard and fast in tackling the poverty that they face, too. That is why our amendment asks the Government to let carers earn more from part-time work and to end the full-time study rule.
Our social security system must be easy to use, simple to access and automated when that is possible. It should protect people who are in precarious work, such as creative and hospitality workers; it should be there for those who cannot work; and it should provide payments to people when times are tough.
However, tackling poverty is not just the social security system’s job; it is a mission that needs all of the Government to be focused on it. As the Government’s motion says, it should be “a national mission”. If the Scottish Government was serious about that—if it made a minimum income an organising principle for work across the Government, as has been suggested by the Institute for Public Policy Research, and if it took action now—it could help everyone in Scotland to get there. The Government could bring down housing costs by capping rent rises, and it could reduce transport costs by providing free bus travel for under-25s. It could ensure that work pays by enforcing the living wage and collective bargaining through procurement and business support, and it could create more good, fair and unionised jobs. If the Government did all those things, it would lift thousands of people out of poverty and up to a level where they had enough money to live on.
That is how we can ensure that the people of Scotland have a minimum income to live on right now. We do not have to wait, as the Government’s motion and the Greens’ amendment say. The cabinet secretary knows from my reply to her letter that I and Scottish Labour would welcome the transfer of employment law responsibility to the Scottish Parliament in order to provide vital protections—protections that workers won—for people’s lives and livelihoods. We believe in and would welcome working with trade unions to shape the request and develop a UK floor across employment rights so that we have a race to the top and not the bottom. We will work with the Scottish Government on that.
The cabinet secretary also knows that I feel strongly that the Scottish Government must use to full effect the powers that it already has. I was not elected to the Parliament to talk about what we cannot do. We sit in the chamber with significant powers to reduce poverty and inequality—powers over social security, procurement, housing and transport—but I hear a lot about what we cannot do yet.
If I had given up every time I was told that I could not do something, I would not have gone to a mainstream school, I would not have the care that I have now, I would not have the master’s degree that I have now, and I would not have the job that I have now. I ask everyone who is here today not to give up on the people of Scotland. If we want to change lives and do something, we can find a way to do it. Where there is a will, there is always a way. We can change lives with the powers of this place, and we should do so now.
I move amendment S6M-00263.3, to leave out from the second “the impact of” to end and insert:
“that it is the responsibility of both the Scottish and UK governments to work for the eradication of poverty in Scotland and to implement social security policies that support this goal; believes that further steps are required to make workplaces fairer, including through payment of the Scottish Living Wage; commits to using all the powers available in Scotland to reform carers benefits, move from the ‘safe and secure transition’ of disability benefits to addressing their eligibility and adequacy as soon as possible, to increase incomes and lift people in Scotland out of poverty, and calls on the Scottish Government to double the Scottish Child Payment to £20 a week at the earliest opportunity and introduce a supplement for families with a disabled person in them”.15:52
I, too, welcome the cabinet secretary to her role; I look forward to working with her in the coming months and years.
At the heart of our collective wellbeing must be social security—not as a system or an idea but as a fundamental right. The societies that guarantee their citizens’ social security are those that perform best—they have the longest life expectancy, the lowest levels of crime and the highest levels of innovation and economic performance. We know that poverty has a lifelong scarring effect—the damage of child poverty is felt for decades—and we as a society pay for it, as people die younger, lose the opportunity to fulfil their potential and suffer the consequences of life chances denied.
We tackle poverty because it is the right thing to do, but we also tackle it because the social and financial costs are too great not to. Austerity, which we have seen Westminster implement, is immoral, but it is also a gigantic false economy, as we have seen in the pandemic in the past few months. That is why we must find a way to end the benefit cap and with it the degrading two-child limit and the rape clause.
This Parliament has already shown itself willing to break away from a punitive benefits system, when we found a way to mitigate the impacts of the underoccupation penalty—the hated bedroom tax. We need to explore options to do exactly the same thing for the benefit cap, which costs some of our poorest families up to £2,200 a year.
The societies that have performed best during Covid are more equal. Not for them the fate of the thousands who were sacrificed to a delayed lockdown and bungled Government response. It is clear that we should have increased our statutory sick pay provision but, instead, Westminster wasted billions on the disastrous eat out to help out scheme, which did much to create the second wave of Covid last autumn. That was a clear case of putting the Westminster priority of punishing workers ahead of the health needs and even the economy of the nation.
The Scottish Greens welcome the pandemic relief payment scheme, which will supply essential additional income for families this year—right now. That is particularly important at a time when financial uncertainty has caused so much anxiety. We also call on the Scottish Government to introduce a permanent doubling of the Scottish child payment at the earliest possible opportunity. That measure would lift 50,000 children out of poverty.
Those are important fixes to a broken system, but we are actually here to fix the system, rather than to patch its flaws. We are here to make hope possible, and that requires us to be radical. Now is the time for a universal basic income: a basic commitment that could, at a stroke, eliminate poverty, and which would have helped so many through the Covid-19 pandemic. It would be a regular payment to all, to ensure human dignity, and a universal measure that would create the basis for social security, social solidarity and the care ethic on which we must base our society. That is why we call on the UK and Scottish Governments to work together to bring forward pilots and to take action at the earliest possible opportunity to introduce a universal basic income, which would end child poverty and go a very long way towards creating a society that has social security as a fundamental right.
I move amendment S6M-00263.4, to insert after “eradicate child poverty;”:
“welcomes the pandemic relief payment scheme, which will provide an essential additional income for families this year; calls on the Scottish Government to introduce a permanent doubling of the Scottish Child Payment at the earliest possible opportunity; notes that a Universal Basic Income would have helped many through the COVID-19 pandemic and calls on the UK and Scottish governments to work together to bring forward pilots at the earliest possible opportunity; commits to exploring funding options to end the benefit cap;”15:56
I will speak to my amendment and offer support to both the Labour and Green Party amendments.
I welcome Shona Robison to her post. Shona is an excellent politician and it is great to see her back in the Cabinet, in front-line politics. I worked very well with her when she was health secretary and I hope to do so with her again in her current brief, which is a very important one.
About three years ago, a story emerged about a little boy in Glasgow whose teacher had noticed him taking tomato sauce sachets from the canteen. He was taking the sachets home, squeezing the ketchup out of them and adding boiling water to make soup. He was doing that because there was literally nothing else for him to eat in the house. Thankfully, that was spotted and there was an intervention and a referral to a food bank, where parcels would include tins with ring-pulls on them so that the little boy could open them himself. He was starving in 21st century Scotland.
There are countless reasons why families find themselves in such situations, such as delays built into universal credit, insecure work and no recourse to public funds. We could debate any one of those catalysts for poverty for hours and I hope that, over time, we will give each of them that attention. However, that particular boy was facing such hardship as a direct result of his parents’ mental ill health. The Liberal Democrats and I have been talking about the links between mental ill health and poverty for many years. That is one of the reasons why transformational investment in mental health is so important to us.
The case that I have just described is symptomatic of one of the biggest, yet often overlooked, contributors to poverty in our country, which is Scotland’s mental health crisis. That is one of the reasons why, in February, the Liberal Democrats succeeded in asking the Scottish Parliament to declare a national mental health emergency. Everyone deserves the opportunity to work hard and to build a good life for themselves, their family and their community. Mental ill health is one of the biggest barriers to that—it disrupts people’s education, training, and entry into and progression within work. It does that to their families and those caring for them, too.
Although mental ill health does not discriminate as such, in that it is classless, it undoubtedly walks hand in hand with poverty. Suicide rates in Scotland increase with increasing deprivation. The rates in the most deprived areas are double those of the Scottish average. It is one of the most devastating health inequalities in the country and it is directly and inexorably linked to poverty.
My amendment also covers education as a route out of poverty. Over the past year, much of the discussion surrounding education has been focused on university students and exam-level school pupils—rightly so, because they have been severely let down by the Government. That matters because education provides a ladder to social mobility. Education could be a leveller and should offer opportunity, but far too often a broken society means that it serves only to widen the gap between our richest and poorest young people. At the age of five, children in families in the highest 20 per cent of earners are around 13 months ahead in their vocabulary compared with children in families in the bottom 20 per cent of earners. We know that that situation has worsened in the pandemic.
The only route to stable mental health and life-changing education is through appropriate and decent housing—it is the rock on which everything else is built. If someone’s home is making them sick, keeping them up at night or collapsing around them, none of the routes out of poverty will be available to them.
My amendment acknowledges that three of the five evils that Beveridge first identified more than 70 years ago still hold sway in our society. Want of education, want of decent housing and want of sound health—particularly mental health—are destroying lives and perpetuating poverty. Getting those issues right could be the antidote that we all seek, but only if the Government takes action and uses the powers that it already has. As such, the Scottish Government cannot blame the full extent of the poverty that exists in this country on a Government that operates from another city. It cannot do that when it has been empowered for years to address poverty but still elects not to.
I move amendment S6M-00263.2, to leave out from “urges the UK Government” to end and insert:
“notes the risk that Scotland’s 2024 interim child poverty reduction target, unanimously agreed by the Parliament, could be missed and agrees therefore that families cannot afford for any delay on the part of either the Scottish or UK governments for additional action, backed by stronger fair work principles and a social security system that operates on a human rights basis; believes that poor mental health, the poverty-related attainment gap, and insecure and substandard housing are among the factors that prevent people from achieving their potential and getting on in life, and calls for urgent interventions to therefore include an immediate end to the scandal of thousands of children and adults waiting over a year for mental health treatment as the first step towards meeting the 18-week targets for the first time ever, the extension of funded early learning and childcare, Pupil Equity Funding and in-class support for children and young people, and the building of at least 40,000 new homes for social rent during the current parliamentary session as part of a plan to end homelessness and raise the standard of housing in Scotland.”
I remind all members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons. I am not naming names at this point.
We move to the open debate. I call Natalie Don, who is making her first speech to our Parliament.16:00
I welcome you to your new role, Presiding Officer. I also welcome the cabinet secretary to her new role.
I am proud to be standing here in our Parliament to give my first speech on a matter that is extremely close to my heart. Before I go on, I give a heartfelt thanks to the people who made that possible: my family, my fantastic campaign team and all the voters. I am honoured to represent the constituency in which I have lived my whole life and that I love so much.
Renfrewshire North and West is a beautiful constituency. It is rich in history, from Erskine, on the banks of the Clyde, to the historic town of Renfrew, and it contains many beautiful villages, from Kilmacolm to Bishopton. However, it is the people of Renfrewshire North and West who make it such a wonderful place.
In relation to today’s debate, poverty stretches right across my constituency. People are impacted deeply by poverty, whether they are in Gallowhill or Bridge of Weir. I am pleased to see the huge steps that the Scottish Government is taking to eradicate poverty, with real targets and policies that benefit people’s lives. There is certainly more to do, but introducing the Scottish child payment, free school meals and best start payments, widening access to childcare, removing financial barriers to education and empowering and enabling women to take up employment are just some of the ways that we are raising the bar. I am thrilled that the Scottish National Party won an election standing on bold policies such as introducing a citizens basic income and a minimum citizens wage guarantee. Such policies will genuinely make our country fairer and make a real difference to people’s lives.
However, while we give to families through the Scottish child payment, Westminster takes money away from the same families through the removal of the £20 uplift to universal credit, which is set to plunge even more children in this country into poverty.
I believe that we all want to raise attainment, tackle drug and alcohol abuse, protect jobs, improve mental health and create a greener environment. Those progressive moves will become more achievable not if but when we eradicate poverty, and we can do that only with full powers over welfare, employment, drug policy, defence and many other matters. When someone is living meal to meal, day to day, with no money, life is a struggle. Planning every penny really takes it out of someone, and too often that impacts on other parts of life. Living in poverty is tiring. What should be simple things in life, such as weekly shops and buying clothes for the kids, become hard, laborious and, at times, impossible tasks. It is no wonder that poverty can lead to addiction, mental health problems and even suicide.
We can take our climate emergency, which is the most pressing issue on our planet right now, as an example. For someone who has just been sanctioned for being late to the job centre, or who is fighting addiction after years of neglect or mental health problems, I am sure that recycling is not always a top priority.
We must also consider the children who are living in poverty. How many members know how hard it is to keep your mind on your schoolwork when you are worrying about where your dinner is coming from that night, or what state your parents will be in when you get home from school? How fast does that make a child have to grow up?
Poverty is not a choice, and it is certainly not inevitable. It is a lifestyle that is inflicted on people. No child should grow up hungry in Scotland. We have food banks and homeless people while the United Kingdom spends billions of pounds on palaces, boats and nuclear missiles. That is 21st century Great Britain for you.
Tony Blair did not end child poverty, David Cameron and Nick Clegg normalised it and now Boris Johnson encourages it. We will never see an end to child poverty while we are tied to the UK Government.
The Scottish Government can make bold move after bold move, but we cannot mitigate everything. That is why it must be our mission in our Scottish Parliament to give the people what they voted for—an independence referendum—so that we can get those vital powers away from out-of-touch politicians in London and into the hands of the people of Scotland.
I will finish by saying this to anyone who has experienced or is experiencing poverty, anyone going to food banks, anyone from a bad background, any child who does not understand why this is happening to them and who questions why they were born into this life, and anyone who thinks that the system is against them: please do not give up. I am living proof that you can make it out the other side of the UK Government’s complete neglect of Scotland’s working class and its underclass. I will not abstain on you. Until we see an end to child poverty in an independent Scotland, I promise that I have your back and I am fighting for you.
I allowed some latitude to a member making her first speech, but I remind members who have been here for a while that they should stick to four minutes, please.16:06
I welcome the Presiding Officer and others to their new posts, and I congratulate Natalie Don on her maiden speech, which was delivered with passion. I suspect that we will disagree on a lot, but her passion was clear, so I wish her well in the next five years.
It is slightly disappointing that the minister who is responsible for social security is not even in the chamber. That might say something about the level of urgency with which the Government has treated that responsibility in recent years. With the cabinet secretary and Ben Macpherson, who is not here today, I had the privilege of being on the previous session’s Social Security Committee and of taking through the Social Security (Scotland) Bill.
Will the member take an intervention?
So soon? Yes.
Let me make it clear that Ben Macpherson and I have joint responsibility for social security. I have attended more meetings with social security officials than with anyone else. The member should be assured that it is a joint responsibility because we take it so seriously and know that it is so important.
That is duly noted. I look forward to working with the cabinet secretary and with Mr Macpherson in the coming months and years.
In the previous session of Parliament, we saw lack of urgency from the Government in delivering the social security powers that have been devolved to this Parliament. We could spend a lot of time talking about universal credit and about the powers that we do not have, but we need to spend more time talking about the powers that we do have and the delays that have taken place.
I know that we will probably be told during the summing up that the delays are all because of the pandemic and that all the powers would have been delivered had it not been for the pandemic. That is not the case. We have heard statement after statement from cabinet secretaries and ministers who have told us that the benefits would not be delivered on time and that there was always going to be a delay. That has held back what we could and should have been able to deliver.
There is a total lack of ambition within the Scottish Government. I hope that with the new cabinet secretary we can look at what will be delivered. Just before Parliament rose at the end of the previous session, a consultation was sent out about disability living allowance and personal independence payments for adults. It copied, almost comma for comma, the regulations and legislation from Westminster. We had discussions at committee and in the chamber about people who have conditions that do not easily fit in a box and who therefore miss out on PIP. The consultation was an opportunity to address that. It was also an opportunity to address whether the 20m rule is fair on people who have mobility problems. In all the hustings that I attended during the election campaign, people from all parties said that that must change, but we see that the Government has followed exactly the same rules in its consultation.
I hope that the cabinet secretary will look at what the amendments to the motion suggest and produce radical change in that regard, because otherwise I and—I hope—other MSPs will vote against the motion.
We have power: the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018 gave us power to create new benefits. If we see gaps in the system, we should use the powers that we have, rather than talk about what we cannot do.16:10
I welcome you to your position, Presiding Officer.
I also welcome the cabinet secretary making an attack on child poverty her top priority. She informs us that many of the appropriate levers are not at her disposal, but she knows that many of them are. From bad housing to poor schooling, from regressive taxation to environmental injustice and from the yawning gap in life expectancy to hardship in old age, it is the working poor who suffer most. The cabinet secretary knows that the Scottish Parliament and Government have the power to do something about that.
Will Mr Leonard give way?
If I can first make some progress, I will come back to the cabinet secretary.
As I have listened, as I have attentively, to some very powerful first speeches in the Parliament over the past two weeks, including this afternoon, it has been self-evident that rank, wealth, status, privilege and—yes—class still bedevil this society. If anyone believes that Scotland is not class-ridden, they should go and look at patterns of land ownership, they should go and look at who controls the economy, the corporations and the banks and they should go and look at who owns the media because, I tell members, ownership is power and property, capital and power are increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.
The SNP talks in its motion about the transfer of powers, but instead of limiting its horizons to the transfer of powers from one Parliament to another, why does it not use the levers that it has to bring about a bit more self-government of our land, to bring about a bit more self-government of our economy and to bring about a bit more self-government in our local government? We know that poverty does not simply stop at a shortfall in wealth; it is, as well, a basic lack of power. That powerlessness is most corrosive, is cumulative and breeds acquiescence, which leads in turn to self-reinforcing hopelessness. That poverty, that inequality and that lack of power do not diminish just those who live with them; they diminish all of us.
When we debate poverty, as we are doing this afternoon, we must therefore not simply debate its amelioration, and we must not simply limit ourselves to piecemeal reforms. Rather, we must understand that nothing less than a fundamental redistribution of wealth and power will do.
I will therefore finish with some advice from the excellent Child Poverty Action Group. Alison Garnham says in her foreword to the important report “Let’s talk about tax”:
“If we can’t talk about tax, how can we campaign successfully for an end to child poverty?”
Furthermore, David Eiser, of the Fraser of Allander institute, writes in the report that
“The Scottish Government has been somewhat conservative in its policy on property taxation and local tax reform more generally.”
He calls for a bold review of new taxes,
“for example, options for introducing Scotland-specific taxes on wealth or inheritance”.
I hope that the report is something that the Scottish Government and this new Parliament will take a serious look at, and that the Government will open the books for a transparent public debate.
Because poverty and inequality is not fixed. It is not the natural order of things, it is man-made. So it is up to us to bring about change, to extend democracy, to hold in check powers that are unaccountable at the moment and to demand economic equality as well as political democracy. My determination—my will—to pursue the causes of labour, of democracy, of justice and of socialism is stronger now than it has ever been. That is how I will dedicate my next five years in the Parliament.16:14
Welcome to your new role, Presiding Officer. I welcome the new cabinet secretary to her role, too, and I thank her—or, I assume that I will thank her—in that regard.
It is clearly impressed on MSPs that it is our collective duty to use every means at our disposal to address poverty inequalities. With renewed ambition, I believe that the Scottish Government will tackle that pervasive and contracted issue head-on. It is within the capacity of all parties, building on the work of the past five years, to reduce poverty over this parliamentary session to bring more children out of poverty. The effect of that will be to break cycles of poverty that have gone on for generations.
I welcome the report, “Poverty in Scotland 2021: towards a 2030 without poverty”. I am grateful to the Child Poverty Action Group, the Scottish poverty and inequality research unit, I-SPHERE—the Institute for Social Policy, Housing, Equalities Research—and the Poverty Alliance for their tremendous efforts in leading on and pulling together that extensive work. The report provides direction for policy makers. I will draw attention to a couple of areas: fair work and housing.
Fair work is a core aspect of tackling poverty head-on and building a prosperous and productive nation. Fundamentally, it consists of dignity in work. That means that we do not support business models that exploit loopholes and which have in place abusive power dynamics. The excessive power dynamic of business above employee needs to be tackled in Scotland. For example, the rise in zero-hours contracts, as highlighted by the “Fair Work in Scotland” report, is worrying.
Helen Martin also highlighted that in her contribution to the “Poverty in Scotland 2021” report, and she explains how the Covid pandemic has laid bare the unfairness in our economy, with low earners, young workers, and black and ethnic minority workers being impacted on to a disproportionate extent. Often, those groups are exploited in unfair work dynamics—for example, by being made to sign waivers so that they work over the maximum working hours, with no recourse to speak against that because of the fear of job loss. That leads to exploitative conditions and hours, without fair pay or fair compensation.
Obviously, fair wages must allow workers to maintain a decent quality of life. That needs to, and must, apply both to single people and to people with families to support. I back the call in the “Poverty in Scotland 2021” report that employers, trade unions and Government collaboratively establish fair work structures in the Scottish economy.
I also welcome the finding that the proportion of people who are earning below the living wage has decreased. However, wages should never have been at that level, so much more still needs to be done to address the issue.
Housing is another core aspect of reducing poverty. Another contributor to the “Poverty in Scotland 2021” report, Tony Cain, impressed on us the importance of understanding housing primarily as a human right and not as a welfare activity. A combined approach of building more good-quality affordable housing and capping foreign investment that purposely drives up costs in the rental sector or superficially inflates house prices would be welcome. Analysis suggests that poverty is lower in Scotland than it is in the rest of the UK because of lower housing costs. Housing must be protected and improved as a means of reducing poverty.
I take this opportunity to thank some of the incredible organisations in my Glasgow Anniesland constituency that are working head-on to break cycles of poverty. They include Whiteinch Transformation, Hope Connections, DRC Generations, Drumchapel food bank, 3D Drumchapel, Christians Against Poverty Whiteinch and LINKES. Those organisations have made an incredible impact and have brought hope and practical support to the Anniesland area.
I look forward to working with colleagues of all parties with the intention of accelerating poverty reduction during this parliamentary session.16:19
I, too, welcome Ms Robison to her new role. I welcome the chance to speak in this debate because poverty is a huge problem across my region and I am eager to have the chance to address it. Today, I will focus on child poverty and homelessness.
In my region, child poverty figures make for quite shocking reading, with almost a quarter of children in West Lothian now living in poverty. According to new research that has been published by the End Child Poverty coalition, the number of poverty-stricken youngsters in West Lothian has gone up from 7,499 in 2014-15 to 8,740. The research shows that, since 2015, child poverty has risen in every Scottish local authority area, which is appalling. As I said in my maiden speech last week, we need to support our young people and prioritise their future before it is too late.
Child poverty is a serious concern in the Lothian region, but it is not the only concern. Homelessness is a huge issue, and it is getting worse under the SNP. Last year in Scotland, someone was made homeless every 17 minutes, and figures show that the number of people who are assessed as homeless is the highest that it has been for six years. [Interruption.] I will not give way yet, as I am still learning the ropes.
The number of deaths of people who are homeless has also gone up by nearly a third in two years. The SNP’s focus on a second independence referendum has led it to presiding over rising poverty across Scotland.
I was recently contacted by a constituent who shared their experience of the treatment of homeless people in Edinburgh. I was deeply concerned to hear how the City of Edinburgh Council had handled their case. My constituent and their partner have been homeless for 15 months. They were initially put into a single room guest house, which had no facilities to wash clothes or cook meals. They are carers, so it is imperative that they remain clean and healthy to care for the vulnerable. They were then moved into serviced apartments, which thankfully were more suitable to their needs. However, after a year of having no contact from the City of Edinburgh Council, they were told that they were to leave that place but were given no information as to where they might go next. They were unable to contact anyone in the council housing department and, as a result of the months of uncertainty, have suffered from poor mental health and experienced suicidal thoughts.
Thankfully, my constituent and their partner were recently contacted by the council housing department, but it was to inform them that the council had made a mistake. They were not offered an apology or any reassurance that the issue will not happen again. Ultimately, they were informed that it could take up to three years of living in emergency temporary accommodation for them to receive a council house. My constituent said:
“This is truly outrageous. We don’t feel safe in temporary accommodation when situations like this loom over our heads every single day. I just don’t know if I have the willpower nor the mental health capacity to wait so long for our own home, this has been a truly torturous 15 months.” [Interruption.]
I will not give way because, as I said, I am still learning the ropes.
The Conservatives have bold and ambitious plans to tackle those issues. We would deliver the biggest social house-building programme since devolution. We have pledged to build 60,000 new affordable homes, including 40,000 in the social rented sector over the next five years. Such measures are urgently required. It is heartbreaking to hear of people suffering in those circumstances, and that constituent of mine is not the only one in such a situation. We have all received emails on that this week. People need homes and not hotels or serviced apartments, as in the case of my constituent.
We want to build a Scotland that not only supports those who are in financial crisis but helps to lift people out of the poverty cycle by tackling the root causes. We will push the SNP Government to do more to tackle the causes of poverty and ensure that everyone in Scotland is given the opportunity to succeed.
I call Marie McNair. This is Ms McNair’s first speech in the chamber.16:23
Thank you, Presiding Officer, and best wishes to you in your new role. I congratulate the cabinet secretary on her return to government, and I wish her well in her new post.
It is an immense honour to make my first speech in our Parliament. I thank the people of Clydebank and Milngavie and Bearsden North for putting their trust in me. It is truly humbling to become the MSP for the area where I was raised and still live, and it is a real motivation for me in trying to secure the best for my constituents. As this is my first speech, I take the opportunity to thank my campaign team for their considerable efforts and to thank my amazing partner, family and friends for their tremendous support. I know that they are aware of how much their backing means to me. I also put on record my respect for my predecessor, Gil Paterson, and thank him for everything that he achieved for my constituents.
It is a proud moment for me to become the first woman MSP for Clydebank and Milngavie and one who comes from a working-class background. We are going in the right direction to ensure that our Parliament starts to look like the Scotland that we are here to represent. My community rightly expects me, in going about my business here, to take a grown-up and co-operative approach to politics that will secure a better deal for those in greatest need, that recognises that many have been left behind and that puts securing a better way forward first.
To that approach, I bring real-life experience. Only last week, I was doing my last shift as a health and social care worker in the heart of my constituency—or, as my service users describe it, “living in the real world”. We must put that real-world experience at the heart of our efforts and must not be tempted to cut bits of it out because it does not support a particular political narrative.
Therefore, I say this: when I believe that the Scottish Government should be doing more to tackle poverty and injustice, I will say so; equally, if I think that our Parliament requires more powers to make real change, I will say so. To do anything else would be to let down our country and to fail to fully address the issues that are fuelling poverty and injustice.
In the real world, the biggest driver for child poverty is the inadequate levels of universal credit, the £20 uplift in which is to be removed, with the choice between a five-week wait and immediately going into debt with an advance payment; the two-child poverty policy and the need for the rape clause; and the benefit cap that denies families with children the basics, forcing them to use food banks and into poverty. I saw that in my work as a councillor and a volunteer at my local food bank. When you deliver food parcels, you see the real world that the war on welfare has helped to create; you see the poverty, the empty kitchen cupboards, the despair and misery in people’s eyes and children being held back by unavoidable poverty.
It is a crime that people are in that situation and we must have an honest ambition to bring it to an end, so let us get real about that. We cannot fully design a modern, compassionate system of social security when it is heavily shaped by a firefighting approach to UK Tory welfare cuts. We need the powers to end that approach and to design, instead, a system that is there for people when they need it, and which gives the respect and dignity that are essential if we are to tackle injustice and stigma.
Equally, the proposal to devolve employment policy to Scotland is significant, and it is backed by the Scottish Trades Union Congress in “The People’s Recovery: a Different Track for Scotland’s Economy”. Would it not be great if we in Scotland had the powers to end exploitative zero-hours contracts and fire-and-hire practices? As a Parliament, we cannot recognise that there are 83,000 people on zero-hours contracts one week, but not want the powers to do something about it the next. These are not the visions of the past; they are essential if we are to make such draconian policies a thing of the past.
As a new SNP MSP, I call on everyone here to put tribal politics aside and focus on the scale of what is needed now to end injustice and the misery that it is inflicting.16:27
I congratulate Marie McNair on an excellent speech; I congratulate Natalie Don, too.
I formally welcome Shona Robison to her post. I know that she is committed to tackling poverty, which I think is a crucial job.
Presiding Officer, I have already welcomed you to your new role; every time I am about to welcome Annabelle Ewing to her new role, there is a shift change. I will get to do that eventually, but perhaps you could pass on my good wishes to her.
Scottish Labour made a significant contribution to the creation of a framework for social security that—unlike the DWP—treats people with dignity and respects their rights. In the past, I have paid tribute to Jeane Freeman, who was the minister who presided over that work. However, it is important to recognise the work of, for example, Mark Griffin, who pushed for the annual uprating of benefits and a ban on the use of the private sector for assessments in the social security system. On the wider application of benefits, I lodged amendments to Scottish Government legislation to ensure that there is an automatic check of what other benefits people are entitled to and a much simpler appeal system. While she was a member of the previous Social Security Committee, our Presiding Officer, Alison Johnstone, made an extremely significant contribution to the rights of people who apply for social security benefits. I wanted to record—and I hope that this is accepted—that that is what we can achieve as a Parliament when we work together.
I whole-heartedly support the amendment in the name of Pam Duncan-Glancy, which sets out how we can make an even bigger difference to the social security framework through small changes that can make a real difference to carers. We must make those changes so that we can show that we will be ambitious over the next five years. Pam Duncan-Glancy talked about the need for a minimum income guarantee, which has a great deal of support.
I recently asked the First Minister whether the Government would do an analysis of the groups that have been most affected by the financial losses and hardship caused by the pandemic.
I did that because it is vital not to make any assumptions about who is living in poverty if we are to adopt the right support measures. Many people have been plunged into poverty by the Covid pandemic because they have lost their jobs or have had to manage on significantly reduced hours. Those people were often only just coping before the pandemic, and now they are really struggling. I am pleased to say that the First Minister agreed that it was important to do that analysis.
The final report of the Social Security Committee in the previous session of Parliament, which was published on 17 March, refers to serious gaps in support for people who are impacted by Covid. For example, it points out that the discretionary housing payment scheme is restricted to tenants. We called on the UK Government to help those who cannot meet their mortgage payments if they lose their income because of the pandemic, because there was previously such provision. We made it clear that we believed that that was the UK Government’s responsibility. We must recognise that people who have mortgages will need some help, too.
The Trussell Trust has highlighted
“an immediate and sustained surge in need across its food banks”,
while Aberlour and One Parent Families Scotland have seen increased demand for their hardship funds. The increase in food bank use has demonstrated how big the crisis is going to be.
Time goes very quickly when we have only four minutes for speeches. I will cut to the summary of what I wanted to say. I asked the cabinet secretary whether there would be a focus in the current session of Parliament on protecting renters, because, now more than ever, they need protection. More poverty is found in families who live in the private rented sector than in those who live in any other sector. It is time to be bold on behalf of renters, and I look forward to reading the Government’s bill when it is published.
Natalie Don, in an excellent speech, talked about UK politicians who have failed, but I hope that members recognise that Gordon Brown brought in the most far-reaching measures when he was Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer. Child tax credits and working families tax credits lifted tens of thousands of children out of poverty. It is important to recognise the good work that was done. However, those child tax credits are under threat as people are forced to migrate. Let those of us who believe that they make a difference to poverty stick together on this.
We move to the closing speeches. I call Alex Cole-Hamilton to wind up for the Liberal Democrats.16:32
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer—sorry, I mean Presiding Officer. You do change around a bit.
I pay tribute to my colleagues across the chamber. They have spoken with real passion and eloquence, and very movingly so. I pay special tribute to those who have made their first speeches today. Marie McNair and Natalie Don made significant contributions to the debate and I welcome them both to their places.
Scotland has a poverty problem that is growing in menace. The Scottish Association for Mental Health recently published a report that states that 29 per cent of people in Scotland are unable to afford three or more of the 22 basic necessities that have been identified as essential and which no one should go without. Being forced to decide between heating and eating is not a choice; it is a blatant violation of human rights.
The SNP fought the election on the basis that it would not seek to hold another referendum until Covid has passed, but even if this Government meets its target of reducing child poverty to below 18 per cent, which is by no means a given, that will still leave us with up to 40,000 children living in poverty. The Government needs to address that issue before we turn to matters of the constitution.
Although it was not entirely a surprise, my colleagues and I were disappointed that the minister felt the need to hijack the debate and turn it into yet another excuse to squabble with Westminster before the motion had even been lodged. The Government will boast proudly of its achievements in reducing poverty in Scotland, but that is not enough. It is simply not doing everything that it could do, and that is why I intervened on the cabinet secretary.
Far from doing down our social security system, I want to empower it. I want to give it the reach that was imagined for it by the signatories of the Smith commission in 2014—all of them. They recognised that the Scottish social security system under full sail would have command over £4 billion-worth of spending. Imagine what we could do to level the playing field and address poverty and social inequality in this country with that kind of reach. Instead, we have taken the levers of just 3 per cent of that opportunity.
The Government will also boast proudly of a range of achievements, but when food bank usage in this country is at a record high, it cannot lay everything at the feet or the door of Westminster. When a household is made homeless every 19 minutes and those in the most deprived parts of the country are more than twice as likely to fail than to get a higher at level A, every second spent bickering about Westminster in order to push forward the constitutional debate is a second not spent assisting those in Scotland who need the Government the most. The Liberal Democrats will always hold Westminster to account, but only when it is relevant to the progress of our society, and we will never try to push forward that constitutional agenda.
I welcome Miles Briggs back to his place, and I look forward to working with him on a cross-party basis. I thought that Pam Duncan-Glancy, with typical passion, brought to the debate a compelling argument about how our two Governments will committee together have to carry some of the responsibility for this issue, and they will have to work together on some aspects. I thought that that was very eloquently put. Maggie Chapman rightly pointed out the instantaneous impact that doubling the child payment and introducing a universal basic income would have on the poverty problem in our country—it would be transformational overnight. It is within our grasp in lots of ways and we just need to reach for it. As I said, Natalie Don’s speech was passionate and I think that that passion will mark many contributions to come. It was also great to hear from Richard Leonard. To listen to him speak about poverty is inspiring; he sets a challenge and a high bar, for which we should all reach.
The Liberal Democrat amendment calls for
“urgent interventions to ... include an immediate end to the scandal of thousands of children and adults waiting over a year for”
“mental health treatment”.
That wait is keeping so many people from fulfilling their potential—and not just those people, but those who care for them and live around them.
Could the member close, please.
I will do.
Prevention is always better than cure, and if we are to eradicate poverty in Scotland, which I believe we can, we need to work together and put aside constitutional differences.16:36
Poverty is a political choice—there is nothing inevitable about it—and it is a scourge on our society. It is our duty, therefore, to do whatever we can to eliminate it, and to change the systems that cause it. That is why the Scottish Greens want the devolution of full powers over employment and social security. For that reason, I am sorry to say that we cannot support the other Opposition amendments.
However, I thank Pam Duncan-Glancy for her approach when drafting the Labour amendment. She sought cross-party consensus and was willing to give up some ground to get that consensus. There is little disagreement here about the substance of her amendment, but unfortunately we cannot support it, not because of what is there but because of what is not there. It removes the vital call for the full devolution of all employment and social security powers. We need those powers to be able to create genuine social security as a fundamental right, rather than just tinker around the edges of a system that we know to be broken. I hope that in the future we can continue to work together on a collaborative basis, and perhaps even get in place a better process that avoids the frantic scrabble that we had yesterday afternoon.
I would also like to thank all the organisations that work to alleviate poverty across Scotland for their work, and for the information that they have provided to us in advance of the debate. I look forward to constructive discussion with them all over the coming months.
I return to the topic of the debate. In many ways, a couple of hours on a Tuesday afternoon does not do justice to the profound impacts that poverty has on too many people’s lives. We have, rightly, focused on social security this afternoon, but we need to look at the wider range of public services and human rights that contribute to our collective wellbeing. As is so often the case with structural inequalities and systemic crises, we need to take a holistic approach to understand how best to create a different system that does not have inequalities built into it.
Although we have seen progress in some areas—the fair work agenda, investment in childcare, free bus travel for young people, energy efficiency, the Scottish child payment, some limited improvements to tenants’ rights—we need bolder action, because one in five people and one in four children in Scotland still live in poverty. Many of the families affected are working families, and those statistics are a damning indictment of a system that has seen the wealth of the 10 richest people in Scotland balloon by more than £2.7 billion in just the last year.
We can—we must—do so much better. I and my Scottish Green colleagues look forward to working with all members of the Scottish Government, and members of other Opposition parties, on housing, community engagement and empowerment, education, the economy, mental health support and so much more, to tackle poverty. Only when we take a holistic, mission-based approach to something that affects all of our lives will we see the transformation that we need to see.16:40
I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests.
It is not unreasonable to say that tackling poverty and striving to make Scotland fairer has always been a mission for the Parliament. We might not have previously declared it a national mission, but it is fairly clear to anyone who has been watching proceedings since the establishment of the Parliament that we agree on that.
It appears that there is enough agreement on policy solutions that there has been real and genuine debate about how those solutions might be implemented. The cabinet secretary, my Labour colleagues and others have spoken about the need to retain the £20 uplift. They also spoke about the ambition to double the child payment to £20 per week, although Pam Duncan-Glancy underlined the importance of doing so immediately.
Miles Briggs talked about supporting those, particularly carers, who are recently bereaved. We fully support a change to the carers allowance entitlement to give people the space to grieve and think about how to go forward with their lives after the sad loss of someone they cared for. As did almost every other party speaker who took part in the hustings during the election, I agree with Jeremy Balfour that we should look at the 20-metre rule. We should also look at how we deal with the regulations that will come before the successor to the Social Security Committee and at how we adapt the system to fit the needs of the people of Scotland—we must not just lift and shift the system that is already in place and that discriminates against so many.
What Richard Leonard said should ring true in any debate, but particularly in this one. How can we talk about poverty reduction and eradication without talking about taxation and redistribution of wealth? We cannot talk about such matters in a vacuum.
Pauline McNeill outlined some of the positive changes that we agreed during the progress of the bill that became the Social Security (Scotland) Act 2018; however, the changes have not been implemented because the Parliament still does not have full control over those powers, many of which still lie with the DWP.
Much of the build-up to the debate focused on the powers that we do not have, as opposed to the people who face daily battles to pay the rent, put food on the table and get through the pandemic. It is no secret that the Labour Party supports the devolution of employment law. I believe that employment law will be devolved to this Parliament, but such powers will not, of themselves, help anyone overnight. However, a minimum income guarantee, a doubled child payment and a mandatory real living wage in our procurement contracts would help.
As a member of the Social Security Committee for the whole of the previous parliamentary session, and like Jeremy Balfour and others, I am disappointed that so long after we reached consensus across the chamber on how to set up the new system, social security benefits are still not fully administered here in Scotland, such that we could adapt them to the needs of the people who live here.
In the previous session, the Social Security Committee also secured landmark, stretching child poverty targets with which many of us here today agreed. However, we also agreed that we might struggle to hit them. We have powers that we could use to hit those targets—we have powers that would give us a role in employment, which the Government could use to immediately reset its relationship with workers and employers.
I have proposed that we put workers and trade union members who have experience of workplace disease and injury in the driving seat to design a policy process for the replacement of the industrial injuries benefit, which is a key benefit for those who are disabled at work. I hope that the cabinet secretary agrees that that is an example of how we could use the powers that we have now to make the system fairer, particularly for people who are living with long Covid. We should look at the gender gap and note that payments of that benefit are made overwhelmingly to men and those who work in male-dominated industries.
The interventions made by the UK and Scottish Governments, which have been implemented by a formidable army of key workers in local government, have been nothing short of astonishing. There have been problems, but the measures have been powerful nonetheless. Furlough, business rates holidays, year-round free school meals, and the £20 uplift in payments for carers and low-income families were all designed to protect livelihoods while lockdown sought to save lives. Measures were implemented quickly using the powers that we have, because there was the political will to do so. They might have been delivered under emergency powers, but there is nothing stopping us using emergency powers again to tackle the emergency that is poverty.
Last spring, we banned evictions and took people off the streets and into warmth and safety. Will we risk another homelessness epidemic when the pandemic is over or as we ease our way out of restrictions? The manifesto of every party represented in the chamber said that every family in Scotland should have access to a warm, safe home. As the Shelter briefing says, the pandemic did not cause the housing emergency but it has exposed it as never before. I ask the cabinet secretary and her ministers to consider extending the ban on evictions. We have called for an extension to the furlough and the £20 uplift; we should also call for and agree an extension to the evictions ban.
The debate should be about what we can do to support families and people who need help now; it should not be about further constitutional arguments. I ask members to support our amendment and reject those that kick things into the long grass. Let us get to work now to change Scotland.16:47
Presiding Officer, I congratulate you on your appointment to your new role. I take the opportunity to welcome the new members who gave their maiden speeches today, Natalie Don and Marie McNair. I look forward to working with all members in the chamber over the next five years. I also congratulate the cabinet secretary on her appointment.
It has been a privilege for me to serve the region of Mid Scotland and Fife. This is my first opportunity to speak in the chamber since being returned as an MSP—I am delighted to be given the chance to serve for a second parliamentary session. It has been a privilege to represent areas such as Clackmannanshire, Stirling, Perthshire, Kinross-shire and Fife, and I very much look forward to representing them again over the next five years.
I am particularly pleased to participate and sum up in the debate on tackling poverty and building a fairer country, in my new role as my party’s shadow minister for equalities and older people. I have always been passionate about promoting equalities, including during my eighteen years as a councillor, as well as in the previous parliamentary session, when I had the opportunity to sit on the Equalities and Human Rights Committee. During that time, I worked with local charities, the third sector and other organisations, and, in the past, I worked for Ark Housing, which looks after individuals with learning difficulties in their community. I look forward to engaging with the public, private and third sectors to ensure that we tackle the issues that they bring to our attention.
I am slightly disappointed by the tone of the SNP motion, which focuses on attacking the UK Government rather than addressing the issues that the motion covers. However, given the record of the Scottish Government, it is no surprise that the SNP aims to deflect from its failings during its tenure in office. The motion demands the devolution of
“all employment and social security powers to the Scottish Parliament”,
yet the SNP has failed to deliver any of the benefits that were devolved by the Scotland Act 2016. The SNP promised that a new Scottish welfare system would be fully in place by the 2021 election. [Interruption.] I cannot take an intervention—I have lots to cover and time is limited.
Even before the pandemic, in 2019, the social security minister declared that responsibility for the severe disablement allowance would be handed back to the Department for Work and Pensions so that there was no “unnecessary disruption”. Now, the Scottish Government has said that it wants to take full responsibility, but not until at least 2025. How can it be possible that we should take nearly a decade to secure such a system? Let us not forget that this is the same party that assured voters that Scotland could become fully independent from the UK in the space of 18 months—yet it has the gall to demand that further social security powers be devolved now. The SNP needs to sort out the mess that it has created so far before it takes on the responsibilities of new devolved powers.
Despite the First Minister’s protestations that education was her number 1 priority, the attainment gap has remained stubbornly wide. Between 2017-18 and 2018-19, the gap between the percentages of the most deprived and the least deprived P1 to P3 pupils who achieved the expected numeracy standards did not reduce at all. Between 2016-17 and 2018-19, the attainment gap for the proportion of S3 pupils who achieved the literacy standard grew from only 13.6 per cent to 13.8 per cent. Audit Scotland has challenged the SNP’s tackling of the issues, and has said that the Scottish attainment challenge funding does not go far enough and is limited in its scope. However, education has been fully devolved since the recommencement of the Parliament.
The Scottish Conservatives have a positive plan to tackle poverty, and it is welcome to see that other parties have already adopted some of our initiatives. We were, for example, the first party to announce proposals to offer free school meals to all primary school pupils. We want to go further and give five extra hours of wraparound childcare for schoolchildren in P1 to P3, which would help remove the barrier that prevents too many parents, particularly mothers, from returning to the workplace.
We have also pledged to deliver the biggest social housing programme since devolution, with 60,000 new affordable homes which, together with an accelerated housing first scheme, would ensure that the scandal of rough sleeping is removed by 2026.
Will the member give way on that specific point?
No, I only have a minute or two to go.
We would enshrine in law that the Scottish Government should deliver a ring-fenced percentage of its annual budget to local councils, which need the money. That process would restore budgets to the levels at which they were in 2007, before the SNP decided that it would cut budgets.
Our job over the next five years is to shine a light on the current Government’s failings and to ensure that there is a positive vision for the future.
I will highlight the contributions of my colleagues who spoke in the debate. Miles Briggs talked about recognising the long-term impact of homelessness and about the need for a national housing first programme. Jeremy Balfour spoke with passion, as he always does, about social security and the Government’s lack of ambition. Our new member, Sue Webber, spoke about child poverty and homelessness, and gave harrowing examples of what is happening on the ground in the communities that she represents.
In conclusion, the Scottish Conservatives are determined to seek action on tackling poverty and building a fairer country. The SNP might talk a good game on those issues, but when we scratch beneath the surface, we see that it is failing to secure information and support for so many. During its time in government, poverty levels have remained far too high; the attainment gap between the richest and poorest pupils has remained stubbornly wide and homelessness has increased. There are many other examples, because the SNP continues to prioritise its obsession with independence over anything else.
If the SNP is truly serious about tackling poverty and building a fairer country, it needs to end the division, stop blaming Westminster, use the vast array of powers for welfare that it already has and start to promote and secure funding for local councils. Until that happens, the Government will continue to fail more Scots.16:54
The problem—or one of the many problems—with the speech that Alexander Stewart just made is that it rather ignored the outcome of the election. All of what Mr Stewart said in his contribution to the debate was peddled daily by the Conservative Party in the run-up to the election, but the Conservative Party made not a scrap of progress in the election and the SNP Government was returned with more seats than it had when we went into the election. That, I am afraid, is the blunt, hard reality that the Conservative Party must face and from which it must move on. It just got beaten in the election, and the debate has moved on.
On that note, I welcome Miles Briggs’s speech, because Mr Briggs talked about some of the important areas in which we can work together across the political spectrum. I am all for that. I am all for working together on free school meals and on the Scottish child payment, which are important reforms. However, ultimately, such reforms have to be paid for; so, when budget day comes, I will remind Miles Briggs and the Conservative Party of what has been said. I will test them on whether they have engaged substantively in a real discussion about putting in place the money to afford such reforms or whether they have simply treated us to an afternoon of posturing today. That will be the test.
In that spirit, will the cabinet secretary acknowledge that both of Scotland’s Governments have acted and that the UK Government has provided the Scottish Government with record amounts of money throughout the pandemic, which shows how the Governments can work together and make the changes that we all want to see?
Anyone who has listened to any media interview or exchange in the Parliament in which I have been involved will have heard me say all of that. My point is that, when it comes to agreeing the budget that this Parliament has to put in place to fund our public services, and when it comes to voting for the provisions to be put in place, the Conservatives are posted missing. Miles Briggs is shaking his head, but I am factually correct here. When I was the finance minister, I managed to nudge the Conservatives into voting for our budgets, but they have not done that in recent years because of the posturing that goes on.
Pauline McNeill can perhaps bring some beneficial good will to the process, because she rightly talked about what can be achieved when we work together across the political spectrum with a common purpose. She paid tribute to the work of Mr Griffin, Jeane Freeman and Aileen Campbell, and she talked about engagement with the cabinet secretary. I make it crystal clear on the Government’s behalf that, despite my rather blunt remarks to the Conservative Party this afternoon, we are committed to working across the political spectrum to make advances on the issues that we are talking about.
One such issue is the minimum income guarantee, on which we want to establish cross-party dialogue, with expert representation to assist us in the process. The cabinet secretary has secured the participation of Bill Scott, the chair of Scotland’s Poverty and Inequality Commission, who has confirmed that the commission will be happy to be a member of the discussion forum, to ensure that its insights are incorporated into that important and ambitious work. All parties will, of course, be invited to be part of that process.
Will third sector and civil society organisations be invited to join that group?
That will be the case. I said that the group will have expert representation, and many of the organisations to which Pam Duncan-Glancy is referring are experts in the field. It is vital that we hear their voices and truly learn from all their input. In that atmosphere of cross-party co-operation, the Government will be an active and willing player.
Nevertheless, some hard truths lie at the heart of the debate about poverty, which the Parliament cannot escape if we are genuinely to address a subject of such seriousness. The Parliament was assisted in its consideration of the issue by the excellent first speeches of my colleagues Natalie Don and Marie McNair. Natalie Don’s speech was spirited, graceful and forceful in equal measure, and she brought out the hard truth that what we give out in the child payment Westminster takes away in cuts to universal credit. That is a hard and inescapable truth. The Parliament’s widely supported measures to tackle child poverty are being undermined by the steps that the Westminster Government is taking. Natalie Don made a powerful point that the Parliament cannot escape.
I hope that this institution does not feel far away from the real world, but I know from Marie McNair’s contribution that she will bring us back to the real world at all times. She made the point that on-going firefighting on these questions is not acceptable. That is why the constitutional debate is relevant and why we must not find ourselves in a position in which we take measures to tackle child poverty but the situation only gets worse because of the actions of the Westminster Government, as Natalie Don said. That is a dichotomy that Scotland has to address, which is why the constitutional issue is relevant to the debate.
The Government welcomes many aspects of the Labour Party’s amendment, which was lodged by Pam Duncan-Glancy. However, like Maggie Chapman’s amendment, the Labour Party amendment’s removal of issues would give us difficulty. There is a welcome development in the Labour Party’s position, which was in its manifesto, in that it now recognises the importance of the devolution of employment responsibilities to the Scottish Parliament. Obviously, that is a reform that we, in the Government, have long supported—I argued unsuccessfully for it in the Smith commission—because it is important that the Parliament is able to tackle the issue of fair work, the question of in-work poverty and the effects of working practices that contribute to in-work poverty for individuals. The devolution of that responsibility is vital to enabling the Parliament to fully exercise its responsibilities and to make a positive impact on the lives of individuals in our society. For those reasons, we cannot support Labour’s amendment, but we welcome many of its terms and, as the cabinet secretary has made clear, we look forward to engaging in dialogue with all parties, including the Labour Party, on these questions.
Maggie Chapman made a point about the importance of the agenda for tackling poverty being a bold one, and she called for early steps on the doubling of the child payment. I assure members that the Government is looking to undertake that development as early as we possibly can during this parliamentary session. I thought that Mr Griffin’s charge of issues being kicked into the long grass was uncharacteristically uncharitable of him, because we are seized of the need to tackle those issues.
One of the things that characterised the public sector’s response to Covid in 2020 was the speed at which public bodies moved to address the human need and the suffering of individuals. It should not take a pandemic to activate all of us to take the necessary steps to solve rough sleeping on our streets in literally a matter of days—let us not forget that that happened in March 2020. The challenge is to identify the ways in which we can emulate that and ensure that swift action is taken to protect the lives and wellbeing of individuals and to tackle poverty in our society.