Patrick Harvie on poverty
The fourth in our series of Q&As with the party leaders on poverty is with Greens co-convener Patrick Harvie
Patrick Harvie - Holyrood
As a politician, how does it make you feel passing a person begging on the street?
Patrick Harvie, co-convener of the Scottish Greens: Empathy for the person themselves, but I also feel ashamed of our society for allowing the chronically unequal distribution of resources, of opportunities and of hope.
What’s more important - tackling poverty, tackling inequality or mitigating the impact of poverty?
Poverty and inequality both matter, and ‘mitigating’ them will never be enough. Thinking that only poverty matters, and that a safety net at the bottom justifies a vast gap between the richest and the rest, breaks the feeling of connection and solidarity between people and can never lead to a cohesive society. We need to deal with the structural causes of poverty and inequality, in particular, the massively unfair distribution of wealth in our society.
The most pressing aim is to tackle poverty, particularly child poverty. If we allow 20 per cent of our children to grow-up in poverty, then that creates huge problems down the line: they will be more likely to remain in poverty as they grow up, and their own children will be at risk of poverty. It's a cycle we need to stop.
More economically equal societies are more successful across the board – healthier, better educated, happier, and with lower levels of crime. To achieve this more equal society, we need to accept that greater contributions by the wealthy are needed and that wealth and incomes have been hoarded by too few, for too long.
Can the Child Poverty Bill’s aims happen without taxing people more?
Yes. If we are serious about reducing poverty, then there needs to be a clear set of aims and a way of measuring progress, and this is what targets do. But they must be followed by meaningful actions, instead of a flawed assumption about progress coming from ‘growth’.
Are targets really a useful way to tackle poverty?
Yes. If we are serious about reducing poverty, then there needs to be a clear set of aims and a way of measuring progress, and this is what targets do. But they must be followed by meaningful actions, instead of flawed assumption about progress coming from ‘growth’.
Do the proposed targets for levels of child poverty represent an acceptable number of children in poverty?
There is no such thing as an acceptable number of children in poverty. The 2030 targets are ambitious but achievable. However, they should be seen as interim aims only: the ultimate goal should be that no child in Scotland experiences poverty.
What is the best method for defining child poverty?
Different measures tell you different things about child poverty, and no single measure tells us everything. We need to know how many children are below the level of income defined as the minimum; how long they’ve been there and whether they have access to life’s essentials as a result. Together, the four proposed measures tell us these.
The Child Poverty Action Group have proposed additional measures the Scottish Government should consider, for example, measuring the ‘poverty gap’: the distance between the poverty line and the typical income of a family experiencing poverty. This would allow us to measure how far we are moving children out of poverty, and whether we’re doing more than just moving people from slightly below the poverty line to slightly above it.
How should Scotland’s new powers over social security be used?
The power to top-up reserved benefits has been somewhat overlooked by the Scottish Government, but it is a potentially very significant power that can be used to reduce poverty and reverse the UK Government's welfare cuts. Greens have been calling for the Scottish Government to increase Child Benefit by £5 a week, which would reduce child poverty by 14 per cent, lifting up to 30,000 children out of poverty. Over 11,000 families will be hit by the new benefit cap in the next five years, and sick and disabled people will lose £30 a week from next April. If we are willing to use these powers, we don't need to accept the cuts.
Benefits paid to people to help with the costs of disability account for about half the value of all the benefits being devolved. There has been a deliberate attempt to cut these benefits, regardless of individual need. This has resulted in thousands of disabled people losing the support they need to live their lives. In some cases, they have had to give up their jobs because they used the support to access the Motability scheme, and now can no longer get to work. With power over these benefits being devolved soon, we can move back towards a more supportive and compassionate system.
In accepting power over these and other benefits, we will be establishing a new Scottish social security system. This should be a rights-based system in which people know where they stand, and have a means of redress if they feel their rights are not being respected. One of the most pernicious aspects of the current DWP-led system is the total lack of administrative justice and the way people are disempowered: they face benefit cuts being made behind closed doors and for the most spurious of reasons, and appeals processes that drag on for months with no clear end-date. Now we have the opportunity to design a different system from the ground-up.
How can childcare expansion avoid pushing more women into low-paid jobs and having a negative impact on attachment and attainment?
Childcare expansion is sometimes expected to be all things to all people. Some see it as an anti-poverty scheme for women as childcare staff; others as a welfare-to-work strategy for low-paid women; and others as an early intervention to close the attainment gap. It may have the potential to fulfil all of these agendas, but only if we address some of the problems in existing provision. Childcare needs to be a flexible, affordable service for those using it; a well-paid and good quality career for those working in it; and a fun, educational and social environment for children.
Investing in education and childcare will benefit society as a whole and these benefits are generated over time - better educated and cared for children grow into more productive and happier adults. Good quality, flexible, affordable childcare - which offers its staff excellent pay, terms of work and professional development – is a social investment with multiple positive impacts. But childcare can only do all these things if we shift our thinking and our practice, and if the Scottish Government is willing to make the serious investment that’s needed.
Despite best efforts, insecure and poorly paid jobs are commonplace. Is it time to get tougher with employers?
In recent months, the unethical business practices of some of our major high-street retailers has been revealed. These are businesses which use exploitative zero-hours contracts, pay poverty wages and use harsh disciplinary procedures for their employees. It is unacceptable that some employers have been able to act with little regard for their employees' health and security while lining their own pockets.
Everyone should be paid a fair wage which lifts them out of poverty and we should not settle for the chronic job insecurity generated by zero-hours contracts. Scottish taxpayers are currently funding business support for employers regardless of whether they meet fair work standards. Changing the criteria for business support so that it is available only to those employers who pay the real living wage, avoid using zero-hours contracts and don’t use tax avoidance would take us toward fairer employment practices.
Given most people can’t afford a house at 80 per cent of market price, isn’t it time to redefine ‘affordable housing’?
We have to seriously reconsider what we mean by ‘affordability’ in housing. Whether people are renting or paying a mortgage, there is a common story of householders across the country struggling to manage their budgets to afford somewhere to live. To address this, we believe that Scotland needs to build an additional 12,000 new social rented homes per year to meet current demand.
For example, by repealing provisions of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1959, local authorities would be able to build quality homes at existing land-use value. Of course, building houses is not the only solution. We have to rethink the whole planning and building system by introducing a radical programme of reform that will transform and create more manageable and sustainable communities.
Is Christmas becoming too expensive?
Life at any time of the year is too expensive for many people, and the relentless media promotion of consumerism is one part of that problem which gets worse at Christmas.
What many people find is that resisting that mindset can really make life better, and can let them focus more on human relationships, on living well, and on creativity. But we need a culture which values that approach, instead of bombarding people with messages about everything they’re supposed to buy.
Black Friday. What’s all that about?
Greedy corporations, encouraging people to behave as though greed is normal.
What film do you always watch at Christmas and why?
Other than the Dr Who special, I don’t have any regular favourites. This year I’ll be catching up with series 2 of The Man in the High Castle.
What’s your new year’s resolution?
I haven’t decided yet. Last year I resolved to get back into computer games, which I’d lost touch with for a good few years. I’ve enjoyed that a great deal, and it’s far better than watching most TV.
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The final chapter of our poverty-related Q&A with the party leaders is with Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson