Scotland's political leaders on poverty
As the Scottish Parliament reconvenes after the holiday break, we asked Scotland's political leaders to reflect on levels of poverty in the country and their role in its eradication
Can poverty be eliminated in Scotland?
Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats: It can and it must. No one wants to see a situation where Scots are forced onto the streets because they cannot afford housing. No one wants parents to have to choose between heating their homes or feeding their children. Lifting people out of poverty should be at the top of any responsible government’s list of priorities.
Ruth Davidson, leader of the Scottish Conservatives: Yes, and it’s been declining over the past two decades – but quick and easy solutions are, sadly, few and far between. We have to commit to tackling not only the financial consequences of poverty, but address the tougher issues that often lie behind it: a lack of opportunity, educational inequality, debt, addiction and social isolation.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon: It is absolutely unacceptable that anyone should live in poverty in a country as prosperous as Scotland and I am going to do everything I can to close the gap that exists between the rich and poorest parts of our community. Tackling inequalities is at the heart of my Programme for Government, and on a practical level, that means taking action on things such as scrapping prescription charges, encouraging employers to pay the living wage and investing £296 million in mitigation measures to protect those impacted hardest by the UK Government’s austerity agenda and welfare cuts. All of these are aimed at helping the poorest people in society.
In the face of an extremely challenging financial climate, we are offering free school meals to P1 to P3 pupils, have invested £100 million to help close the attainment gap and expanded free early learning and childcare. I have also appointed the first independent poverty adviser to look at what more we can do to tackle this problem head on.
Poverty and inequality is a problem that has been deep seated for generations, and tackling it will be no easy challenge. But I will do everything possible to take on that challenge and improve the lives of people in Scotland.
Maggie Chapman, Scottish Greens co-convener: Yes. We were well on the way in the post-war period, but as we gradually forgot the value of social solidarity and the importance of workers’ rights we have fallen back. We need to get back to building a better society, not making the rich even richer.
Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour leader: Of course it can. It takes political will and a radical long-term approach to public policy.
It has been claimed tax credits have subsidised a low-wage economy, what would a better system be?
WR: Tax credits were introduced because some people in work were not making enough to make ends meet. Ultimately we want to see a high wage Scotland where tax credits are not necessary. It is also important that tax cuts are targeted at those who need the extra help most – those on low and middle incomes. In government, Liberal Democrats helped ensure that people keep more of the money that they earn by increasing the threshold at which they start paying income tax. By the end of the last parliament we had given more than two million Scots a £700 tax cut.
RD: There will always be a role for in-work benefits in a welfare system, but changes to tax credits had results far beyond what anyone had predicted.
My preference will always be to move away from subsidising low wages to a lower tax, higher pay economy. That is why it’s vital we carry on the positive legacy of increased employment and why I have welcomed the Chancellor’s commitment to deliver a national living wage.
NS: George Osborne’s U-turn on tax credits was welcome, because rather than subsidising a low-wage economy, these measures actually help the very people we should be supporting – hard-working families who don’t wish to be a burden on the state. That’s why scrapping them was such a mistake – not only would that have made thousands of families substantially worse off, it would have sent completely the wrong message about the benefits of being in work. But the Chancellor’s climb down was for cutting tax credits from next April, he still plans to reduce them through Universal Credit.
We have already said we will take action where possible to mitigate the impacts of welfare changes and do everything in our power to protect the most vulnerable from these cuts as well as increasing wages and creating jobs.
In Scotland we have a higher proportion of employees paid the living wage than anywhere else in the UK outwith the South East of England and London at around 81 per cent, and we are committed to doing even more. Research shows that paying the living wage benefits both employees and employers alike. Paying the living wage demonstrates a commitment by employers to their staff, and in return, employers have experienced benefits including increased productivity, reduced absenteeism and improved staff morale. There are now around 400 employers in Scotland signed up to paying the living wage, I would urge other companies to follow suit.
MC: We need to move away from the low-wage economy we currently live in. Raising the minimum wage to the living wage will help to ensure that even those earning the least can live with dignity, but real change will be delivered through creating better jobs. To create those jobs we need more work in high-quality manufacturing, particularly of renewable technology, but also in energy saving and areas like computer games where we already excel.
We also need to recognise that trade unions play an important role in avoiding a low wage economy. We need to stop the Trade Union Bill, and reverse the Thatcher-era anti-trade union legislation that has suppressed wages and working conditions. We know that industries and countries with high levels of trade union membership tend to have decent wages and better quality of life because workers are able to negotiate with employers.
KD: Tax credits work, that’s why the last Labour Government introduced them and Labour across the UK forced the Chancellor into a U-turn. Tax credits are a targeted tax cut for people on low incomes. Six out of ten jobs created under the SNP Government in the last four years have been in low paid, insecure work. Tax credits allow these families to aspire to more than just making it to the end of the month.
What is the absolute minimum a state should provide for people?
WR: As a liberal I am suspicious of the state getting too involved in people’s lives but obviously there are things that every citizen can expect the government to provide. This includes shelter, an education, and healthcare free at the point of service.
RD: The state will always have a responsibility to provide the basic necessities of life to people who cannot otherwise afford them, but it also needs to deliver a just society where everyone is capable of flourishing. This means people being safe in their homes and on the streets, a decent standard of education available to all as well as a strong and effective healthcare system that does not rely on the ability to pay.
NS: Our social security system is there for people when they need it. Whether it’s a safety net in time of need, such as unemployment, to level the playing field for those who are disabled, or to provide child benefit or a pension at certain points in our lives, it is a system we all pay into and we all will use at some point. I don’t therefore think it’s helpful to talk about minimum levels of support when the objectives of the system are to ensure people can exist with dignity.
What is clear is that many people who use the system have paid a great deal in tax over many years and are absolutely entitled to expect help when they need it. Likewise, in an affluent country, people with disabilities and long-term health conditions should be able to expect enough support from the system to ensure their health is maintained and – where possible – they are supported into work.
MC: It’s our job to create a caring society in which we allow people to achieve happiness and material comfort. We have failed to invest in our physical infrastructure, but even more than this, we have failed to invest in our social infrastructure. We need to have universal free childcare – which will pay for itself both financially and socially. We need to ensure that everyone gets the education they need, and the education they want. We need to ensure everyone has fulfilling work, and good social security and health. We need to have dignity throughout our lives. These need to be provided by society and facilitated by the state.
KD: A home and a chance.
Do you think tackling poverty is solely a political responsibility?
WR: It is a political responsibility and a personal responsibility too. I have no truck with Tory rhetoric over strivers and shirkers but for me, the best way that politicians can help is by ensuring that we give people the opportunities they need to get out of poverty.
This starts with education, which is the best way to end the cycle of poverty, and continues with ensuring that people keep more of the money they earn in the workforce.
RD: No. There is a lot that individuals, employers and civic society can do to help break down the barriers that stand in the way of people breaking out of poverty. Whether it is providing training and support, helping people when times are tough or simply giving a young person that first opportunity of a job, every positive step that results from considering the challenges others can face will make a difference.
NS: Clearly charities and other organisations have their place in helping people but it’s up to all of society to change the structural issues that breed intergenerational poverty and can hold back people in our society. For example, I’d encourage all businesses to sign up to the Business Pledge and pay the living wage. It is also vital politicians show leadership, set a clear direction and seek to remove barriers caused by inequalities. Showing that leadership is the reason I got into politics and I am determined to make whatever difference I can.
MC: Yes, I think pretty much everything is political. What that means is that society as a whole is responsible for tackling poverty. Campaigning for the living wage is as political as implementing it. We have tried the ‘personal responsibility’ approach to solving society’s problems. It has meant the rich taking ‘personal responsibility’ for making themselves richer at the expense of the poor.
KD: I think they are responsible for making the political case for why it must be tackled but everyone has a duty to delivery its end.
Has your understanding of inequality increased with your role as a politician and have there been particular examples that stay with you?
WR: Working as an MP or an MSP brings you into contact with many families who are working incredibly hard to keep their heads above water. These cases bring home the reality of what poverty and inequality mean in Scotland today. We are not talking about people lounging around and cashing benefit cheques. We are talking about desperate people who have been forced to resort to things like food banks to feed their families.
RD: Undoubtedly. Behind what goes on in Holyrood or Westminster, politicians are often one of the first points of contact for people who need some help or assistance, or have been wrongly treated. Often times, it’s issues with administration that people present with. I won’t mention individual cases but when people are living from one week to the next, an income shock can be huge.
NS: I got into politics to make the lives of people in Scotland better and remove some of the structural barriers that can hold people back. Obviously after becoming First Minister you become more attuned to the full scope of issues that we need to address – be that educational attainment, in-work poverty, gender imbalance, social housing or welfare. All of these need tackled in our efforts to reduce poverty and inequality.
In terms of specific examples, I don’t think anyone who has visited a food bank in Scotland will forget that experience in a hurry. These are organisations and volunteers giving their time to provide basic necessities to people on their own doorstep being hit by welfare cuts and austerity measures imposed on from the UK Government. That simply should not happen in a modern country like the UK. The policies and values pursued by my government are in stark contrast to that of Mr Cameron’s when it comes to poverty and inequalities. I want to lift the people of Scotland out of poverty not just mitigate against his cuts. The UK Government seem determined to drive more people into poverty, as seen by their plans to cut a further £12 billion from the welfare budget. It’s no wonder they are getting rid of their child poverty targets when their policies will see the numbers increase.
MC: There’s always more to understand about inequality. The thing that has struck me most since the big economic crash in 2008 has been the increase in anxiety amongst workers. So many people can’t afford to lose their jobs. Bullying has become more common and conditions have become worse. I’ve worked with a lot of people who’ve faced the brunt of these changes and the erosion of social security.
KD: My exposure to it has decreased as I’ve moved jobs. I meet fewer people who are faced with such staggering inequality – but the converse of that is that I have a stronger voice to use on their behalf now.
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