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Poverty underscores every one of Scotland's miserable statistics

First Minister Humza Yousaf hosts an anti-poverty summit in Edinburgh earlier this year | Credit: Alamy

Poverty underscores every one of Scotland's miserable statistics

It’s two and a half years since I wrote a column which described the party of government as starting to rot like a fish – from the head down. The stench, then, was only just tickling the nostrils of a few but was beginning to become a reek more obvious to others. 

And while voters in the Scottish Parliament election were still backing the SNP resolutely, many were holding their nose as they did so. After all, independence at any cost was still the goal. 

It was an undeniably critical column that unsurprisingly heaped opprobrium on my head from senior nationalist politicians who had known me for decades but who now saw me as something of a turncoat. The abuse came, much more personal than before, but predictably little introspection on their part followed. And the election result three months later only served to compound their complacency. After all, if you’re still winning – albeit with a slight dip – why change a thing? 

And while it was perhaps a turning point for some, it was more of a lost opportunity for the SNP, given that almost everything I warned of in that column then feels ever more prescient today.

I mourned the fact then that this is a country where when a record number of addicted souls lost their lives to drugs, the then leader of the party that had been in power for 14 years absolved herself of blame by saying the crisis was “indefensible”. 

A shrug, a mea culpa, and we all move along.

But today those numbers, despite a welcome fall, represent over a thousand drug-related deaths that should never have happened. And while real solutions still evade us, Scotland continues to be labelled, ignominiously, as the drug death capital of Europe. To our shame.

I despaired then that when queues of homeless people, including young children, stand in the snow in Glasgow, in some Dickensian throwback waiting for a mug of free hot soup, that homegrown politicians could look on and decry the heartless brutes at Westminster rather than explore the solutions they already had at hand.

And today, despite warm words and best intentions, efforts to tackle poverty appear in reverse, with one in four Scottish children living in penury, a record number of them homeless, large numbers leaving primary school functionally illiterate, many coming into care as a direct result of their privation, and most extraordinarily of all, a return of diseases from the Victorian poorhouse era with rickets, scurvy and TB on the rise.

Poverty underscores every miserable statistical life outcome we care to imagine: on health; attainment; alcohol abuse; drug deaths; life expectancy; suicide; neonatal death; crime; the list goes on. It is a blight on Scotland from pre-cradle to grave, and yet today, after 16 years of his party being in government, First Minister Humza Yousaf has said tackling poverty and inequality will be his new defining mission.

What have they been doing in all the previous years? Yes, there is the Scottish Child Payment, introduced in election year 2021. And while you may wonder why it took so long, it is, as the Child Poverty Action Group described, “a game changer” because simply putting money directly into people’s pockets will always make a tangible, if only immediate, rather than systemic, difference. But it also comes at a cost – revealed in the gaping black hole that exists in our public expenditure – which means hard choices must be made.

And with taxes predicted to rise, I get that those with the broadest shoulders should pay more to help alleviate inequity. But with those attempts inextricably linked to growing the economy, it might be wise, given nine out of ten businesses in Scotland believe that the Scottish Government doesn’t understand them, to also nurture them instead of always talking about them, and their higher-tax-paying employees, in terms of being a cash cow. 

But I reflected not just on the poverty of inequality and injustice two and a half years ago, but on the increasingly impoverished area of critical thinking. And as I reflect on that column from 2021, when I said then that there’s a growing unease about how this nation is being run, I can only conclude that nothing has changed. In fact, it has got worse. 

This week, the brother of teenager Amber Gibson will be sentenced for her sexual assault and murder. This case has haunted my thoughts and I hope those of our political leaders. A brother and sister taken into the care of the state, aged just three and five. Young lives scarred by violence and abuse. Foster parents who would not leave the siblings alone because, to deploy a euphemism, they were “not a good mix”. 

At 16, and still in the care of social work, Amber was raped by a young man who also happened to have been in care. Months later, she was sexually assaulted and killed by her own brother. And even in death, Amber was abused when another man found her lifeless body and proceeded to intimately touch her. 

Does this appalling tragedy say anything in particular about the Scotland of today? Or was it just a one-off, hellish mess of dysfunctionality? But in that mix were at least three care-experienced young people, all scarred, physically and emotionally; all, largely, brought up in care in a Scotland led, for most of their lives, by an SNP government that not only pledged to make Scotland the best country for a child to grow up in, but actually embedded that pledge to young people in its care via The Promise. 

I still fail to understand what The Promise actually is – other than a state-sponsored job-creation scheme which is already failing on its targets. I didn’t see statements of anguish from The Promise about Amber’s death. I don’t see calls for an official roll call of the number of care-experienced people who die every year because of the traumas that ‘care’ has been unable to unpick.

But walk through Edinburgh’s Grassmarket and speak to the poverty-stricken young men and women who, depending on what the drug of availability has been that day, will either talk volubly or just slur their words. Ask them if they have ever been in care, and the answer will be a resounding “yes”. 

It’s time we joined the dots.

When Amber and her brother were put into care, they reportedly said, “we are now safe”. That’s the very least Scotland should have offered them. And that is the poverty of ambition.

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