Inequality in Scotland: A Q&A with the party leaders
Inequality has been at the heart of much debate in Scotland this year, do you expect that to continue even though the referendum is now over?
Patrick Harvie: Perhaps more than ever. We’ll soon see political parties set out their ideas for income tax rates, local government reform, and the design of a Scottish welfare system with the potential for additional benefits. Anyone who has been making speeches about a fairer society will need to commit to taking actions now, and we’ll be able to see whose priority is redistribution, and whose priority is just GDP growth which benefits the wealthiest.
Nicola Sturgeon: Reducing inequalities in health and other areas of life are critical to achieving the Scottish Government’s aim of making Scotland a better, healthier place for everyone. While the health of the country as a whole is improving, the fact is that some inequalities are widening. That requires concerted action across Government. We will do everything within our power to find ways of reducing these inequalities, not only in health, but in all the other factors that lead to some people in Scotland being more disadvantaged than the majority.
Willie Rennie: Yes, of course. The gap between rich and poor is unacceptable. Liberals have been driven for decades by the goal of ending inequalities. A person’s chance in life should not be determined by where they were born.
Jim Murphy: Tackling inequality is the Labour Party’s purpose and has been for more than a century. Anger about poverty is why most people join the Labour Party. In my acceptance speech after I was elected Scottish Labour leader I said that I want Scotland to be the fairest nation not just in the UK, but in the world. That has to be the scale of our ambition for Scotland. So inequality must remain at the heart of the debate, because too many people are still being let down. The fact that just 220 - 2.5 per cent - of the poorest kids in Scotland get the grades needed to go on to study at university shows how much inequality there is in our country. These kids are being left behind by the SNP Government in Edinburgh and I want to change that.
Religious and political leaders have spoken out about the increased use of food banks, what shocks you most about poverty in Scotland today?
PH: To be honest it shocks me that anyone feigns surprise. When we permit employers to pay poverty wages; when we allow a right wing UK Government to screw up the benefits system while cutting the top tax rate; when we cut the services people depend on while allowing the richest to keep feathering their own nests, why on earth wouldn’t we expect to see the current levels of poverty and inequality?
NS: The fact is that we live in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, yet for thousands of people it just doesn’t feel like that. It’s a scandal that in a country with so much wealth, there is so much poverty. Foodbanks illustrate that and the rising demand for them appals me.
WR: That it exists. It frustrates me that despite knowing that education is the best route out of poverty, Scotland’s colleges continue to go underfunded, our nursery schools still do not open their doors for enough young children and our universities still do not take in enough children from poor backgrounds. I want the SNP Government to start maximising the powers it has to fix these abominable facts instead of using office to re-run the referendum they lost.
JM: Food banks in Scotland are a moral scandal. It sickens me that any parent has to see their child go hungry. No parent would ever want to rely on charity or the goodwill of others.
It also makes me angry that some working families in Scotland need to rely on food banks to feed their families. That is just not right. That’s why I will campaign for a living wage, to give up to half a million people in Scotland a pay rise. We need to make sure that work pays for Scottish families. As we settle down for Christmas we should spare a thought for children facing emotional hardship separated from their parents where the parent is away with our Armed Forces. And those youngsters separated from a parent in prison - especially their mum - it is never the child’s fault and they should also be in our thoughts.
What specific new powers coming to Scotland from the Smith Commission will help tackle poverty?
PH: It depends on how they are used. If the notion of “fiscal responsibility” dominates the debate, it will lead to Scottish politicians imposing their own kind of austerity. But if we commit to sharing the wealth of society more fairly, we can use new welfare powers and progressive tax rates to start closing the wealth gap. Never mind merely restoring the 50p tax rate for the tiny handful of people on more than £150,000; everyone on an MSP’s salary knows that we can afford to pay more.
NS: While we were disappointed that the Smith Commission does not give the Scottish Parliament the range of powers we believe it needs, we want to make rapid progress in implementing its recommendations. But the UK Government should not take any steps that would constrain our freedom to come to our own decisions. The most obvious example of this are the changes to disability payments, due to come into force, and the impact that will have on both welfare policy and welfare funding. To devolve powers over disability benefits only after they have been subject to Westminster cuts would be a breach of faith with the Smith Commission.
WR: Liberal Democrats made the weather on the two big new powers on income tax and welfare which will give Scotland the tools it needs to tackle poverty.
If we want to cut tax for those on low and middle incomes, like Liberal Democrats in the UK, we can choose that. Or if we want to invest more in nursery education we can do that too.
Through the new Scottish welfare system the Scottish Parliament can find new solutions to address inequality in our communities.
JM: These new powers can make a real difference as long as they are used. I want to use the new powers over tax to increase the top rate to 50p for the wealthiest Scots earning over £150,000. I would use the money raised to introduce radical new measures to support the poorest kids who are being left behind by the Scottish Government in Edinburgh. I will target the 20 schools in Scotland where poor kids are being failed the most, and take bold steps to improve their life chances. That means:
- Creating a new national centre of excellence to share best practice across Scotland and the world.
- Turning around the 20 schools left behind by the government in Edinburgh by transforming them into places of community learning and opportunity e.g. offering services like adult literacy provision in these schools so that parents can better support their kids. In particular there will be a focus on the literacy of mums.
- Reintroducing Chartered Teacher Status, scrapped by the SNP Government in Edinburgh, which will allow incentives to get the best teachers into the most under performing schools. The teachers will be those who have a proven experience in supporting pupils who have fallen behind. In return for undertaking career development these teachers will receive additional payments. This will be done respecting agreed national pay bargaining arrangements.
- Ordering an annual review on progress in tackling educational inequality in our schools, tracking the poorest children no matter their school as part of the school inspection process.
- Doubling the number of teaching assistants in the primary schools that are feeders to the secondary schools which the SNP government in Edinburgh has failed.
- I would also get the new welfare powers coming to Scotland out of the Parliament in Edinburgh and sent around Scotland. People living in communities in Scotland are much better placed to tackle poverty and get people back into work than a minister sitting behind a desk in Edinburgh.
But the truth is that the best anti-poverty measure is a growing economy. Getting people into work and having a thriving economy means there is more tax revenue to pay for our schools and hospitals, and do what is necessary to lift families out of poverty.
Why do we still have poverty when every politician says it is something they wish to reduce?
PH: Because it makes no difference to say you’re against poverty if you’re still supporting a free market economy which has been systematically redistributing society’s wealth toward the wealthiest.
NS: Scotland is one of the richest countries in the world and there is no reason for children to be living in poverty in our society. The fact is that the reduction in poverty seen in recent years is now being reversed. Westminster cuts, which have taken £6 billion from the welfare budget, are reducing incomes for some of our poorest households. The Scottish Government has focused on doing everything we can to mitigate the harmful effects of Westminster welfare cuts, and we will continue to do so, but the impact is still being felt by the most vulnerable in society.
WR: It’s not a lack of will but because it’s not a simple thing to resolve.
JM: I don’t doubt that politicians of all parties want to reduce poverty. The last Labour Government did a lot to tackle this – through the minimum wage, tax credits and improving our public services. But more needs to be done. Poverty is enduring because the causes are complex and the consequences are so shattering. We can never settle for a nice set of statistics that suggest some progress has been made. Tackling poverty must be a constant struggle, something that we deal with every day. Generational poverty takes decades to become embedded in some families. We should never tolerate it taking as long to drive it out.
Is poverty in Scotland just something we need to accept as a symptom of modern life?
PH: No, but too many people have been convinced that it is. The idea that there is no alternative to the right wing economic model which has driven social and environmental exploitation, and left us with such an unequal society, is an empty idea; it’s a con, but it has been a terribly successful one for decades now.
NS: No. And one of the most depressing developments of recent years has been the growth of in-work poverty. It’s truly shocking that a majority of children living in poverty are in households where at least one person is working. That’s why I believe that the Scottish Parliament should be in charge of the minimum wage, so that we can get on and give real practical support to the low paid, particularly through the extension of the living wage.
WR: I’m an eternal optimist and got into politics to tackle poverty in Scotland, the UK and anywhere in the world where people do not have the opportunities they need to get on in life.
JM: No. If you believed that you might as well just give up. Nothing is impossible. The suffragettes, the anti-slavery campaigners and the Tolpuddle martyrs proved that.
What will be your political New Year’s resolution?
PH: To meet as many of our new members around the country as I can, and make sure we grow together into the most effective Green Party we can be and connect with people who haven’t previously seen us as representing them. We have an urgent and distinctive social, economic and environmental agenda to share, but if we can’t do it better we won’t make progress.
NS: In my first year as First Minister, I’ll work as hard as I can to make Scotland a fairer country and a more equal society.
WR: To run up more hills in the Highlands after winning lots of seats at the General Election.
JM: Make sure that Scotland plays our part in removing from Downing Street a Prime Minister with a Scottish sounding surname who is out of touch with the land of his ancestors.
Describe your ideal Christmas meal and who would you spend it with?
PH: Slow and leisurely eating and drinking, from around lunchtime onwards, with a mix of friends and family. Then games. Then the Dr Who special, during which nobody may speak.
NS: Whatever Peter cooks!
WR: The family with a turkey. That’s eating the turkey, not the family.
JM: I’m a veggie so not the usual turkey and trimmings. Ideally with my extended family.
What is your favourite memory of Christmas?
PH: I was terrifically excited at about ten when our family’s first computer arrived one Xmas - an Acorn Electron (the “little brother” of the BBC Micro). I still remember long afternoons typing in the code that was published in the weekly magazines, followed by hours spent trying to find the single typo that was stopping the program from running. Happy days.
NS: Getting my first proper bike when I was about five.
WR: A new scooter when I was a boy.
JM: Getting my first bike. A red chopper.
What will you be doing on Christmas Day?
PH: I’ll be “doing” Xmas at my brother’s place this year, along with my parents.
NS: Staying at home and spending time with family.
WR: Spending the day with the family.
JM: Hopefully eating my way through lots of selection boxes and checking to make sure some of the movies I mention below are on telly.
Who would you choose to give an alternative Queen’s speech and what would they say?
PH: They’ll probably make it Russell Brand this year, won’t they. I do hope not. I’d suggest Jack Monroe, the writer and campaigner on food and hunger.
NS: It was be really nice to hear from an ordinary person on Christmas Day, and it’s said that Christmas is all about children, so how about a young person? In the past 12 months, it’s become clear that young people in Scotland are engaged and enthusiastic about their future, so let’s get a school pupil to outline their hopes and dreams for the coming years.
WR: Malala Yousef. She is an inspirational young woman who I’m sure would remind us all of the challenges and opportunities we face in our efforts to build a stronger economy and a fairer society so that people across the world get the chance they need to get on in life.
JM: I don’t normally get to see the Queen’s Christmas message but if Her Majesty wasn’t available then a message of hope from South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Despite its problems, the reconciliation in post apartheid South Africa should still inspire us.
What is your favourite Christmas film?
PH: The Hudsucker Proxy.
NS: Well, my Christmas message this year was done with Young Scot, and based on a famous scene in the film Love Actually – so I’ve got to go with that.
WR: The Great Escape.
JM: It’s a Wonderful Life is my favourite Christmas movie. But no festive period is complete without watching Spartacus, The Sting and Zulu reruns all over again.