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Making poverty history: Interview with Bill Scott, chair of the Poverty and Inequality Commission

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Making poverty history: Interview with Bill Scott, chair of the Poverty and Inequality Commission

Scotland, 1980s: The UK is in the grip of recession. Unemployment rampant. Poverty on the rise. And a young Bill Scott begins his working life at the Department for Employment as part of the unemployment benefits team.

Horrified by the stories of hardship, he begins making connections within the local community, working with welfare rights organisations and groups set up to represent unemployed people, helping them to better navigate the system.

Eventually, he puts his money where his mouth and his heart are and quits his government job to become an employment rights worker at the Citizens Rights Office, a part of the Child Poverty Action Group, dedicated to providing advice and supporting benefits appeals (“I usually talk about being a gamekeeper-turn-poacher,” he jokes).

Fast forward 30 years and Scott is still campaigning to iron out inequality. And now as chair of the Poverty and Inequality Commission, he has a chance to shape the agenda in the years ahead.

“I really want to make poverty something that Scottish society as a whole just will not accept anymore,” he tells Holyrood.

“One of the changes for the worse [in the last 30 years] is just the sheer number of people experiencing destitution, not just poverty.

“Poverty is bad enough, you’ve not got enough to give yourself the same sort of living as people around you, but destitution – where you cannot afford to feed yourself or heat your home or clothe yourself properly, things like that – that definitely has intensified.”

Scott believes these inequalities have never been so exposed, with many families hugely and negatively impacted by the fallout of COVID-19. But he also says there are positives to take from the pandemic.

“My experience through COVID is that there’s been a tremendous community response in areas like Pilton, Muirhouse, Wester Hailes, Niddrie, Craigmillar. Areas that people think there wouldn’t be a lot of community spirit but people working really hard to make sure that disabled people or older people got fed. People know their neighbours a lot more.

“I’m not glorifying places like that. There’s huge problems with vandalism and crime and the impact of poverty on people’s lives. There’s a lot of misery, but there is still a lot of community spirit. I think that’s something we really need to tap into in terms of recovery and renewal after this is over.”

“I hope the Commission can give Scottish Government some radical ideas of how they can go about tackling some of the inequalities in society."

He later adds: “There’s a lot of good in people and they want to do something that will help others in their community.

“If the Scottish Government and local government can tap into that and work in partnership with those people, because it’s those people that I used to work with on a daily basis, who really know what poverty is, that have got some of the solutions.”

This community spirit and pulling together is something he remembers about his own childhood. Scott grew up in the working class community of Bonnyrigg. His dad, a painter, was the sole earner supporting a family of seven (Scott has two brothers and two sisters).

“We were never well off, but I have really, really positive memories of how that community assisted one another, supported one another through hard times,” he recalls.

It also gave him an understanding of how broader structural issues impact on poverty. He grew up in a council house and the first home he had with his partner was through a housing association. He was the first in his family to go to university, which he believes would not be possible now given the debt many students face after graduation. One of his first battles as an employment rights worker was supporting the women-led movement to get part-time workers the same rate of holiday pay as their full-time counterparts.

These experiences have led him to be vocal in his support for more social housing, free childcare and ensuring social security payments are enough for people to live on.

He says: “There’s whole areas that we need to tackle, and I hope the commission can give Scottish Government some radical ideas of how they can go about tackling some of the inequalities in society. I think the will is there, we just have to make sure that the resources are put in place.”

He describes the Scottish Child Payment, a new devolved benefit to be rolled out from February, as a “big step forward”. But he also says it won’t be enough on its own. He, as have many others in the sector, expresses concern that changes with the introduction of Universal Credit are “leaving a lot of people worse off than they were under the old legacy benefits”.

“I really want to make poverty something that Scottish society as a whole just will not accept anymore”

Scott is also concerned about low pay and in-work poverty making people more reliant on insufficient benefits. He says: “There is a real problem in any society that doesn’t pay people enough to meet their basic needs. The state shouldn’t be in a position of having to subsidise employers for doing that. I don’t think you need to be leftwing to believe that.”

To prove his point, he quotes Winston Churchill on workers receiving a living wage, who warned “the good employer is undercut by the bad, and the bad employer is undercut by the worst”.

Scott adds: “I really do think it’s time for public money to be only used to support good business, good employers. We’ve seen in the past huge grants being made to firms that pay poverty wages, don’t pay the living wage that people need to live on.

“I think going forward, Scottish Government, local government and public sector in general, the NHS, we really do need to see them using their procurement powers and grant-giving powers to actually say to employers, you’re only going to get this if you pay your employees a decent wage and we see decent terms and conditions of employment. We can drive good practice amongst employers if we use the public purse to make that demand.”

Some of his suggestions may seem radical. But he is no stranger to pushing forward radical ideas.

Scott was involved in the universal free school meal campaign from its early days in his role as director of Lothian Anti-Poverty Alliance at the turn of the century. He was recruited by the SSP off the back of that and worked for them as a senior researcher between 2003 and 2007. As well as school meals, he also focused on free prescriptions.

While the parliament at the time did not pass legislation for either, it is noteworthy the policies have since been adopted. The Scottish Government abolished prescription charges in 2011 and schoolchildren in P1 to P3 have been entitled to free meals since 2015. Indeed, the SNP has recently pledged to introduce free meals for all children, should they win the election in May.

Scott would still describe himself as a socialist in his personal life (though he must remain politically neutral as commission chair) – but he quickly adds that he’s never seen that “as a barrier to working with people with other political persuasions.”

He has an unwavering belief that people enter politics to do good. He says: “I’ve worked with politicians from every single one of the political parties represented in the Scottish Parliament and the UK Parliament.

“I genuinely believe that politicians enter politics – the great majority of them, not all of them – because they want to make the world a better place. I’ve always been able to find allies across the political spectrum who want to make life better for the people they represent.

“I take great comfort as chair of the Poverty Commission from the fact that when the child poverty targets were adopted and when the Child Poverty Act was passed in parliament, it was passed unanimously. Every single MSP voted for it.”

But he is also aware of the limits of Scottish parliament and government. While the commission was set up to provide advice and scrutiny of Scottish ministers, Scott does not shy away from calling for action at all levels.

“We need to tackle [poverty] across reserved and devolved benefits and see increases in both to make sure that everybody in society has an adequate income – an income adequate to feed themselves, clothe themselves and heat their homes. If we’ve not got that, we’re failing as a society.” 

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