Q&A with Aileen Campbell, cabinet secretary for communities and local government
Apart from coronavirus, what is the most significant thing that has happened within your portfolio over the last year?
Given my responsibilities for communities and tackling inequalities and poverty, it is really hard to look past the pandemic, considering the effect it’s had on some of the most vulnerable in our communities. We knew we had to act rapidly to support our communities and our third sector, which is why, in my own portfolio, I announced a £350m fund – on top of the main Scottish Government support streams – which was designed specifically to help those most at need. That included an additional £70m food fund to support households who struggled to access food, due to a drop in income or the need to shield. We increased this to cover free school meals and additional support for families over the summer holidays.
COVID-19 has disrupted so much of our work; we were on track to deliver 50,000 affordable homes, but lockdown has meant unfortunately, that progress is on hold. However, COVID-19 has shown just how vital the need for a safe and warm home is. And of course, the Scottish Child Payment, whilst also disrupted by COVID, is still a key area for me in our commitment to tackle child poverty.
The pandemic saw people reach out to neighbours and offer help to vulnerable people. Do you think it has strengthened communities?
During lockdown people reconnected with what was on their doorstep. From simple acts of kindness, to increased volunteering levels, to supporting local businesses – as we are highlighting through #Scotlandloveslocal – we can see there has been an increased feeling of community spirit across the country. We must never forget just how devastating the pandemic has been for people across the country, both in economic and health terms, but that sense of community can and should be built on and supported.
Coronavirus saw the Scottish Government introduce emergency measures to help homeless people and stop evictions during lockdown. What will it do to help vulnerable people when this is all over?
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the Scottish Government commissioned an expert independent group to review our strategy for ending homelessness – in light of the pandemic – and make recommendations on how we should tailor our recovery plans to ensure that nobody ends up back on the street. The recommendations build on the work initiated in our Ending Homelessness Together action plan, particularly the emphasis on prevention as the best solution to homelessness. The Scottish Government has accepted the recommendations and is working with COSLA to outline exactly how they will be implemented.
Given that you are standing down next year, what do you want to achieve before you go?
I am immensely proud to have been part of a government that has done so much to make Scotland a fairer and more prosperous country. As Communities Secretary, I have helped to lay the groundwork for the Scottish Child Payment – the most ambitious anti-poverty measure currently being undertaken anywhere in the UK – which will open to applications by the end of this year.
More recently I have had ministerial responsibility for taking forward the Scottish Government’s world-leading initiatives to tackle period poverty, and MSPs from across the chamber deserve great credit for working together to deliver on our shared ambitions. I am looking forward to continuing this cross-party work to embed our aspirations in legislation.
The impact of the pandemic has been devastating and shown up the systemic inequality that still persists in our society, despite our enormous efforts and work that often feels frustrated by austerity. It feels like we have a moment and an opportunity to not just think about how we recover from COVID, but about how we rebuild, reform and renew. That is why Shirley-Anne Somerville and I have established a Social Renewal Advisory Board, bringing together organisations, academics and individuals to help shape how we emerge from this pandemic, to bank some of the social gains to date, reprioritise our actions, and to ensure what we do is guided by the lived experience of our communities.
If you had to spend lockdown with one other member of the cabinet, who would it be and why?
This would make for a really boring episode of Big Brother! Shirley-Anne Somerville would be my pick to spend lockdown with. She’s the one cab sec I have already spent most of my ‘virtual’ time with during lockdown as our portfolios have necessitated that we work closely together.
And aside from the work, having Shirley-Anne to talk with, to consider new ideas and discuss things with has really kept me going. We both have young kids and have been balancing our government work along with homeschooling, so have that same shared experience of keeping the bairns occupied in one room while doing a virtual committee appearance in the other!