Programme for Government 2023.2024 - equality: Cabinet Secretary's statement

Opening statement to Parliament by Cabinet Secretary for Social Justice Shirley-Anne Somerville given on 6 September 2023.

Presiding officer, Tackling poverty and protecting people from harm is one of three critical missions for this government – alongside our focus on growing the economy and strengthening public services.

It is these interconnected missions that are front and centre of this year’s Programme for Government, which is unapologetically anti-poverty, focused on delivering high-quality public services. And it shows that we can alleviate inequality and poverty by ensuring we have a fair, green and growing wellbeing economy that provides job opportunities and capitalises on a just transition.

This Government will continue to use our fixed budget to reduce poverty, improve opportunities and reduce health inequalities; protecting people as far as possible from the harm inflicted by the UK Government’s austerity-driven policies and the ongoing cost of the union crisis. However, it is only with the full economic powers of an independent nation that we can truly eradicate inequality and poverty.

Presiding Officer, delivering fair work and fair pay for all is critical to our missions and a top priority for the Scottish Government.

The NHS is the largest employer in Scotland, and through the Agenda for Change pay offer, we have ensured that NHS employees on the lowest pay bands have the biggest increases in pay.

Building on this, we are committing to provide the necessary funding in the next budget to increase the pay of adult social care workers in the private, third and independent sectors in a direct care role , and those working to deliver funded early learning and childcare, to at least £12 per hour. An increase that could be worth up to £2,000 per year for those on full-time contracts.

There are over 200,000 registered workers in the social care sector, and four out of five of them are women.

We know that women and children’s poverty are intrinsically linked. So not only will this help recruit and retain in our social care workforce, and early learning and childcare, it will also be a key step to tackle poverty for women and children in Scotland.

This government is committed tackling the inequality we have in our community. I only wish the UK Government showed even a quarter of our ambition.

The UK Conservative Government must face up to the damage and hardship it has caused by well over a decade of austerity and welfare cuts. Damage and hardship exacerbated by a hard Brexit and shocking mismanagement of the economy which has led to soaring inflation, spiralling energy bills and the worst cost of living crisis in a generation.

This government is doing all it can in the face of that to make a difference. And despite the UK government’s policies pushing people into poverty, we know that our action is still making a difference.

Modelling estimates that 90,000 fewer children will live in relative and absolute poverty this year as a result of this Government’s policies, with poverty levels 9% points lower that they would have been otherwise. This includes lifting an estimated 50,000 children out of relative poverty through the Scottish Child Payment.

That is a major achievement. But that achievement would be all the more if we weren’t being held back in face of UK Government polices pushing people into poverty at the same time.

UK Government welfare policies including the two-child limit and the benefit cap inflict hardship on families on the lowest incomes.

The two-child limit alone is affecting 80,000 children in Scotland and has removed £341 million from Scottish families since 2017. That is a disastrous policy for people right across this country at their time of greatest need.

Were the UK Government to reverse key welfare reforms introduced since 2015, this would help to lift 70,000 people, out of poverty this year, including 30,000 children, and put an estimated £780 million in the pockets of the lowest income households.

The Conservatives in Westminster must no longer sit by and watch people suffer. Though may feel like they can because Labour are promising the same. Which is why the powers over social security and employment to name but two are needed in the hands of this parliament.

But if the UK Government really want to do something to alleviate inequality then it could.

That is why the First Minister wrote to the Prime Minister yesterday calling for the UK Government to legislate to put an Essentials Guarantee in place to ensure that social security benefits adequately cover the cost of essentials, including food, transport, energy and to ensure that deductions, such as debt repayments to government, sanctions, or as a result of the benefit cap, can never pull support below this level. We know that the Welsh government also support of this approach, and I will follow up with further correspondence to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in the coming days.

Over the last five financial years we have invested £711 million through activities such as Discretionary Housing Payments and the Scottish Welfare Fund to mitigate the austerity of UK Government policies including the bedroom tax, the benefit cap and local housing allowance. This money could have been spent on services like health, education, transport, or on further ambitious anti-poverty measures, it could have paid for 2,000 band 5 nurses each year. That is the price of staying in the union.

However, Scotland cannot wait for the UK Government to act,. While devolution continues to limit what we can do, the Scottish Government is determined to use our powers to the fullest possible extent.

That’s why in 2021 we convened an Expert Group from across the third sector, academia and industry to look at how, under our current powers, and with current budget challenges, Scotland can build steps towards a Minimum Income Guarantee. Such change could be transformational, and I look forward to receiving the Group’s recommendations in 2024.

We know that child poverty, in particular, lies at the root of many of the greatest challenges we face as a country, including tackling health and educational inequalities. The Scottish Government is unequivocal in its commitment to meet our statutory targets through ‘Best Start, Bright Futures’.

Delivering on our ambition will mean tough choices and we will not shy away from the decisions needed to reduce poverty and support those who are in the greatest need. Neither will we shirk from protecting people from harm as outlined in our missions.

Our Programme for Government sets out how we will work to deliver further progress on our shared ambitions. This includes investing £405 million in our unique and game changing  Scottish Child Payment this year. Worth £25 per eligible child per week, the payment is unique in the UK and was reaching over 316,000 children as of the end of June this year.

That’s more than £350 million paid to low income families since the payment launched in February 2021.

To ensure we continue to support people with the cost of living, we are committed to increasing the Scottish Child Payment, Funeral Support Payment and all disability and carers benefits in line with inflation.

Unlike UK benefit systems I also have to stress that the Scottish Child Payment does not have a limit to the number of children who can qualify for a family. That’s a principle based on dignity which it’s a shame the Tories and the Labour Party have long since given up on.

Building on our action to date, we have now set out ambitious plans to expand access to high quality, funded childcare by the end of this Parliament, starting with those who need it most – helping tackle poverty and supporting thousands more parents to take up, or sustain, employment.

Recognising the cost of living is still far too high for many families who were already struggling with the increasingly unaffordable cost of food, housing, bills and everyday essentials, of course as well as Brexit and economic mismanagement by the UK Government.

That is why both last year and this, we have allocated almost £3 billion to support policies which tackle poverty and protect people as far as possible during the ongoing cost of living crisis.

Beyond investment in our Scottish Child Payment, this includes: continued provision of free bus travel for over two million people, including all young people under the age of 22; the tripling of our Fuel Insecurity Fund to £30 million this year; and continuing to provide one of the most generous free school meal offers anywhere in the UK, saving parents £400 per eligible child per year.

We will continue to do everything we can within the scope of our powers and limited budget to tackle poverty and support those in greatest need – strengthening the support where we can.

In 2023-24 we will invest £5.3 billion in Scottish Government benefits, supporting over 1.2 million people, as well as extending further the support we provide to carers by introducing the Carer Support Payment.

We will invest £752 million this year through our Affordable Housing Supply Programme and we will continue the Housing Bill to create powers for the introduction of long term rent controls – creating new tenants’ rights and introducing new duties aimed at the prevention of homelessness.

We will introduce a landmark Human Rights Bill, and invite the Scottish Parliament to bring back the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill for reconsideration stage, to deliver legislation that protects and enhances a fuller range of human rights within the limits of devolved competence.

We will of course ensure that we consult with the intention of bringing a bill to Parliament on the end of conversion practices in Scotland.

We will publish the Fair Fares Review on both the cost and availability of bus, rail and ferry services, by the end of 2023, and introduce a pilot for the removal of ScotRail peak-time fares, beginning in October, in a move that will move that will make rail travel more affordable and accessible during that pilot.

So in closing, Presiding Officer, this year’s Programme for Government builds on the foundations we have laid in Scotland, strengthening our approach to tackling poverty and inequalities, providing equitable access to health and social care services and treatment.

We will continue to be frank about the need to make difficult decisions to ensure we free up resources to target support and we will always continue to stand up for the people of Scotland against a UK Government and any incoming labour Government with pale imitation Tory policies that hit the poorest hardest at their time of need. That  is not what the people of Scotland need at this time or in any other.

So, as a government we will  use the powers that we have to address the root causes of poverty. But it is only with the fiscal powers of an independent nation that we can eradicate inequality and poverty in Scotland.

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