Presiding Officer, I am pleased to open this debate on the urgent need for us to tackle poverty and build a fairer, more equal country.
We must seize the opportunity, build upon our strong efforts to date, and use every lever at our disposal to bring about the change needed to tackle this problem.
We already invest around £2 billion each year in support for people on low incomes, including over £672 million targeted at children. We have a strong focus on those at greatest disadvantage, including disabled people. And we are supporting innovative action with our £50 million Tackling Child Poverty Fund.
But we must do more. That is why we have committed a wide range of ambitious action to be delivered in the first 100 days of this Parliament – maintaining the tremendous pace taken of change throughout the COVID pandemic.
This is a priority across all Ministerial portfolios. No one action will bring about the change needed, it needs all parts of government and broader society to work together and to impact the drivers of poverty reduction – increasing household incomes from work, reducing costs on essentials and maximising incomes from social security.
The eradication of poverty and building a fairer more equal country must be a national mission for government, for our parliament and for our society. We must try, where possible, to unite on this issue and work together to create a fairer Scotland.
Backed by over £1 billion of additional funding, our response to the pandemic shows that we can make change happen at the pace and scale required to support people and improve their lives. And we wand to build on this can do approach.
We delivered free school meal support during all school holidays and periods of remote learning for children from low income families – helping to tackle food insecurity during the pandemic. We will continue this whilst expanding Free School Meal support to all primary pupils, which will start within the first 100 days of this Parliament.
Also, in our first 100 days we will complete the roll-out of 1,140 hours of funded Early Learning and Childcare and have set out the next stage of our ambition to expand childcare further and develop a wraparound childcare system, providing care before and after school, all year round. This will make an important contribution to children’s development and will unlock the potential of parents in the labour market.
We will also deliver our £20 million summer programme for pupils, helping children socialise, play and reconnect – an essential investment to support the wellbeing of all children and young people [backed by £7.5 million from our Tackling Child Poverty Fund].
Through two Pandemic Support Payments of £100 to low income families with children we put money directly into the pockets of those who needed it most.
Building upon this approach, we will effectively pay the Scottish Child Payment through introducing bridging payments of £520 for families not yet eligible for the Payment, with £100 to be paid to families this summer. We will also provide £130 to every household who received Council Tax Reduction in April, reaching around 500,000 households.
I am pleased I can also make two announcements.
First, building on the practical support we offered during the pandemic, we will be providing the British Red Cross with a further £250,000 to continue their cash-first crisis support to those most at risk of destitution. This includes help to those impacted by the UK Government’s hostile policies that exclude them from most mainstream supports including the Scottish Welfare Fund.
And secondly, in recognition of the importance of listening to families affected by poverty, we will trial Family Wellbeing Budgets to put families firmly in control of the support they need. This new support will be delivered in partnership with the Hunter Foundation and will help to improve people’s wellbeing and capabilities.
Presiding offer, where we have the powers we are making a difference to people’s lives.
Nowhere is this more evident than in our approach to housing. Scotland has led the way in the across the UK with almost 100,000 affordable homes delivered since 2007, over 68,000 of which were for social rent. This is making a significant difference to people right across the country, and particularly for families with children.
We want to deliver a further 100,000 affordable homes by 2032. It is our aim that at least 70% of those homes will be for social rent, helping to tackle child poverty and homelessness.
But to tackle poverty effectively we must deliver a fair work future for Scotland, and we are working hard to do just that just now – but we are constrained by the powers available to us.
We cannot accept a future where two thirds of children living in poverty come from working households and where people are forced to rely on benefits to top-up their earnings.
We have to transform workplaces to tackle poverty and long-standing labour market inequalities, such as the disability employment gap and the barriers to employment faced by people from minority ethnic backgrounds.
With full powers over employment we could, as a minimum, ensure that all employees in Scotland receive the Real Living Wage, ensuring that their wages represent the true cost of living. We could outlaw unfair fire and hire tactics, prohibiting employers from dismissing employees and subsequently re-employing them on diminished terms and conditions, and we could ban inappropriate and exploitative use of zero hour contracts, giving people the certainty about their working hours – ensuring they can plan their lives and incomes.
That’s why I have asked all party leaders to support our request to the UK Government for the full devolution employment powers to this parliament. So we can tackle poverty with the powers we need to make the change.
Social security is also an important tool to tackle poverty, and again those powers don’t lie in our hands. 85% of spending remains at Westminster alongside income replacement benefits such as Universal Credit and Employment and Support Allowance.
If we didn’t already need it, the pandemic further evidenced that the UK welfare system is not fit for purpose and risks undermining hard won progress. This is the system people in Scotland have to rely on and we shouldn’t have to mitigate against polices we disagree with like the £80 million we spent last year on Discretionary Housing Payments to mitigate the bedroom tax in full and support people with housing – we could be investing in other anti-poverty measures. If we had the powers here we would be able to do that.
The removal of the £20 uplift to Universal Credit is a callous act which will push 60,000 families across Scotland, including 20,000 children, into poverty and will result in families unable to work receiving, on average, £1,600 less per year than they would have done a decade ago - a decade ago - in 2011.
That's a massive threat to the progress we could make here. We could be delivering the doubling of the Scottish child payment with one hand, only to see it removed by Westminster welfare policies with the other. Surely there is no-one across this chamber that can think that isin any way a good idea or a fair system?
We need to make significant investment into the pockets of those who need it most need. The Scottish child payment does that. That's why it's so important.
We have urged the UK Government to make the changes needed and to deliver a social security system which is fit purpose – scrapping harmful policies such as the two child cap, the rape clause, the benefit cap and 5 week wait under Universal Credit. Unfortunately, our calls, alongside many charities, organisations, and even the UN Poverty Rapporteur have been ignored. It's time for full powers to come here so we can make the difference.
We have already shown we can make a difference – a public service based on human rights with respect and dignity at its heart and viewed as an investment in the people of Scotland. Principles we enshrined in law.
Through our powers, we are tackling child poverty head on, with the Scottish Child Payment, which currently pays £40 every four weeks for every eligible child under 6. We are committed to doubling this to £80, making even greater impact.
Alongside our Best Start Grant and Best Start Foods we are providing over £5,300 of direct financial support for families by the time their first child turns six and further for subsequent children as we don’t put a cap on children. These payments are making a real difference to low income families, helping them to access the essentials they need.
That support is unmatched anywhere else in the UK.
Presiding officer, our next steps will build on the strong foundation we have set, and will be taken forward at pace these changes. No one who sits in this parliament, whatever their political beliefs, can underestimate the scale of the challenge that we face.
I want to take that forward and I'm pleased to work with anyone across this chamber who wants to join me in doing that.
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