IT IS not a wholly new phenomenon, but it has become one of the scandals of the age we live in. The “working poor” are a large and growing section of the Scottish public – people trying their hardest to make an honest living, but struggling to pay for the bare essentials of life for themselves and their families.
The scale of poverty in this country was revealed in Scottish Government statistics for 2012-13 released yesterday, which show 16 per cent of Scots were classed as living in relative poverty, defined as when their household income is less than 60 per cent of the average.
When housing costs were factored in, that rose to 19 per cent of the population – with a million people facing financial difficulties after paying for their accommodation.
What is striking about these numbers is the high proportion – 52 per cent – who are wage- earners. The phrase “hard- working families” is beloved of politicians of every party. It conjures up a rosy picture of honest toil producing a reasonably comfortable and secure living.
But for many Scottish families, working hard is clearly no longer enough.
In recent times, poverty has rarely been the defining political issue of the age. Other priorities have usually taken precedence. That may change in the coming general election, with “cost of living” issues likely to be at the heart of the campaign.
Labour’s emphasis in the Blair and Brown years was a complex – some would argue overcomplex – system of tax credits to benefit the working poor. Blair introduced the minimum wage.
While both made an impact, neither was a panacea, as yesterday’s figures amply prove.
Ed Miliband’s emphasis is different. To those urging Mr Miliband to embrace more redistribution of wealth to tackle poverty, the message from his aides is that he prefers “pre- distribution”.
Instead of tax credits, the Labour leader favours new tax breaks for businesses that pay a “living wage” to employees, putting more money directly into people’s pockets.
He also aims to keep more of that money in those pockets by challenging the big energy companies and rail providers to cut their prices.
The Labour calculation is that the recovery will not have reached enough people by the time of the general election to have calmed people’s fears about the economy, and so the cost of living agenda will still have a popular appeal.
David Cameron has paid his Labour opponent the compliment of accepting his analysis – last year the Tories too made moves against the energy firms.
The result is that, for the first time in decades, the practical needs of the poor – and particularly the working poor – will be front and centre in British politics. The cost of living battle can only grow in importance as polling day approaches.
Inquiry delayed is no inquiry at all
The scandal that saw hundreds of Scots infected with hepatitis C and HIV through the use of contaminated blood products remains one of the most shocking episodes in the history of the National Health Service.
That there was no public inquiry at the time was a further scandal, and in 2007 the incoming SNP government was right to set up the Penrose inquiry to examine what went wrong.
But an inquiry that was initially given a three-year budget of £3m has now – after a series of delays – reached a cost of more than £11m.
There are rational explanations for much of this cost rise. The passage of time has meant that mistakes made in the 1970s and 1980s have been hard to investigate. Facts have sometimes been difficult to establish to the required standard.
This has been an inquiry of sometimes bewildering complexity. The terms of reference of the inquiry necessitated 89 days of oral hearings.
And the death of Lord Penrose’s wife meant an unavoidable – and entirely understandable – hiatus in proceedings.
But with the best will in the world, there must now surely be a question mark over whether further delay and expense can be justified for much longer.
The way the NHS treats blood products these days is very different to the procedures that applied more than 30 years ago. There must therefore be some doubt as to the usefulness of the inquiry in learning lessons for the future protection of patients.
But more pertinent is the amount of time patients and bereaved families will have had to wait before they can find some closure.
The old adage has it that justice delayed is no justice at all.