Nicola Sturgeon: A fairer Scotland with ‘Yes’ vote

WITH full control of economic and social policy we can create a fairer nation where everyone can realise their potential, writes Nicola Sturgeon

A 'Yes' vote can help Scotland escape the grip of austerity, writes Nicola Sturgeon. Picture: Contributed

Scotland is one of the richest countries in the world, but for too many people in Scotland it does not feel that way.

The fact is that the reduction in poverty seen in recent years is now being reversed by UK Government social security cuts, with one in five children in Scotland now living in relative poverty. This is unacceptable.

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• Westminster plans to cut the social security budget in Scotland by more than £6 billion by 2015 – £1bn of this relates to children.

• These cuts are reducing incomes for some of our poorest households and poverty is increasing.

• In 2012/13, 220,000 children in Scotland were classed as living in “relative poverty” after housing costs – that’s an extra 30,000 children compared with the previous year.

• If we continue with Westminster policies then child poverty levels will continue to increase.

• We need the full powers of independence for a system that supports our most vulnerable, helps people find work and provides a fair pay.

The Scottish Government has focused on doing everything we can to mitigate the harmful effects of Westminster social security cuts – and we will continue to do so – but the impact is still being felt by the most vulnerable in our society.

What is even more worrying is that 70 per cent of the welfare cuts are still to come – Scotland will see its social security budget reduced by more than £6 billion by 2015/16, of which more than £1bn relates to children.

There is no reason for children to be living in poverty in our society. Our children deserve the best possible start in life and we don’t want to see any child in Scotland being born into or condemned to live a life of poverty.

Last year, more than 200,000 children were living in relative poverty across Scotland, with an increase in 30,000 in just the last year even before the main cuts have taken effect. If we continue with Westminster policies it is certain that child poverty levels will continue to increase.

The welfare reforms of the Westminster government will have a significant and detrimental impact on Scotland and do little to address the scourge of child poverty.

The UK is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world. Living standards have been falling for those on middle and low incomes, and the gap between rich and poor is getting wider. Westminster welfare reforms, such as the reduction in in-work tax credits, are reducing incomes for some of our poorest households.

Figures published last month show incomes are falling for families in Scotland. Our “social contract” policies and our efforts to mitigate the impact of welfare cuts are designed to help, but we need the powers to do more.

Westminster’s “bedroom tax” affected thousands of people in Scotland, so in 2013/14 we gave £20 million in discretionary housing payments to mitigate its impact on Scottish households. And this year we gave a further £35m to local authorities to top up discretionary housing payments to meet the estimated £50m needed to fully mitigate the effects of the bedroom tax in 2014-15.

However, right now, all we can do is mitigate the impact of Westminster policies.

The real and better solution is for the Scottish 
Parliament, with the powers of independence, to have full control over welfare so that we can put in place policies that benefit the people of Scotland.

In an independent Scotland we would have the powers to provide one of the most comprehensive child care packages in Europe, which would allow more parents to work.

We would also be able to set up a commission to consider a new Scottish minimum wage – which would at least rise in line with inflation – and ensure that benefits, allowances and tax credits keep rising with the cost of living.

The Poverty and Income Inequality in Scotland report published in July demonstrates just how vital the full powers of independence now are, to enable us to create a different approach – one that supports our most vulnerable, encourages people into the workplace and provides a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.

Our poorest households do not have the income needed to gain the wealth – and security – that comes from owning property or having pension wealth. Unless action is taken soon, this cycle of deprivation will continue, with more children continuing to be born into poverty.

Housing is a priority for us, we will do what’s right for Scotland’s economy and housing market, and where it is sensible and sustainable, we will help people get onto the property ladder.

In the lifetime of this parliament we set a target to build 30,000 affordable homes, at least 20,000 of which would be for social rent. In three years we’ve built 19,903 affordable homes, including 14,294 for social rent.

However, the reality is that over the years the Westminster system has failed to properly address the deep social inequalities which exist in Scottish society, with generation after generation feeling the impact.

Tackling and reversing this inequality requires key economic and social policy levers being in the hands of the Scottish Government.

That’s why we need the full economic levers available to us to create a different approach – one that supports our most vulnerable, encourages people into the workplace and works towards making Scotland a more equal country to live and work.

We are taking a long-term approach to tackling poverty and income inequality, to remove the barriers that stand in the way of people being able to realise their full potential.

Solving the problems of poverty and inequality won’t happen overnight, but with independence we will have the powers we need to tackle them.

• Nicola Sturgeon MSP is deputy first minister of Scotland