Scotland must get power to alleviate poverty

Religious and voluntary groups insist the top priority must be to give Scotland the power to alleviate poverty, writes Stephen McGinty in the third part of our series on the objectives of the Smith Commission

A boy kicks a football in a run-down street in Govan. Picture: Getty
A boy kicks a football in a run-down street in Govan. Picture: Getty

IN THE cluttered upstairs office of the Reverend Sally Foster Fulton, amid the piles of papers and stacks of books – note the two-volume compendium of Far Side cartoons and a framed painting of a shepherd bringing home the lost sheep – visitors can see physical proof of a miracle.

While one floor down, in the warmth of the church hall, a gaggle of guests enjoy a cup of tea and an array of biscuits, up in Rev Fulton’s study you’ll believe a pig can fly. Suspended from the ceiling is a porcine aviator complete with goggles, leather flying helmet and expansive wings, which when switched on and successfully launched, circles the room with graceful ease.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

It may have been a gift from her husband as an aid to writer’s block, but a flying pig in a Reverend’s room strikes me as a tongue-in-cheek symbol of faith and hope in a world that tends to trample on both. “Yes,” she agrees in her easy and attractive South Carolina drawl. “I suppose he is.”

It is a bright but cold morning in Dunblane and outside a few tourists are wandering among the gravestones that surround the cathedral, but the focus for the Convener of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council is not the dead, who she believes are in God’s care, but the living, particularly the poor, who she believes are in ours. We’re talking about what new powers the Church of Scotland believes should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament as part of the Smith Commission and she’s adamant that the priority must be considerable control over tax and welfare, to make the maximum difference for those in need.

“Welfare is the big one” she explains. “To be able to make decisions for the most vulnerable – because I have to say that for the Church of Scotland there is a Gospel bias to the poor and, for us, that is the core – to be able to make sure that, where we can, those who find themselves at the margins are put at the front of the queue.”

This week, the Church of Scotland demanded that the Scottish Government prioritise the eradication of food poverty witnessed by the rise of food banks across the country. As Rev Fulton says: “Surely a good nation must be founded on a promise that all within its borders have enough to eat. In a country of such plenty, food banks are a particular scandal.” The Bible may say that the poor will always be with us, but it doesn’t specify the number, which in Scotland, after a long fall, is now set to rise.

The poor are now defined as those who live in households with less than 60 per cent of average household income. For a single person this means living on less than £130 per week; for a lone parent with two children, say five and 14 years old, the figure is £269 per week, while for a couple with two children the figure is £364 per week or the equivalent of £13 each per day for food, fuel, clothes, household goods and transport, with life’s little luxuries long excluded. Today one million people in Scotland live in poverty, or 19 per cent of the population, according to the Poverty Alliance, with 220,000 children (22 per cent) living below the line.

For almost 20 years the picture had been improving, with pensioners and children in particular lifted out of poverty – welfare payments protected low income households as average incomes fell. But the financial crisis of 2008 and the current coalition government’s decision to cut welfare expenditure means the number of poor Scots is increasing. Independent modelling predicts that more than 100,000 children will be pushed back into poverty by 2020. The Citizens Advice Bureau has said that the introduction of Personal Independence Payments has been beset by problems with delays between initial claims and first payments of between six to 15 months, resulting in people left without money for basics. This has led to a huge surge in the use of food banks.

The current welfare reforms are expected to take £1.6 billion out of the Scottish economy, with St Andrews in Fife the least affected council ward losing just £180 per adult per year compared with Calton in Glasgow, where the figure is £880. The Conservatives believe cuts are supported by the general public who in tough times are less sympathetic towards those they view as unwilling to work, but Martin Sime, chief executive of the Scottish Commission for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), believes Scots are, on the whole, more tolerant and understanding.

“We think the current service ill serves the people and communities that our members serve. People with disabilities, the poorest people in our society, are being assaulted by the current welfare system in a way that I think is utterly disgraceful. We have long held that welfare should be devolved and what we have not heard in the debate is the fact that it is devolved in Northern Ireland. So this idea that the fabric of the UK depends on a single welfare society doesn’t exist, it is a figment of the imagination.

“Political parties need to get up to speed with the welfare debate and have misrepresented it by saying this is a debate about money. It is not a debate about money, it is a debate about purpose. The welfare system should be there to support people, but if you listen to George Osborne the welfare system is just an inconvenience and the people who access it are somehow second class citizens who should be hounded. All of that stuff has led to food banks. We could do it better, of course we could do it better. It would be for the Scottish Parliament to decide how much money is spent on what, but if you have a successful approach to welfare you wouldn’t be spending as much.”

The exact manner in which the vast edifice of Westminster’s Department of Work and Pensions should be carved up, re-packaged and shipped up to Scotland remains a matter of considerable debate and no small confusion. While the SNP argues that everything should be transferred to Edinburgh’s control, the Labour Party has specifically targeted housing benefit, attendance allowance for the disabled, the child care element of the working tax credit and the work programme which provides personalised support for those claiming unemployment benefit.

Peter Kelly of the Poverty Alliance is sitting in his office in Glasgow, the capital of Scotland’s poor, where poverty will quietly erode 11 years from their lives, with most of the reduced allotment of time spent in “bad or very bad” health. As the charity remained neutral during the referendum debate, they are only now trying to figure out their precise position on the devolution of which welfare gears and levers.

“The problem that other parts of the third sector and trade unions are facing now is how do you unpick parts of the welfare system. It is very difficult to do, but I think at the moment Labour have been clearest about housing benefit and attendance allowance and work programmes. We are not opposed to that, but we are really trying to think hard about this in a quick way. We are not opposed to bringing new powers, but we need to be clear that they are ones that we need and that we can make use of.

“The Conservatives looked at the idea of topping up benefits and that is interesting, but with that we need to have the appropriate financial levers and the ability to borrow, which the Scottish Government doesn’t have. I think we are moving to a position that will take us further than the three main Westminster parties have gone, but I’m not certain we will get to a position where it is all the powers.”

The largest slice of welfare consists of pension payments and Kelly believes the public would be comfortable with this remaining at Westminster. “People have voted to be part of the UK and so they have essentially voted for pooling resources and sharing, and in some respects pensions seems to me like a good area where it makes sense to pool and to share and to have that shared responsibility.”

While the most direct path out of poverty is employment, the prevalence of low-paid jobs and zero-hour contracts, which can lead to families criss-crossing the poverty line on a weekly basis, makes control over employment law, which can clamp down on exploitation, a key consideration. However, Kelly believes the most important element is those fiscal ramps and the social support that will ease the long-term unemployed off their sofas, where many have sunk with depression, and back into the workforce.

“The more coherent approach to welfare policies is supporting people back into the labour market and that could have a big impact. We have seen in the past local examples of better integrated approaches to back-to-work programmes,” says Kelly.

“There was a programme working for families that the Lab/Lib coalition funded for a number of years and that was successful. It brought together advice providers, employability people, integrated voluntary sector providers and local authorities and what you got was a very tailored approach to ­getting people back to work.

“Crucially they moved at their own pace, and that kind of approach, if we have more controls from Westminster, can have a big impact. We can develop a response that is more suited to the nature of poverty in Scotland, the geographical spread of it and the concentration of it. More powers would allow us to be more responsive to some of those issues. The biggest test for this is whether people who are living on low incomes are better off because we have these new powers. Will we be able to help them more?”

The principal fear among the third sector of voluntary and charitable organisations is that there will be a political stitch-up, and so both the Church of Scotland and the SCVO are adamant that the final proposal of powers should be reviewed by a “Citizens Jury” – pooled representatives of the nation with the authority to point out glaring gaps.

Sime believes the current discussions are being poisoned by the inherent selfishness of each political party. “I and my members are interested in devolution as a way of better governing the country and improving public services in Scotland,” he explains.

“The debate the politicians are having is not about the better governance, it is really about how to advance the ­interests of their political party. They are not thinking about the governance of Scotland. They are thinking about their own party and how to get as many MPs in next May’s election, and that short-­termism is the devil in all of this.” «