Richard Leonard: Labour government would start using Holyrood powers to fight poverty

Labour would not be afraid to charge Scotland's richest people 50p in the pound in a bid to help the poorest. Picture: John Devlin
Labour would not be afraid to charge Scotland's richest people 50p in the pound in a bid to help the poorest. Picture: John Devlin
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Scottish Labour Leader Richard Leonard claims the SNP have refused to ask the richest to pay their fair share.

Poverty is society’s greatest ill. It causes ill health and premature death, disease and depression. It degrades our common humanity and makes a mockery of our claims to civilisation. And yet, despite the means for its eradication being at our fingertips, poverty is far from a thing of the past.
It is present in the here and now. It can be seen in housing schemes. It can be found in our inner cities and in our villages. Poverty continues, as it has done for centuries, to hold us back.

Labour has always made the eradication of poverty its defining mission – and it is one of the reasons I first joined the Labour Party.

Indeed, successive Labour governments have made progress in consigning poverty to the dustbin of history. Everyone knows, of course, that it was a Labour government that created the National Health Service and the welfare state after the devastation of the Second World War – a legacy that we all must continue to fight for.

More recently, Labour in power took more than a million children out of poverty, including more than 200,000 in Scotland. Coupled with the decency of a minimum wage and the inventiveness of tax credits, Labour between 1997 and 2010 took a big stride forward towards ending the scourge of poverty in the UK.

Yet, once again, the election of a Tory government has set all that good work back.

The Tories’ ideological obsession with austerity is pushing more and more working families below the breadline. And now the calamitous roll out of Universal Credit is forcing more people to go to food banks, while Philip Hammond prioritises tax cuts for the richest and big business at the same time as raising taxes on work.

This is a government with the wrong priorities.

This is not about party political point scoring. United Nations representative Professor Philip Alston had no party political motive when he declared last week that poverty was causing “misery” across the UK. Indeed, there was nothing more disgraceful than to hear Amber Rudd – the minister who failed even basic tests of human decency over the Windrush scandal – questioning the integrity of Prof Alston after he had published his report. In this damning document, Prof Alston lays bare just how badly people are being failed across Scotland and the whole of the UK. He slates, in the most justified way, the Tories’ callous cuts to social security, pointing out how Universal Credit is punishing people in every community – and the moral-free zone that this has been designed and delivered in. More troubling still is his – again correct – suggestion that the costs of Brexit will be met not by the Jacob Rees-Moggs and Boris Johnsons of this world, but by those already suffering. Working families, he said, have already lost around £400 a year because of the fall in the value of the pound post-Brexit.

That alone should be reason enough to ensure we get a Brexit deal that works for the whole country, as Labour has consistently said.

More broadly, that an impartial expert on poverty has joined the crescendo of voices impugning the values of the Tories is to be welcomed. But the Tories’ point blank refusal to even engage with Prof Alston’s findings shows us the scale of the challenge we face.

Labour has the answers to address that miserable poverty identified by Prof Alston. With Jeremy Corbyn as leader, we stand ready to remedy the harm done by a Conservative government.

Policies such as a £10 an hour living wage to ensure work pays, halting the roll out of Universal Credit and large-scale investment in our public services and in an industrial strategy, will all help to ensure we are once again lifting people out of poverty.

And the challenge to eradicate this historic evil cannot just be left at a UK-level. We need action here too – but the SNP also seem content to sit back and simply blame the Tories. That is nowhere near good enough.

When I became Scottish Labour leader – just over a year ago this week – I created a new shadow ministerial position with the specific remit of tackling poverty. Because, unless we treat it with the seriousness it deserves, it will never end. And that ministerial position is backed up by the ideas and policies to tackle poverty too.

A Scottish Labour government would dismiss the timidity of the SNP on taxation, and start using the powers of the Scottish Parliament. The SNP has refused to ask the richest to pay their fair share and in this coming budget, if he is true to form, Finance Secretary Derek Mackay will fail to introduce a 50p top rate of tax. Labour is clear: with our local services starved of vital funds and with growing inequality across Scotland and rising poverty, a 50p top rate of tax is both right and necessary.

There is also work that can be done today. Labour is calling on the SNP to use the upcoming budget to increase child benefit in Scotland by £5 per week. That change would, in an instant, lift 30,000 children out of poverty and put more money in the pockets of working class families.

It should shame us all that in 21st-century Britain, the United Nations can come to our country and deliver such a damning verdict. That simply cannot be right – and it is clearly the duty of everyone to make sure poverty in all its forms is finally banished for good.