The arrival in Scotland today of Philip Alston, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, could not be timelier. Visiting as part of his inquiry into poverty in the UK, he comes at a point when, for the first time in decades, poverty is on the increase in Scotland and more and more people struggle to get by.
Today also marks one year since – in a moment of rare political unanimity – every MSP from every party in the Scottish Parliament voted to pass the Child Poverty Act. The Act underlined the cross-party view that in a society which believes in justice and compassion, it is simply not right that one million people, including one in four children, are living in the grip of poverty, and set ambitious child poverty reduction targets to be met by 2030.
There is no escaping the fact that UK Government decisions will make meeting these targets more challenging. The benefits freeze is trapping people in poverty. The two-child limit is unjust and removing support from families who need it most. The sanctions regime is harmful in every way possible. And Universal Credit – if implemented in its current form – will pull more people into poverty.
But we can recognise the challenges faced whilst also recognising the power we have to overcome them. In the year since the Act was passed, progress has already been made. The Scottish Government has committed to introducing a new income supplement for families on low incomes, and the Scottish social security system – with dignity, fairness and respect at its heart – has been created.
This progress acts as proof there are decisions we can take in Scotland that can and will help to loosen the grip of poverty on people’s lives. The Scottish Parliament was re-convened to fulfil that very role; to enable Scotland to choose different policies and pursue a different path. In truth, for people on low incomes it matters not which government provides the support that unlocks them from poverty but just that this support is provided.
So the anniversary of the Act offers us the opportunity to look forward and set out what other choices we can take to tackle poverty in Scotland. That’s why today the Poverty Alliance has published Loosening the Grip: An Agenda for Action, outlining some of the decisions we can make in the years ahead to ensure that everyone in Scotland has a decent standard of living. We can lift tens of thousands of children out of poverty by topping up child benefit. We can continue to increase the value of the benefits that have been devolved so that they meet the Minimum Income Standard, which is the income level that members of the public think is necessary for enabling a decent standard of living. We can reduce food insecurity by investing in the Scottish Welfare Fund and supporting local services. And we can reduce costs for low-income families by expanding concessionary travel for people on low incomes, continuing to invest in childcare entitlements, and taking more radical action to reduce fuel poverty.
These are decisions that can prevent people from having to choose between heating their home and paying their rent, that can free people from restrictions our economy places on them, and give people control over their own lives. These decisions, and many others, are within our gift in Scotland. If we are to meet the targets set one year ago and finally solve poverty in Scotland, then we must take them.
Neil Cowan is policy and parliamentary officer at Poverty Alliance