Poverty commissioners slam government budget for 'lack of transparency'

The Scottish Government has come under fire from an independent poverty commission for a lack of transparency over how it spends money on tackling poverty.

Reducing housing costs would have a big impact on tackling poverty, according to a new report which criticises the lack of transparency around the Scottish Government's budget.

In a new report scrutinising this year's budget, the Poverty and Inequality Commission said it had been "impossible to accurately calculate" how much is spent addressing poverty.

The report also demands the speeding up of the introduction of a promised income supplement to raise children out of poverty, recommends the government use its tax-raising powers more effectively and suggests that money should be directed towards social security, work and earnings, and reducing housing costs as they have "the biggest impact on poverty".

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The report is the first time the Commission, which was established last year, has looked at how the Scottish Government is spending its money on reducing poverty.

It says that its scrutiny of the budget "was hindered by the lack of transparency within the budget around how much is being spent on different policies. Therefore, it was impossible to accurately calculate how much the budget is spending on addressing poverty and inequality and whether this has increased from previous years in line with the new commitments.

"There needs to be greater transparency to allow more detailed scrutiny of the budget. At the very least, it is vital to be able to follow spend through the years and to be able to assess how much money is being spent on tackling poverty and inequality."

It also says that more funding needs to be "directly targeted at tackling poverty and inequality," adding "protected budgets around health, education and policing means that other areas are squeezed. However, if tackling poverty is a priority of the government then this needs to be matched in the spending plans.

"Money remains tight and the government has difficult decisions to make around funding priorities. The government should consider the opportunities it has to raise revenue through taxes. Consideration should also be given to the balance of revenue raising across different sources."

The report welcomes the new funding allocated to social security and the planned introduction of a new income supplement for families by 2022 to tackle child poverty. But it adds: "The Commission understands that it takes time to put such a measure in place, however... it strongly feels that many families need additional money in their pockets now.

"The Scottish Government urgently needs to consider how they can progress this quicker or, if this is not feasible, what interim measures could help.

"The recently published statistics show that poverty and inequality continue to rise and are predicted to continue to do so. If the Scottish Government is to have any chance of tackling poverty effectively and meeting its statutory targets on child poverty, it will need to take sustained action and invest considerably more than current levels. Future levels of funding must meet the scale of the challenge."

Today, John Dickie, Director of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland, said the Commission’s analysis had made clear the "massive gap" between the scale of ambition to tackle child poverty and the resources allocated to delivering on the commitment.

He said: "Investment to date in Best Start Grants, increases to school clothing grants, additional employability support for parents and extended early years childcare support are all really welcome, but they are nowhere near sufficient to make the kinds of impact on child poverty needed to meet the 2030 target of less than 10 per cent of our children living in poverty.”

Currently nearly 240,000 children in Scotland are officially recognised as living in poverty, with the number expected to rise. Mr Dickie added: "The Scottish Government’s commitment to a new income supplement is a potential game changer, but as the Commission makes clear it needs to be backed by a level of investment that provides meaningful support to families and a substantive impact on overall child poverty numbers.

"The current 2022 timetable for the supplement lacks urgency. Three budgets have now passed since the Scottish Parliament got the social security powers it needs to directly boost family incomes, yet in that time tens of thousands more children have been pushed into poverty as a result of UK tax and benefit policies.

"Families locked in poverty now can’t wait until 2022 for Holyrood Ministers to back their commitments with the investment needed to free children from the damage that poverty wreaks.”

And Jamie Livingstone, Head of Oxfam Scotland, said: “The Scottish budget must be a key lever for tackling poverty and inequality but, right now, the Commission is clear that we’re failing to make it count. If we really want a fairer and more equal country, we need a serious discussion about the way that government raises and spends its money, because the status quo is not working. “While welcome progress is being made to put dignity at the heart of Scotland’s new social security system, it is clear that plans for a new income supplement in 2022 is simply too far away for families who need cash in their pockets today. Warm words will not make a difference to people who cannot put food on the table.”

The Commission's report also highlights the lived experienced of those in poverty, who made points it believes the government should consider: "Additional social security payments will only make a difference if the amount provided is meaningful; employment support programmes will only work if jobs exist and if it is decent, fair work; childcare is one of the most important routes to support parents into work and out of poverty. As such, it may be beneficial to start thinking beyond investment in early years childcare and how this can be extended to other age groups."

Scottish Labour's poverty spokesperson, Elaine Smith said: “This report should be a stark wake up call to the SNP that their current level of spending to tackle poverty is falling well short of what is needed.

“The lack of ambition from Nicola Sturgeon and her Government is failing far too many struggling families, who need money in their pockets now. That’s why Scottish Labour wants to see an end to the two-child cap in tax credits and a £5 per week increase to Child Benefit, which would reduce some of the financial pressure on families and lift 30,000 children out of poverty.

“We already have the power to take these actions now, and make a difference to thousands of people across the country."