Poverty in parts of Scotland is so severe that food banks are regarded as “the norm” in some communities, Nicola Sturgeon’s top adviser on poverty has warned.
Douglas Hamilton, chairman of the Poverty and Inequality Commission, said it was “absolutely shocking” that emergency food handouts were becoming accepted as an everyday fact of life.
He said politicians in Scotland were in danger of becoming complacent about tackling poverty, warning that warm words and tough targets were not enough.
Mr Hamilton was appointed by the First Minister in July. He is supported by Kaliani Lyle and Naomi Eisenstadt – who previously served as Ms Sturgeon’s independent poverty adviser – and has so far appointed five commissioners.
In November, MSPs unanimously voted in favour of the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill, which places a statutory commitment on ministers to cut levels of child poverty drastically by 2030.
Mr Hamilton said that while setting such a tough target was commendable, it would be meaningless unless it was followed up with similarly bold actions.
“There is a real danger of complacency setting in, with politicians and political parties generally, about tackling poverty,” he said.
“You get in a situation where almost everyone agrees. People come up from Westminster and say, ‘It’s amazing, the rhetoric’s completely different up here, it’s much more progressive’, but we don’t have actions that match up to that.”
He added: “The very existence of a food bank should be a real flashing neon sign saying, ‘We’ve got a problem’.
“There’s a real danger you start to accept these things as the norm rather than saying, ‘This isn’t right, it shouldn’t be happening’. We need to warn against complacency.”
Mr Hamilton, who was previously the head of Save the Children in Scotland, said Holyrood’s new powers over income tax and social security would play a “key role” in tackling poverty. The Scottish Parliament is taking on responsibility for 11 social security powers, with a new agency to distribute payments expected to be fully operational by 2021.
Describing this as a “game-changer”, Mr Hamilton added: “We’ll no longer be able to say, ‘The reason why there’s so many people in poverty in Scotland is because of Westminster benefit policies’.”
He added that Scots could expect to see further rises in income tax to fund people’s benefit payments, which he said would be crucial in cutting poverty.
“When there have been decreases in poverty, particularly child poverty, it’s been when there’s been increases in social security payments,” he said. “I would expect there to be more spent on social security. It’s going to have to be carefully thought through and targeted, and it’s going to have to be addressed in a particular way. But if the government is serious about trying to reduce poverty then it will have to invest more in social security, which means the money’s got to be raised from somewhere.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “While some powers over welfare have been devolved, the UK government retains control of most welfare policy affecting people in Scotland – and we will continue to challenge UK government welfare reforms which are the key driver causing this increased demand for food banks.”