Richard Leonard: Why are working Scots living in poverty? The SNP refuse to help

When I joined the Labour Party more than 35 years ago, the two biggest causes of poverty in Scotland were old age and mass unemployment, writes Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard.

Many things have stayed the same over those three decades. Too many of our pensioners are still denied the dignity they deserve in retirement. More than 300,000 older households are in fuel poverty this winter. Too often, years of under-investment in our NHS and social care services mean older people are staying longer in hospital than they need to, and they are simply not receiving the first-rate care we ought to be able to provide as one of the world’s wealthiest countries.

At the same time, in many parts of Scotland – not least in the deindustrialised areas – unemployment is significantly understated in the official figures. Often the real rate is twice the claimant count, and insecure work is a much bigger problem than Government ministers seem to want to admit.

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But some things have changed. Now, the main cause of poverty in Scotland is low pay.

Low pay is now the main cause of poverty as people work hard but still struggle to pay bills (Picture: John Devlin)

I have written in this newspaper before about the crisis of poverty and how we must tackle it. I make no apology for doing so again, after a Scottish Government budget that anti-poverty campaigners and charities have described as a “missed opportunity”.

In that budget, Labour asked for some common-sense measures that would be a start and make a real difference to people’s daily lives.

We proposed a £5-a-week top-up to Child Benefit. This would immediately lift 30,000 children in Scotland out of poverty and is something that churches, charities, trade unions and academics all support. The SNP refused.

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We also proposed £10 million injection of finance into the fund designed to help families who are struggling with their housing costs and who are, therefore, at risk of eviction and homelessness. The SNP refused.

We also called for the Scottish Government to use the powers of the Scottish Parliament to protect families from the Tory Government’s cruel and inhumane two-child cap on Tax Credits and Universal Credit, and the ‘rape clause’ that a Tory MSP tried to claim this week did not exist. Doing this would cost just 0.2 per cent of the Scottish budget. The SNP, inexplicably, refused, saying they could not afford it. The question most people are asking is, can they afford not to?

Until we have a Government that takes these matters seriously, we will never make progress.

As we look forward to Christmas, no one can be proud of the fact that 230,000 children in Scotland – one in four – are living below the poverty line. Of these, more than 60 per cent are growing up in households where at least one adult is in work.

So we need to provide support through our social security system now. But we also need to re-establish genuine full employment as a goal of public policy. Because although we are regularly told that we have record levels of people in work, employment is now counted in the official statistics as “one hour or more of paid work per week” and includes “those doing unpaid family work”.

And we need action to tackle the low-wage economy. Real earnings are still lower than before the financial crash. People are working hard but still struggling, although this is not the case for everyone of course. Wages are being depressed so that profits and dividends to shareholders can continue to rise. In fact, latest estimates are that dividend payments on shares this year will be up by 8.6 per cent to a record £95.8 billion.

There is an old saying that the rich are only so rich because the poor are so poor. How true that is.

This week, another man who had been sleeping rough died. While the hundreds of deaths of rough sleepers across the UK are rarely reported, this one made the news because he was sleeping outside the Houses of Parliament. What a symbol of how broken our political system is.

We need to change it. And there are no short cuts to the change that we need to make. We need radical, transformative change. An end to the policies of punitive austerity, inflicting poverty and inequality on working people, while the wealthy just get wealthier. Last weekend I was pleased to welcome the UK Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn back to Edinburgh to meet and thank organisations who are helping families experiencing homelessness and relying on foodbanks. The kind of society Jeremy and I want, and have spent our lives campaigning for, is one where charities like these are unnecessary. Not, as now, seen as inevitable.

We want a society where decent housing is an inalienable human right, not an investment opportunity for a wealthy few, and where we invest in our communities, not impose austerity. A society that offers hope over despair.

In 2019, we will mark the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. I was proud to have campaigned for a parliament for change, alongside the late Donald Dewar, Jack McConnell, Maria Fyfe, and many others across the labour movement.

At that time, we had ambition and hope that our parliament would be a platform to make people’s lives better, to lift people out of poverty, to tackle injustice and inequality. Twenty years on, it is a signal of how much we need to recapture that spirit that we are having to talk about a budget of missed opportunities.

I joined the Labour Party to change things, to fight injustice, to campaign for a democratic and socialist alternative to the Thatcherite political and economic model that was wreaking havoc on our communities and was set to go on to cause much more damage and misery. Many things have changed over those three decades, but the need for a radical, socialist, transformative Labour Party – in power in Scotland and across the UK – has not.

Richard Leonard is the leader of the Scottish Labour Party.