The UK Government’s response to the final report by Professor Philip Alston – the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights – following his visit to the UK last year has been an all too predictable one. Rejecting the report as “barely believable” and “completely inaccurate”, it reflects a trend of government denial about the impact of austerity, and denial of the way in which decisions over the last decade have tightened the grip of poverty on millions of people’s lives.
But for those organisations who met with and provided testimony to Professor Alston, the report provides an accurate reflection of the scale of poverty and inequality that we bear witness to every day in communities across Scotland. Whether the impact of the 5 week wait for Universal Credit, the two-child limit or the benefits freeze, we know the way in which these policies are trapping people in poverty, and also of the way in which these policies are having the biggest impact on groups already most likely to experience poverty – lone parents, disabled people and people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.
While the catalyst behind rising poverty rates has been UK Government decisions, the rightfully damning indictment of those decisions by the Rapporteur mustn’t mean that we lose sight of the actions we can take in Scotland to ease the pressure on people who are struggling to get by. The Scottish Government was right – in its response to the report – to urge the UK Government to make the radical changes needed to tackle poverty and inequality. And it was right, too, to highlight the positive steps that it is already taking; the Child Poverty Act, the introduction of the Best Start Grant, and the development of a Social Security Charter, to name a few.
Yet as recent Poverty and Inequality Commission analysis concluded, the scale of resources being devoted to tackling poverty in Scotland still does not match the scale of the challenge, and it is clear that there is more that can be done here in Scotland to act on Professor Alston’s stark warnings, irrespective of UK Government decisions.
The new income supplement provides one such example. While the commitment to its introduction is hugely welcome, it’s clear that families living in poverty now simply can’t wait until 2022 for this support. Given the projected rise in child poverty in the coming years, the income supplement can act as a lifeline to help families weather the storm to come. But they need that lifeline now, not in three years’ time. If we want to stem the rising tide of poverty then the next Programme for Government must be used to bring forward its delivery.
Another example comes from the Scottish Welfare Fund. As a safety net for people experiencing income crisis, it has been invaluable since its establishment in 2013. But even in the face of growing demand, its budget has remained static since 2013/14; amounting to a real terms cut of 7%. It needs investment and urgently.
Longer-term, there’s also a need to look more broadly at adequacy within the Scottish social security system. After the current period of transition, our central focus should be how we can ensure adequacy within the system, and how we can best realise the vision of using the system to prevent and reduce poverty. Uprating based on inflation is welcome, but this cannot be the ceiling of our ambition.
All of us – civil society, businesses, and governments at all levels – have a moral responsibility to respond to the Rapporteur’s report by stepping up our action to tackle poverty. The levels of poverty we see in our communities demand action that is radical, ambitious and urgent. Without it, more and more families will sink beneath the waves. With it, we can begin to create the Scotland we all wish to see; where everyone is free from the grip of poverty and where every child really does have every chance.