Scotland is “mopping up the mess” of UK welfare policy, this was the key assertion from Aileen Campbell MSP, the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, during last month’s Ministerial Statement on the interim findings from the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights.
To an extent, the UN Special Rapporteur, Philip Alston, agreed. After spending a fortnight touring the UK and meeting people and communities living in poverty, the Rapporteur concluded that the UK Government’s commitment to the austerity agenda has failed the most vulnerable through the systematic dismantling of the social safety net. Devolved administrations, he acknowledged, had tried to mitigate some of the worst impacts of such policies.
Like the Special Rapporteur, colleagues across the third sector recognise that the Scottish Government, like other devolved administrations, has experienced significant reductions in block grant funding. Similarly, there are constitutional limits on the Government’s ability to raise revenue. However, it would be disingenuous to suggest that the Scottish Government do not have other tools available to them through which they can address poverty and realise rights.
For example, in his interim report and media appearances, the Special Rapporteur described the disproportionate impact of austerity on women, a point long made by organisations across the third sector. The Scottish Government could begin to address this by enabling household payments of Universal Credit (UC) to be split into individual payments, ensuring women canaccess some independent income. Topping up entitlements and introducing an universal basic income or a minimum income guarantee, are also avenues that the Scottish Government can and should explore. And while SCVO and organisations across the third sector recognise that the Scottish Government plan to support some basic income pilots and to introduce an income supplement for parents on low incomes, these solutions are some way off for the almost 1 million people in Scotland who are living in poverty now.
The Special Rapporteur’s report outlines the challenges faced by these families in excoriating detail; their battles with hunger, struggle to pay their bills, and for many, the feeling of being trapped in poverty. In the long-term, poverty will impact their health, wellbeing, and life chances. The Scottish Government is failing to fulfil their right to an adequate standard of and must take some responsibility for this. Poverty, the UN Special Rapporteur’s report stresses, is a political choice. Scotland then, can do better.
As an example, last year despite the very real poverty experienced by communities across Scotland, the Scottish Government failed to spend European Structural and Investment Fund (ESIF) monies in real terms due to poor management. As a result, the European Commission have decommitted and asked for the return of millions of pounds that could have made a difference to the lives of people and communities across Scotland.
Action could also be taken to incentivise and strengthen the Scottish Business Pledge. For example, the Scottish Government could require all businesses to commit to the Business pledge, or as a minimum the Living Wage, to receive public contracts. SCVO,UNISON , and others across Scottish civil society, believe that EU law would allow the Living Wage to be set as a contract condition. Similarly, Fair Start could be redesigned to create person-centred rights-based services, rather than focusing solely on getting people into work as quickly as possible. We must also recognise and value other contributions to society, carers, volunteers, learners, or activists, and adequately support those in these roles.
Like the Special Rapporteur, SCVO and organisations across the third sector welcome Scottish Government initiatives that aim to address poverty, such as the Fairer Scotland Action Plan, and the Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan. The rights-based approach to social security and the commitment that social security in Scotland will contribute to reducing poverty, is also welcome. The absence of a robust reference to international standards human rights standards in the Social Security (Scotland) Act, did not , however, go unnoticed by the Special Rapporteur and was described as a significant accountability gap. A reminder, perhaps, that we must and cannot not become complacent.
While there can be no doubt that at a UK level urgent action is needed to halt and improve Universal Credit, scrap the benefit cap, and appeal the two-child limit. The Scottish Government can and must go further to create a co-ordinated vision to tackle poverty and inequality, realise rights, and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Poverty is a political choice, and like the UK Government, the Scottish Government has a choice to make.
The Full report for the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights is expected in December.