The recent visit to Scotland of Professor Philip Alston, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, shone a light on what organisations working on poverty-related issues already know to be true; that the increasing levels of poverty that we have seen in Scotland in recent years are a direct result of choices that have been made about our society’s priorities and resources.
These choices include the freeze on working-age benefits; the two-child limit; the sanctions regime, and the continued rollout of Universal Credit, despite its glaring failings. In the words of Professor Alston, it is “patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty” as a result of these choices, but yet 1 million people in Scotland do.
This year has, encouragingly, seen us take some different choices in Scotland in an effort to tackle poverty. In March, the Scottish Government published its first child poverty delivery plan, which included a hugely welcome commitment to introducing a new income supplement for families on low incomes. In April, the Scottish Parliament unanimously passed the Social Security Act, giving the Scottish Government control over a number of different social security entitlements. Social Security Scotland – the agency that will deliver these entitlements – has been established with dignity, fairness and respect at its heart, and the Social Security Charter – which will detail what people should expect when accessing the Scottish social security system – will soon be published.
We should be proud of these positive steps, which show the cross-party and cross-societal commitment that exists to meet the ambitious targets set by the Child Poverty Act, and ultimately to solving poverty in Scotland. But with 1 million people, including 230,000 children, currently living in poverty in Scotland, we must redouble efforts in 2019, with every level of government and every policy decision-maker focusing on the choices they can make to loosen the grip of poverty on people’s lives.
These are choices like ending the benefits freeze, ending the two-child limit and fixing Universal Credit, but also – in recognition of the urgency with which families across Scotland need it – bringing forward delivery of the new income supplement; investing in the Scottish Welfare Fund; expanding concessionary travel for people on low incomes, and taking more radical action to eradicate fuel poverty.
The existence of poverty, Professor Alston made clear, is a result of political decisions, and just as the economy we have was designed, so too can we redesign it to better reflect the values of justice and compassion we all share. So if we want to prevent people from having to decide between heating their home and paying their rent, if we want to free people from restrictions our economy places on them, and if we want to give people control over their own lives, then these are the choices we have to take.