23 April 2019
Like others, I welcome the committee’s report.
We have all known for a long time about the big issues with in-work poverty and universal credit and to have those issues laid bare by the committee makes stark reading.
To know that 60 per cent of working-age adults in Scotland who are in relative poverty are in working households is absolutely stark.
The Fraser of Allander institute’s “From the Fraser Commentary” said:
“despite record levels of employment, for many being in work is no longer providing the security and prosperity it once did.”
That is absolutely unacceptable.
The committee’s report focuses on universal credit, which takes over from working tax credits.
Emma Harper made the point that, for many, getting a tax credit did not feel like receiving a benefit and that changing to universal credit changes the ethos.
The committee highlighted concerns about universal credit that we all hear from constituents, including the length of time people wait for payments, which is unacceptable.
Most people who claim universal credit do not have savings that will last five weeks.
There are also concerns about what payments are taken into account as earnings.
Mark Griffin laid bare the worst excesses of the scheme.
He told us that someone’s tax rebate was being treated as income and that their universal credit was being reduced.
Alex Rowley said that the benefit freeze had also made universal credit unacceptable.
In response to some of those criticisms, Michelle Ballantyne said that the UK Government has a test and learn approach.
That is callous; people are living in poverty and living out of food banks, they are not guinea pigs for Tory policy.
Surely the Government has learned that that is unacceptable.
Clare Adamson told us that where universal credit has been rolled out, the use of food banks has increased by 52 per cent.
That is a test and it clearly shows failure. Will the UK Government learn from that?
Just as worrying were Elaine Smith’s comments about the welfare fund being underspent in areas where food bank use was still increasing. Again, that is unacceptable.
The Tories implemented the terrible policy of the two-children cap, but the SNP will do nothing to mitigate it.
I fought for a Scottish Parliament to defend us from the worst excesses of a Tory Government, and yet the SNP Government does not use the powers that it has to do that.
I will join the SNP Government in criticising the UK Government, but I cannot stand by quietly while the SNP Government refuses to act.
Many speakers talked about the digital first policy of universal credit.
That is a huge problem in the Highlands and Islands, the area that I represent.
There is a lack of connectivity, both digitally and in public transport that does not allow people to travel to where they could fill in a digital claim.
That makes it almost impossible to apply.
Bob Doris and others talked about the closure of job centres, which, because people need to travel, make it much more difficult to apply digitally and cuts down engagement with advisers.
Elaine Smith and Alex Rowley spoke about the latest Scottish Labour Party policy of a child benefit top-up of £5 a week to lift children out of poverty.
Again, the SNP has refused to implement that, despite presiding over an increase in child poverty.
As Alison Johnstone pointed out, organisations that work with children have said that an increase in child benefit offers an easy way to tackle child poverty—it is not the only thing that we can do, but it could be a quick fix until we can find a better solution.
Even if the Scottish Government thinks that increasing child benefit is not the way forward, surely it could implement an increase quickly while it worked on its alternative.
It should use the powers that it has to make a difference.
Alexander Stewart talked about childcare costs.
Such costs make a big difference to working families—indeed, sometimes they make the difference between being able to work and not being able to work at all.
A £5 per week increase in child benefit would help many families to pay for childcare.
Elaine Smith talked about how people are in debt due to poverty and rightly challenged Jamie Halcro Johnston, who suggested that help with budgeting is required.
A person cannot budget on nothing, as George Adam said. Alasdair Allan quoted the evidence that the committee heard from Russell Gunson, who made the point that it is impossible to budget on a low income.
Help with budgeting is fine, but people need something to budget with.
In her speech, the cabinet secretary talked about Scottish choices. We welcome the Scottish Government’s offer to make twice-monthly payments and to make housing payments directly to landlords.
However, people should surely be able to have a weekly payment, if that is what they want.
It is hard to make a small amount of money stretch over seven days, far less 14 days, or worse, a month.
The cabinet secretary said that there will be the option to have split payments.
Universal credit is currently paid in one payment, normally to the man in the family.
I suggest to the cabinet secretary that split payment should be the norm.
A person who is suffering from coercive control cannot request a split payment; the abusive partner would never allow it.
Unless split payment is the norm, we can do nothing to fight the control over finance that is part of domestic abuse and about which this Parliament legislated.
Further, a default payment to a man enhances inequality and promotes the view that the man should be in charge of the household finances.
Surely all members find that unacceptable.
We would do things differently.
We would remove the two-children cap and thereby remove the rape clause.
We would top up child benefit by £5 per week and we would pay a £10 an hour living wage.
That would lift people out of poverty and enable them to benefit from work, with the confidence that there was a safety net below them.
This has been an excellent debate, with well argued and informative speeches from members of all parties.
The Labour amendment emphasises the bigger picture, such as the role that health inequality and austerity play in creating food insecurity. I should declare my membership of the Scottish Co-operative Party.
The key element in the debate, which a succession of speakers mentioned, is that nutrition plays a crucial role in fighting, head-on, the growing cost of preventable health conditions such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and many types of cancer.
As the minister Joe FitzPatrick, Mark Ruskell, Alex Cole-Hamilton, John Scott, Emma Harper, Johann Lamont and George Adam said, more than a quarter of adults in Scotland are obese, which increases their risk of developing potentially serious health conditions.
As we all know, the risk of obesity varies across Scotland.
The rate among women who live in affluent areas is 21 per cent, compared with 37 per cent in disadvantaged areas.
Excellent points were made in the debate. I did not agree with all Brian Whittle’s comments, but he made sense when he talked about locally sourced food.
He made the interesting point that 70 per cent of school meals fail to meet nutritional standards, and he made the important point that there is a link between nutrition and the management of mental health.
I agree with the minister on the importance of Scotland being a place where people eat well and are of healthy weight, on the prevention of ill health and on the need for a joined-up approach, with informed, healthier choices.
Mark Ruskell made a strong point about the right to food, which I echoed in my speech, in the context of my comments about the good food nation bill.
He also talked about the worrying decline in green spaces and the important link between child poverty and child health.
Alex Cole-Hamilton adopted a Churchillian role when he talked about digging for victory and the cost of obesity. He made important points about the need to develop independent living, particularly in schools.
John Scott, who is a very experienced farmer, made good points about the campaign to source and buy local food, with which I strongly agree, and about the magic pill of exercise, which we should use a lot more.
I was not aware of the Scottish diet action plan, which is another important issue to emphasise.
Emma Harper made excellent points.
In particular, I share her view on “Fixing Dad”—I was also at the presentation that she mentioned.
For members who have not followed it, the programme offers an effective way of reducing, if not quite curing, type 2 diabetes.
Emma Harper also talked about the important role of social prescribing and the vital importance of a balanced diet.
Johann Lamont made excellent points about healthy eating.
She said that we can all talk about a practical and sensible approach; the difficulty is how we enact it on the ground.
She also talked about the impact of UK economic policy and stressed the importance of the Scottish campaign for food justice.
Health inequality is at the root of this debate.
Poverty, social deprivation and social inequalities are significant contributors to people being overweight; it is the least well-off who are most at risk.
Why should someone’s postcode determine their life expectancy?
Why should not the right to food be a basic human right?
As Martin Luther King said:
“Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.”