The parliamentary road to tackling poverty?

Peter Kelly says policies without powers behind them are coming up short in progress against poverty

There are currently more than one million people locked in poverty in Scotland, a number that has been slowly rising over the last few years. If the predictions are correct, then we can expect this to increase further still. As we rightfully celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Scottish Parliament, these figures should make us pause. Why have we not made the progress that many of us would have hoped for? Is it a lack of ambition, or a failure of policy making, or the limitations of our powers? If we are to make greater progress in the future, then we must begin to answer these questions.

When the Parliament was re-established, it was seen as providing an opportunity to address long standing issues of social injustice in Scotland. This participatory body would enable ‘Scottish solutions to Scottish problems’. For Donald Dewar, and for many others, devolution was a means to an end and no end was ‘more important than the creation of a socially cohesive Scotland’.

The ambitions for social policy were still high in 1999, and not just in the Scottish Parliament. Tony Blair made his famous commitment to eradicate child poverty in Britain by 2020 and the introduction of the National Minimum Wage gave an immediate pay rise to millions of low paid workers. After years of policies that saw steep increases in poverty and inequality, it was beginning to feel that progressive social change was on the political agenda. The creation of the Scottish Parliament was part of that change, and for many of us a central challenge for the Parliament was to use its powers to drive down poverty.

The new Scottish Executive got to work quickly on preparing its social justice strategy, A Scotland where everyone matters. Published in November 1999, this strategy’s key target was the elimination of child poverty within a generation, which at the time was at around 30 per cent. Other long-term targets covered full employment, literacy, lifelong learning, and a plethora of policies were introduced to help achieve the targets.

Since this first social justice strategy, we have had various revisions to the approach, usually after each Scottish Parliament election. It would be hard to fault the ambition of any of the administrations over the last 20 years. At the rhetorical level they have all made serious commitments to address poverty. But bold statements on the need to tackle poverty have rarely been accompanied by the policies required to make them a reality. There was no appetite, for example, to make use of the Parliament’s limited tax raising powers to help fund the fight against poverty and options on reform of the regressive council tax system have been repeatedly shelved.

However, there is no question that the 2008-2009 economic crisis, and the decision to implement a savage programme of austerity and welfare cuts from 2010 by the Westminster government, have been the primary cause of the recent increase in poverty. We have seen important attempts to mitigate the excesses of some of these changes, for example around the bedroom tax, or in the creation of the Scottish Welfare Fund. These measures have helped thousands of families, but mitigation has come to dominate our responses to poverty. logo

Where we should have been focusing more of our efforts over the last 20 years is on the prevention of poverty. The 2011 Christie Commission set out the clear need for public spending to be more focused on prevention rather than the treatment of social ills. This is a recommendation that is far from realised. We need only look at the number of people in Scotland turning to charitable food aid to see how far we still need to go to prevent poverty.

In the late 1990s, the Scottish Parliament inherited child poverty of around 30%. Over the next few years, rates may once again return to these levels. Whilst some of the driving forces behind this remain outside the control of the Scottish Parliament, there are new opportunities that exist to make a manifest difference.

New powers over social security now exist in Scotland, including the power to top up reserved benefits. A new agency, Social Security Scotland, has been set up to deliver these new powers, and is committed to doing so in ways that respect the dignity of those it will work with. We have child poverty legislation with stretching targets to reduce child poverty. There have been greater efforts to address in-work poverty through the promotion of the voluntary (real) Living Wage. Strengthened tax raising powers give us more options to generate resources to invest in the fight against poverty.

There has never been a better moment in the short history of the Scottish Parliament for our politicians to match the strategic commitments to address poverty with the practical policy actions we need. If we are to make good the promise of the Parliament, we must ensure that these new opportunities are taken and are taken now.

Peter Kelly is the director of the Poverty Alliance. Formed in 1992, it is a network of organisations working together to combat poverty and inequality in Scotland (