Why Westminster and Holyrood must stop finger-pointing and get on with tackling poverty in Scotland

With shocking levels of destitution and hardship in Scotland, and looming child poverty targets for the Scottish Government, the task of tackling poverty in Scotland has never been more urgent.

Both the UK Government and Scottish Governments, when challenged on their own track record on poverty, have a predictable habit of pointing the finger at their counterpart.

The UK Government likes to remind us that “the Scottish Government has significant welfare powers and can top up existing benefits”, while the Scottish Government prefers to mention that it is doing all it can but has “limited powers at our disposal.”

These are both powerful and attractive lines, fitting with the broader political positioning of both governments. The subtext from the UK Government is, “if you don’t like what we’re doing, you can do it yourself” and from the Scottish Government, “we’ve taken action but would go further if only we could”.  

Who is right? At Joseph Rowntree Foundation we have tackled this question in a briefing published today. While there is an element of truth in each position, if both are taken at face value, then our governments are letting themselves off the hook for the outrageously high rates of poverty that are holding back families across Scotland. Finger pointing does nothing to help these families get a good job or pay for the weekly food shop. Poverty is damaging people’s lives now, and solutions are needed now.

So where could the UK Government do more? At the very least, it must immediately reverse the scheduled cut to Universal Credit in a few weeks, which will devastate living standards for families on low incomes. This cut will remove £1,040 per year from the incomes of over a third (37%) of all families with children in Scotland and as many as two-thirds in Glasgow Central. As the cost of living continues to rise and energy bills are set to increase in October, this policy is almost guaranteed to increase poverty and the Prime Minister must change course.

The UK Government could also use its considerable taxation powers more effectively – unlike its clumsy use of National Insurance Contributions to fund health and social care – to address significant income and wealth inequalities that could help reduce poverty in Scotland and indeed across the UK.

The UK Government should also use its powers to reverse the damaging trend of in-work poverty over recent years. The much-delayed Employment Bill could look to reverse some of these most pernicious elements of the jobs market.

The Scottish Government does, at least, recognize the scale of the problem.  They set targets to reduce poverty while the UK Government dumped them.  But their plans need greater scale, urgency and focus. This week’s Programme for Government is a perfect example; it has many welcome commitments that will help to an extent but don’t go far enough to put us on course to meet poverty targets.  Employability programmes show the challenge: they support small numbers of parents and are often not targeted to the needs of particular families.

There are of course significant grey areas where powers overlap. Both administrations have big responsibilities for social security spending, but the UK Government controls of 85% of that spending.  The UK Government often insist the Scottish Government has the power to top-up reserved benefits, but they mustn’t forget that, obviously, they do too.

Both also have significant ways of supporting jobs – the UK Government through regulatory and fiscal means and the Scottish Government through skills, economy development and transport. And let’s not forget the role of employers here; most people work in the private sector and decisions on pay and conditions are made in boardrooms not Parliaments.

It’s true that there are greater limits on the Scottish Government’s revenue raising and borrowing powers compared to the UK Government’s but every government faces limits on its spending ability. As a result, the ultimate lever of government is choice. Accepting a high poverty rate is a political choice. Meeting the 2030 Child Poverty targets and reducing poverty more broadly across Scotland will require fundamental changes to our economy and public services and require difficult balances to be found.  We will need to balance tax vs spend, universalism vs targeting, regional equity vs targeted spending in areas being left behind.

The prize, though, is a Scotland where 25 years of healthy life expectancy is not stolen from you simply because of where you were born.  Both the Scottish and UK Governments have the power, and responsibility, to make that change and people all over Scotland need them to choose to do so.

– Chris Birt is Associate Director for Scotland at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992