SNP silence on child poverty is deafening, but it gives Labour a purpose and a pathway back argues KEZIA DUGDALE
Poverty. Not a word you’ll hear the SNP talk about often of late. It doesn’t fit into the lexicon of positivity and “being part of better.”
Child poverty, in particular, is off the agenda. Why? Because it’s to Scotland’s shame that over 200,000 children still live in poverty on our land, within our borders.
The UK Child Poverty Act placed a legislative duty on devolved administrations to produce a strategy on Child Poverty. The Scottish Government’s paper can be read here. Note the publication date. Slipped out in the dying days of the last administration. Quite possibly because it accepted that little progress had been made on child poverty since 2004/5 and that faster progress has to be made if Scotland has any chance of hitting the 2020 target.
A frank admission that you’d hope would be swiftly followed by comprehensive action. But that’s the point: there’s no action plan for this document, a fact revealed to me in an answer to a Parliamentary Question. So in the absense of a plan, and in the spirit of positivity and constructive opposition, here’s a suggestion or two for the SNP:
(Most experts agree that you need to take a two-pronged approach to tackling child poverty; you have to focus on both early years and income equality. I’ll take each in turn.)
Early years – The first thing the SNP could do would be to adopt Labour’s plan for a health in pregnancy grant – a one-off payment of £190 to all expecting mothers. It was ditched by the Tory government soon after the general election last year and Labour promised to reinstate it with a kilt on. The SNP said that it was a poorly targeted benefit, but equivalents like the “Healthy Start Scheme,” which are acutely targeted, miss a quarter of the people that are entitled to them. In real terms, 12000 women in Scotland alone, who are either on child tax credits or jobseekers, are entitled to this benefit but don’t receive it.
If the SNP aren’t interested in operating their own scheme, they could at least do more to ensure Scottish women across the country receive the benefits they’re entitled to. Additional money to frontline advice services would be warmly welcomed by the voluntary sector and save the Scottish public purse in the long run.
Income inequality – One third of children living in poverty in Scotland come from low paid working homes. The Scottish Government could lift thousands of these families out of poverty by taking early action on the living wage. It was in their manifesto, even if the commitment was slightly more timid than Labour’s.
It’s relatively easy for the Scottish Government to deliver the living wage throughout its own agencies, but what we really need is strong leadership willing to take on all the difficult issues around public procurement law. Use the might of its legal department and EU connections to make community benefit clauses linked to income work and make them mandatory in all the contracts tendered out. The same political will is needed to encourage local authorities to do likewise – to use their buying, and paying, power to lift people out of poverty.
The living wage should not be seen as an extragavant outlay in difficult financial times as it is so often wrongly portrayed. It should be seen as a long term cost saving measure which materially improves the quality of life and work for thousands of people.
That’s just two policies Labour has to offer the SNP. I hope they will respond positively but I wont hold my breathe.
In the Local Government and Regeneration Committee yesterday, I asked the Minister whether she thought the concordat was a good tool for the child poverty agenda in light of the fact that just 14 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities have an explicit indicator on the issue. She waffled a little bit and then said that Scotland could never get to grips with child poverty until it had independence, and all the powers that would bring. As a supplementary, I asked what powers she wanted and for what purpose. She couldn’t answer.
They simply aren’t interested in this agenda, but Labour people are. Social justice is at the heart of what we believe in as a party. In firing up the cyclinders and highlightling the injustice of a life born to poverty, we may find the voice that leads us back to the forefront of Scottish politics once again, whilst doing some good along the way.
Kezia Dugdale is a Labour MSP for the Lothians region. She sits on the Local Government and Regeneration Committee and Co-Convenes the Cross Party Group on Children and Young People. Follow Kezia on Twitter at @KDugdaleMSP.