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Scottish government must mitigate Conservative cuts

GORDON McKAY explains why Unison is calling on the Scottish government to make use of its tax-raising powers to alleviate the poverty blighting the country

FOUR million children live in poverty across the UK. One in four Scottish children live in relative poverty. Families lack basic income to make ends meet, and the gap between the poor and rich is getting bigger.

Two working parents with two children, on the “national living wage” are 11 per cent short of what you need to meet the costs of a no-frills lifestyle. It is almost double that for lone parents.

Not only are more children being pulled into poverty, research by the University of York shows that children living in poverty are being pulled deeper into poverty.

Any statistic you care to look at tells you more people are poor, and more poor people are even poorer.

This Conservative government must be roundly condemned for such a callous attack on working families.

We have more families in work than at any time in our history, yet seven in 10 children who live in poverty have at least one parent in work — ending once and for all the myth that children are poor because their parents “can’t be bothered.”

Universal credit is a discredited mess. In both design and execution it is reducing the incomes of the poorest and most vulnerable families. And it discriminates against women.

Other policies like the benefit cap which hammers single parents with young children and the simply inhumane two-child limit or “rape clause” remain an appalling indictment of a cruel government.

And the benefit freeze, the centrepiece of austerity, is a key driver of rising child poverty — the fundamental failure to increase social security for working-age people in line with the cost of living.

While the state pension has been protected with a “triple lock,” children’s benefits have not. Child benefit, a lifeline to many families with children, is projected to have lost 23 per cent of its 2010 value by 2020.

The Scottish government estimates that by 2020-21 the two-child limit (“rape clause”) will have cost claimants £92 million and the benefits freeze £367m — and millions of people in Scotland still suffer punitive benefit sanctions and inflexible, discriminatory employment support allowance. The Scottish government joins us in condemning Tory policies against the poor.

But we cannot condemn Tory policies without being willing to do everything in our power to prevent them, and their effects. 

We have the powers to follow a different course and build a country based on social justice. The Scottish government has a responsibility to address the problems caused by reserved benefit policy.

Under pressure, it chose to mitigate the bedroom tax and it can and must do more to mitigate the worst of UK welfare policy and the ongoing impact of austerity. These issues are fundamental to the type of government it is.

If the Scottish government doesn’t act, things will get worse. More and more families are being “managed” onto universal credit, plunging thousands more into poverty. We must do more, to spend more, on welfare benefits and public services to protect our most vulnerable people.

We must end the reduction in local government funding with its negative consequences for services and jobs. Local government needs new tax and revenue powers and must use existing tax and revenue powers which are not fully used, or could be used further.

The Social Security Commission and Scottish government must improve all aspects of social security in Scotland. 

Unison has welcomed the establishment of the new Scottish Social Security Agency in 2018, with payments of the carers’ supplement and best start grant. But, for example, disability benefits will not be replaced until post-2020. Until they are, thousands will still be forced to go through private-sector health assessments.

After making great progress at tackling child poverty, we are now going backwards. This cannot be right and it is cause for great concern. 

UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty Professor Philip Alston completed his 10-day visit to Britain last November. 

He concluded that Britain’s high child poverty rate was “not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one,” and dubbed universal credit “universal discredit.”

This is why Unison has put forward a motion to Congress pointing out that things are set to get worse with the full “managed migration” of universal credit — a move which will plunge thousands in Scotland further into poverty.

And while responsibility for this firmly on the Tory government, this does not eliminate the responsibility of the Scottish government to address the huge problems caused by reserved benefit policy.

The Scottish government has a responsibility to the people of Scotland. It can mitigate and reduce the impact of these cuts and it needs to do so. 

The Scottish government has tax-raising powers at its disposal that can make people’s lives better. Unison calls on it to use them.

Gordon McKay is Unison president.

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