Opinion

After election rhetoric, Scotland's poverty pledges must be more than words

It's clear the newly elected parliament agrees on tackling poverty and making Scotland a more just place to live, writes Neil Cowan, but it's time for bold action

The Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh. Almost a quarter of children in Scotland were living poverty before the pandemic.

Almost a quarter of children in Scotland were living poverty before the pandemic. Image: Bernt Rostad

Election campaigns are big on commitments, on vision and on rhetoric. The Scottish Parliament election campaign just passed was no different, with promises of recovery and renewal. But too often after elections the rhetoric is not matched by the reality, and the bold change promised morphs into business-as-usual once election fever subsides. 

This time must be different. We all know that the pandemic has tightened the grip of poverty on the lives of people across Scotland, while deepening the many intersecting inequalities that mark our economy and society. Yet the truth is that even before Covid-19, we were failing to live up to the values of compassion and justice we all profess to share.   

Before Covid-19, over one million people in Scotland – including almost one in four children – were living in poverty. Before Covid-19, our labour market was locking people – particularly women, young people, disabled people, and Black and minority ethnic people – into low-paid and insecure work. And before Covid-19 our public services, such as our transport system, housing and childcare, simply weren’t working for many people living on low incomes. 

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So the challenges facing the new Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament are significant. But so too are the possibilities. The election campaign showed that there is cross-party agreement on several of the actions we need to create the more just Scotland we all want to see. All of Scotland’s political parties committed to doubling the Scottish child payment. This was a welcome show of unanimity. 

We now need to get on and do it. That means doubling it this year, not over the course of the next few years.  

The SNP, Labour and the Greens also all committed to a minimum income guarantee, a key call that we at the Poverty Alliance made in our A Scotland for All of Us manifesto. But the task is now to make it a reality. That doesn’t mean simply establishing a small-scale study or a working group; it means taking action right now to strengthen Scottish social security and do more to ensure fair work for all. 

IPPR’s excellent report Securing a Living Income in Scotland makes clear the tangible steps we need to take to get us toward a minimum income guarantee. If we are serious about this Scottish Parliament being one that enacts genuine economic and social renewal, then let’s take those steps now.  

 On public services, too, there is so much that can be delivered in the short-term to support social justice. We can extend free bus travel to all under-25s and people on low income benefits, as our Everyone Aboard campaign has been calling for. We can extend free childcare provision to 50 hours per week, something that would be of particular benefit to women. And we can radically expand our supply of social housing.  

Our new Scottish Parliament cannot be hamstrung by timidity. The issues facing our society are simply too important to be met with anything other than decisive action. With a rising tide of hardship sweeping so many people across our communities into poverty, the action we need is pressing. 

The 129 MSPs elected two weeks ago, particularly those who now form the Scottish Government, must rise to this challenge. We, and they, can create the more just and compassionate country we all believe in, but the work must start now.

 Neil Cowan is policy and campaigns manager at the Poverty Alliance.

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