[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered child poverty in Scotland.
I thank all Members who have taken the time to come to this important debate. We all came into the House seeking to improve the lives of children and young people. That is why some of our most passionate debates are about childcare, education and apprenticeships. We often share the same goal, but perhaps disagree on the policies needed to achieve it. That is why I am holding this debate.
None of us wants any child to live in inadequate housing, or to be stuck in temporary accommodation. None of us wants to see any child going hungry to school or during the school holidays, or having to rely on food banks. None of us wants to see any child fall behind in their education and be denied opportunities as a result. We all agree that no child should live in poverty or be denied the best start in life—but too many children live in poverty across Scotland. I hope that the debate gives us the chance to reaffirm a sure commitment to eradicating child poverty, and that we are able to have a serious discussion about which policies work, which policies need changes, and which new policies need to be implemented to achieve our shared goal of ending child poverty.
One million people live in poverty across Scotland, and 240,000 of them are children. That means one in four children in Scotland now lives in poverty. It is truly staggering to think that so many children in our constituencies live in poverty.
I compliment my hon. Friend on achieving this debate, and on the importance of the subject. As he said, one in four children in Scotland lives in poverty. That is a shameful figure, both for the Tory Government here in Westminster and for the SNP Government in Holyrood, and one that we must all strive to reduce. Since the 2016 Holyrood election and the 2017 Westminster election, the number of children living in poverty in East Lothian has gone up by 2%, which means that 16% of the young people in my constituency live in poverty, facing all the challenges that brings.
That is true. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has estimated that two thirds of children living in poverty are in households where at least one adult is in paid work. Almost 30% of children live in households where three or more children are classed as living in poverty.
My hon. Friend mentioned the key fact from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation: much of the debate tends to focus on people being out of work, when in fact most children living in poverty in Scotland are from families and households who are in work. The previous Labour Government took 120,000 children in Scotland out of poverty through measures such as tax credits and the national minimum wage. Now, we must do a lot more. Also, child poverty is not restricted to deprived areas. My constituency is seen as quite affluent, but in some parts of it, more than a third of children are being brought up in poverty. This is an issue for us all, in every single community, and the way to tackle it is to improve working conditions and pay in the workplace.
I could not agree more. People used to think they were working to get out of poverty—not so nowadays. The figures highlight the fact that we have a real crisis with child poverty in Scotland. The Resolution Foundation has projected that child poverty across Scotland will likely rise to 30% by the mid-2020s, despite the target to reduce child poverty to 18%.
One in four children in Scotland lives in poverty, but is not the real shocker that the figure is the lowest of those for the four UK nations? Child poverty was down at 21%, but has now risen, not because of the financial crash but, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) said, because of changes in welfare. The rise started in 2012, and that was owing to policies made here in Westminster.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Is not one of the biggest reasons for children going into poverty the two-child limit on tax credits? Does he agree with the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, which is to publish a report before Dissolution that says that the policy should be scrapped?
Yes. I will come on to two-child cap poverty.
History shows that we can tackle child poverty in Scotland. The largest falls in the poverty rate recorded in the past 20 years were among pensioners and children. From the late 1990s, child poverty across Scotland fell significantly because of the policy choices made by the Labour Government. The Labour Government redesigned the welfare state with the purpose of tackling child poverty, which is why policies like child tax credits and the national minimum wage were introduced. Those policies were designed to target the underlying causes of child poverty, such as low pay. The success of the Labour Government in reducing child poverty highlights the fact that it can be done when there is the political will and the right policies.
We need to show that political will, because the impact of poverty on children is simply unacceptable. Children living in poverty suffer greater health and social outcomes than their better-off peers. Children living in poverty are much more likely to suffer health problems, such as poor mental health and wellbeing, and obesity. They are more likely to lag behind in reading, writing and numeracy. Child poverty affects not just childhood, but individuals throughout their whole life.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. One of the most shocking figures that I have heard in my time in Parliament was through the all-party group on health in all policies. We heard from the UK Faculty of Public Health that 1,400 children a year die before they reach the age of 15 as a direct result of poverty. As he has said, those who do not may still face blighted lives thereafter.
I thank the hon. Lady for that staggering fact. How sad is it that, in this day and age, children are dying from poverty before they are 15?
If we are to tackle child poverty in Scotland, we must look at whether current policies help us to do so. Since 2010, the Government have implemented a series of welfare reforms, such as universal credit. As we all know from our surgeries and constituents, universal credit is having a negative impact on families. In particular, it is hurting low-income families, pushing more children into poverty. Universal credit could be considered a success only if its aims were to push up rent arrears, increase food bank use and drive people deeper into poverty. That is the success that some think universal credit is creating.
Earlier this year, I led an Adjournment debate on food poverty in Scotland, after it was revealed that more than 210,000 food parcels had been distributed by the Trussell Trust last year. Nearly 70,000 of those food parcels were issued to children. That means that about one in three food parcels distributed in Scotland last year was for a child. What a shameful situation we are in. The UK is meant to be the world’s fifth largest economy, but we have children going hungry in our constituencies.
Rising food bank use is linked directly to the Government’s welfare reforms. Trussell Trust figures reveal that almost 50% of all food bank referrals are the result of a delay to benefit payments to claimants. Almost 35% of all emergency food supplies are distributed to those individuals who find that their benefits regularly fail to cover their cost of living. In areas where universal credit has already been rolled out, the Trussell Trust observed a 30% increase in food bank use after a year of the roll-out.
I recall the hon. Gentleman’s Adjournment debate on food poverty. Does he agree that one of the main issues is that people wait five weeks to get their benefit entitlement? The advanced payment really should be the first payment, and people should not have to wait five weeks to get state support.
I totally agree. That is a change we can make today.
The Government decided to implement a two-child limit policy, despite warnings from this House and charities that it would worsen child poverty in Scotland. What was warned about has come to pass, and almost 4,000 low-income families in Scotland are affected, with a loss of £3,000 per year for each family. We cannot ignore the impact of other welfare reforms introduced by the Government. The benefit cap affects over 3,000 households in Scotland, 92% of which contain children. The benefits freeze has impacted low-income families, further fuelling child poverty across Scotland.
It would be fair to say that the Government’s welfare reforms have worsened the child poverty rate in Scotland, but we cannot ignore the fact that the Scottish Government have gained greater powers, which would enable them to better address child poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlights that in areas of Scotland such as Edinburgh, where the private rent sector is bigger than the social sector, private rent growth has outstripped inflation over the last decade. Higher rents impact on the incomes of families, meaning that they are less able to cover essential costs such as food and heating. Undoubtedly, that fuels child poverty across Scotland.
The hon. Gentleman will know that 16% of benefits have been devolved to Scotland. He says that the Scottish Government should do more; what does he think the Scottish Government should do that they are not currently doing?
The Scottish Government should use more of their powers to help children. They have the powers; we are asking them to use them. The Scottish Government’s own figures reveal that there was a 4% increase in the number of children living in temporary accommodation last year. Nearly 7,000 children now live in temporary accommodation in Scotland, and last year, 38 children were made homeless every day. It is clear that the failure to provide permanent, high-quality accommodation for children is increasing child poverty across Scotland.
Are those houses social housing? Are those houses council housing?
Although the Scottish Government have introduced a £10-per-week child support payment, it will not be fully in place until 2022. My good friend Mark Griffin MSP highlighted that nearly 60,000 children will lose out on the child support payment because initial applications will be restricted to children who are five and under. How will such a restriction truly help to tackle child poverty across Scotland? We need real policy changes that will eradicate child poverty in Scotland. We must scrap universal credit, because it has absolutely failed to address child poverty.
I thank the hon. Gentleman again for being generous with his time. We are all on the same side; we all believe that child poverty is bad, and we all want to do whatever needs to be done to eradicate it. Again, 16% of benefit powers are devolved to Scotland. He talks about policy changes; what specific policy changes does he want in Scotland that we have the power to deliver but have not yet delivered?
I said at the beginning that we are here to get the right policies. I want the right policies in the Scottish Government.
The Government should end the five-week wait that claimants must go through, as the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) said, before they receive their initial universal credit payment. I was also concerned to hear that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions refused to rule out a further extension of the benefits freeze. I urge the Government to bring the benefits freeze to an immediate end, rather than looking at extending it. An extension of the benefits freeze means an extension of child poverty across Scotland. I urge the Government to end the benefit cap and the two-child limit policy.
Ahead of this debate, the House’s digital engagement team undertook a public engagement exercise and received over 700 responses. Respondents called on the Government to look again at their damaging welfare reforms such as universal credit. I hope that the Government will reflect on that.
The Scottish Government must also look at the policy changes that they could make. They could introduce a Mary Barbour law to cap rents in the private rented sector, in order to help low-income families. They could build more social and affordable housing to end the disgrace of children being trapped in temporary accommodation, or finding themselves homeless. They could look again at the child support payment, which the Resolution Foundation found would still leave more than 25% of children in Scotland living in poverty—the Scottish Government’s own target of 18% would not be close to being met. I also urge them to listen to the calls of Scottish Labour for a child benefit top-up of £5 per week to support those affected by the two-child limit policy.
I started this debate by saying that all of us in this House share the goal of eradicating child poverty in Scotland. That goal will be achieved only through serious policy change of the kind that I have suggested today. I put on record my support for North Lanarkshire Council’s Club365 programme, which helps to tackle holiday hunger among children in my constituency. That shows that local councils can take action to address child poverty, despite the budget cuts imposed on them by central Government.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was right to say that Scotland now has a full-blown child poverty emergency. In emergencies, we expect rapid and decisive action. I hope we will see that action from both the UK and Scottish Governments.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), on this debate.
Let me begin by quoting a community activist in my constituency, Derek Kelter:
“Poverty destroys everything in your life. A low for me was last Christmas, when I had no money to buy my son a Christmas present. The situation we have today is unacceptable. We should all be able to live a dignified life but too many people are trapped in poverty. I’m blind and I’ve been locked out of employment since I had a brain injury five years ago. It doesn’t have to be this way though. Social security benefits should be enough so that people can live a dignified life and disabled people should be given support to access employment.”
We can call agree that that is a damning indictment on the state of a 21st-century first-world country. It is appalling.
I am not here to blame people, but to represent the people of Motherwell and Wishaw and to fight for the best possible life for them. That evidence was given to the Poverty Alliance. The Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland also has damning indictments of child poverty in Scotland. However, it noted the introduction of the Scottish child payment by the Scottish Parliament in 2020, which will start at £10 a week for each child, no matter how many children are in the family. In Scotland, we do not believe that families should be penalised by a two-child cap; that is an abomination. It is almost incredible that the Tory Government in Westminster have tried time and again to justify that cruel, callous policy.
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman said. We are all against child poverty. I, too, would like the Scottish Government to eradicate it tomorrow. That will not happen while they do not have the levers of all the tax and benefit systems that the UK Government currently have reserved to them. However, in the circumstances, the Scottish Government continue to do what they can with the limited resources they have.
The hon. Gentleman says that Labour has pledged to scrap universal credit, but the Joseph Rowntree Foundation does not necessarily agree that that is the best way forward. Introducing two separate types of benefit payments would further confuse people, and more people would probably fall between the cracks with two benefit systems. We all know what is wrong with universal credit. We have said time and again, in this Chamber and the main Chamber, that we should look at making it work for those who have to use it.
Many people in my constituency are reliant on universal credit, and it is the single biggest casework issue I deal with. This Government should end the five-week wait. The five-week wait should be a thing of the past. The fact that people have to repay advances at an enormous rate leaves them even poorer and means they have to use food banks even more. I should pay credit to the Lanarkshire food bank, which operates in my constituency; it is a source of real help to many in Motherwell and Wishaw.
Labour actually has a good list of things it wants to do, most of which are based on things the Scottish Government have already asked for and introduced. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we should have fortnightly payments and split payments for couples. That should be the default position. My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) has made that point in numerous debates.
I also think this UK Tory Government are wrong to charge single parents to apply to the Child Maintenance Service; again, I have debated that many times with the Minister. Notwithstanding years of austerity in the United Kingdom, it seems that this Tory regime want to make people who are poor even poorer, by charging them more and more for services that their children need.
The UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights—someone from whom the Minister normally would not like to hear—praised the Scottish Government for their
“ambitious schemes for addressing poverty, including the Fairer Scotland Action Plan and the Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan”,
and for using their
“newly devolved powers to establish a promising social security system, guided by the principles of dignity”
and respect. I believe that is another thing the Labour party wants to introduce.
We have good ideas in Scotland for ending child poverty. We actually have a plan to do it. We measure child poverty. It gives us no comfort that child poverty increases under the watch of a UK Tory Government who say they are absolutely committed to ending austerity but show no sign of doing so.
I do not want to stand here and quote stats—we can all do that—but when a constituent of mine gets to his lowest ebb because he cannot find the money to buy his child a Christmas present, there is something seriously wrong with the state of this United Kingdom. As far as I am concerned, the sooner Scotland exercises its right and gives the people the choice to leave it, the better.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on bringing forward this debate. He always speaks passionately on behalf of his people, and on this occasion he did so on behalf of all children in poverty.
I am here to support my colleagues and friends. Although the debate is about child poverty in Scotland, the fact is that child poverty is not specific to Scotland. It is also rampant in other areas of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—particularly Northern Ireland—so I want to say a couple of words in support of colleagues who have already spoken and those who will speak after me. Much of what we say will be very similar.
I am a proud Ulster Scot. I love my heritage. I come from the Stewarts of the lowlands of Scotland, so my heritage goes way back to Scotland. I share a cultural identity with the hon. Gentleman and other friends and colleagues in the Chamber, and my values are very similar to theirs.
Unfortunately, the children in my constituency face the same difficulties as those in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. Official estimates published by the Northern Ireland Department for Communities—the figures are a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly—show that in 2017-18, 19% of children in Northern Ireland from birth up to the age of 16, including dependent children aged between 16 and 19, lived below the poverty line, in households with an income of less than 60% of the UK average. I suspect the figures are the same in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and in those of the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) and the hon. Members who speak after me.
In 2017-18, the poverty threshold in Northern Ireland stood at £19,016 of annual income for a single person with two children, and £24,245 for a couple with two children. The Minister knows that I am very fond of him and what he does, and I believe he will answer our questions to the best of his ability, but I say to him that we need a UK strategy and additional funding to tackle child poverty. The situation in my constituency is the same as the situation that the hon. Members for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill and for Motherwell and Wishaw described. Society, the Government and elected representatives are marked by the way they respond to those who are less well off. I do not believe for one second that we can ignore them; the Government must reach out and help.
During Northern Ireland questions today, an hon. Member—in fact, it was the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw; I should have recognised her name earlier—asked the Secretary of State:
“What economic assessment he has made of the potential effect of the Government’s proposed withdrawal agreement on Northern Ireland.”
In a subsequent question, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) asked about
“legislative proposals to maintain welfare mitigation payments in Northern Ireland after March 2020.”
The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) and the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) tabled the same question.
My party—the Democratic Unionist party—and our Minister at that time were instrumental in achieving those welfare mitigation payments. At the end of March 2020, those provisions will end, and members of the public from all communities and of all political and religious persuasions across Northern Ireland will be disadvantaged because of Sinn Féin’s intransigence. We have an opportunity because my party put on the statute book legislation that enabled welfare mitigation payments to be made. Those payments came out of the block budget, by the way, but we agreed to that and acted accordingly. I did not get the chance to ask Northern Ireland Office Ministers directly earlier, but I ask this Minister: what can be done to mitigate the impact, which will be severe?
I will make a final comment about food banks, Sir David. Food banks are often talked about, and have probably been mentioned by everyone who is present here. The first Trussell Trust food bank in Northern Ireland was in my constituency. It came to Strangford because a number of church groups got together and recognised the need to reach out as faith groups, in order to help others who found themselves in difficulties making payments or paying bills, or when everything seemed to turn against them.
On the television this morning there was a discussion about debt organisations; I have not had a chance to watch it yet. It is not always a person who has benefit delays or benefit short payments who needs debt management; more often it is people who do not fit into the normal category. Minister, when it comes to addressing child poverty, what has been done to help those who need debt management? It is always better to try to address debt management early on, rather than let people get to the final moment, when letters are coming through their door, they are under pressure, their credit cards are over-egged and they find themselves in difficulties. People who are in employment, have a mortgage and who own a house may also need help.
There are people who come to my office who use the Thriving Life food bank in my area. I highlight the DWP and the changes that have been made to benefits, as referred to by the hon. Members for Motherwell and Wishaw and for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. There is a follow-on that is down to benefits being reduced or, when the issue of housing benefit is looked at, delayed. It is also down to employment issues, such as shorter hours and changes to minimum pay.
The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of food banks. There is hardly an area that does not now have a food bank. My local area is supported by churches that have a rota to collect goods. Recently, our food bank has often had to put out crisis calls because its shelves are simply empty; it cannot keep up with demand. As the health spokesperson for his party, does the hon. Gentleman recognise the impact on life expectancy and on long-term physical and mental health that comes from growing up in poverty?
I thank the hon. Lady; she is always good in this House when it comes to bringing forward issues that are pertinent to the debate. She again excels today in bringing forward this issue of food banks and the needs they address. The people who use them are under pressure emotionally and mentally, which transfers to physical issues. When that happens, the problems that the hon. Lady refers to become real for them.
I recognise, as I know the hon. Lady does, that those who have set up the food banks are genuine, interested people who bring the best of people together. They reach out to those who need help, as their faith tells them to do, which is a great motivation. I almost feel encouraged by the food banks and those who are motivated to make them happen, but calls go out to ensure that people bring in more stock, because demand is sometimes high.
We appreciate what the food banks, the volunteers and the churches do when they work together. When it comes to child poverty, whether it be in Scotland or Northern Ireland, we all want the same. We want children to have a good quality of life and we want their families to be able to look after them in the way it was designed in life that they should. For that to happen I believe, with great respect, that the Government must look genuinely at what they do.
The issue of debt management is important to child poverty; it is crucial. Nothing disturbs me as much as seeing children in difficulty; there are two or three such children who come to my office. The hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw mentioned Christmas. As Christmas comes, the child who lives three doors down will probably get almost anything he or she wants, but the child living in poverty will not get anything. There is a terrible injustice in society when we come to Christmas, a time of giving and good will, that those who are in poverty will not be able to have the same as everyone else.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on securing the debate. In my constituency, one third of children live in poverty, and it has the third-worst statistics in the whole of Scotland for child poverty. That is shameful in this day and age, and it matters, because I grew up in abject poverty and I know what it is like. Poverty is not just about a lack of money, although clearly that is the foundation on which all poverty is built. It bleeds into every single area of life, and it is hugely damaging for the children affected. It does not just mean a cold house, or going to bed with an empty, hungry tummy, which is bad enough and completely unacceptable in this day and age. It also brings with it a poverty of hope, aspiration, self-confidence and self-belief.
Material poverty reduces and lays waste to the things we want all children to have. It is life-limiting, and too often leads children into a pit from which it is hard for them to escape. Even if, on growing up, they manage to drag themselves out of poverty, it leaves scars behind that do not vanish on reaching adulthood.
I have spoken in the past about how poverty brings isolation. When people live in poverty, there is no money to access local services. Parents cannot take their children out for a treat for the day; they cannot go to the pictures or visit the local café. They cannot have the everyday pleasures that ought to be part of every child’s life. It means that their life is limited and their horizons are not broadened. Many things are out of reach for them. That life limiting brings another kind of poverty, which arises from material poverty. That is a shocking indictment of a country as rich as ours.
My hon. Friend was a teacher in a former life, before she came here. I am sure that she recognises the impact of the cold house and the hungry tummy on trying to concentrate and study. These children will struggle at school, which will impact on all their opportunities for the rest of their life.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The fact is that unless child poverty is addressed, raising aspiration and attainment is like working with one hand tied behind your back. Children who are hungry or go home to a cold house tend to find it much more difficult than other children to attain their goals at school, whether those are academic or vocational. Their life is limited in ways that are difficult for people who have not experienced poverty to imagine.
The Scottish Government are doing what they can to tackle child poverty. Their Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill sets tough targets to reduce child poverty levels. A £50 million fund will support innovative approaches to tackle child poverty. Free early years childcare has been expanded to 30 hours per week, and there is a new best start grant to provide financial support to low-income families. The popular baby box gives practical support to new parents. An initiative that has been unveiled recently is the Scottish child payment, which provides £10 per week for each child.
These measures are welcome and can ease the scourge of child poverty, but they cannot remove it. We need to use all the levers of tax and benefits to make the inroads required to remove it. The Scottish Government have power over 16% of social security spending, and that is better than 0%, but it is far from what is required to tackle this scourge on our society.
It is no accident—the Minister has heard this—that the roll-out of universal credit brings with it a spike in food bank use. In my constituency in the past year, 8,173 people relied on food bank assistance, of whom 2,192 were children. That is an absolute disgrace in this day and age, although I pay huge tribute to the food bank organisations in Ardrossan and Largs in my constituency, which do tremendously good work against challenging odds.
Just a minute. The hon. Gentleman was not here at the start of the debate, so I do not know if am allowed to.
People are punished for being poor. Their children are punished as well, and left without the support that they need. That damages the life chances of children and their parents. Benefits must reflect people’s need—it is as simple as that.
We have heard today about the five-week wait for universal credit, which is unacceptable, but I have something very specific that I want the Minister to take away and think about. I have raised it before—to no avail, as far as I can see. When people have a five-week wait for universal credit, they are offered loans—it does not matter what they are called—by the Department for Work and Pensions to help them through that five weeks. We might think that that helps ease the pain of waiting five weeks for a proper assessment and proper universal credit payments to be made, but I say this to the Minister: if anybody seeks to take out a loan in the normal course of events, they go to a bank and ask for a loan. Their creditworthiness and ability to repay is assessed, and that determines whether they will be given the loan. People on universal credit waiting for the five-week payment are not assessed. They are given loans when it is clear that they are not able to repay them. Attempts to repay the loan shove them further into poverty and despair, and that pushes them further away from the world of work. It is simply not on. It is not working. The Government really need to look at the transitional payments, which are actually loans. Those payments should not be loans. People need support during those five weeks.
The Child Poverty Action Group has said that it is time—I am sure the Minister is aware of this—for the UK Government to use their powers, as the Scottish Government have done, in an equally positive way to develop a wider UK child poverty strategy, so that both Governments can work together to make child poverty history across the UK. I cannot understand why anybody would object to that. I am sure the Minister will want to think carefully and reflect on that.
We have the phenomenon of in-work poverty. The Scottish Government support the real living wage, and many employers, with the Scottish Government’s encouragement, have signed up to paying it in Scotland. The Minister will be interested to hear that employers who have decided to pay the real living wage have reported increased productivity and reduced sick leave, so valuing people is important. It gives me no pleasure to say this to the Minister, but the UK Government have sought to deceive with their pretendy living wage. Nothing should be called a living wage unless it is based on the cost of living. The Government’s pretendy living wage is not, so it should not be called that. This pretendy living wage has led directly to the scandal of in-work poverty, which is absolutely appalling.
The cruel and austere policies of the UK Government are deeply damaging and dangerous for children in my constituency, and they must not go unchallenged. I recently participated in a debate in the Chamber on— I cannot believe I am saying this out loud—childhood hunger. The fact that that is even a thing, that it even exists, is embarrassing and shameful. I do not know how the Minister feels, but if I was part of a Government who presided over childhood hunger and had the ability, as a member of the Government, to do something about it, I would not hesitate. I cannot understand the reluctance. The Government really need to get their act together and take real measures to support children, instead of punishing those who need support. Eradicating child poverty needs to be a priority; it is as simple as that. It cannot be an afterthought or an add-on. It needs to be a priority, and it cannot be considered inconvenient. If we cannot invest in our children, and cannot go to bed at night safe in the knowledge that children are not going to bed hungry, we are doing this all wrong.
I want the Minister to tell us today what serious attempts he is prepared to make, as a member of the Government, to address what can only be described as a scandal. I will make a commitment to him today. Any measures that he takes to tackle child poverty in the UK will find support on the Scottish National party benches. Scotland’s children need and deserve better.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on securing this important debate on child poverty in Scotland. The scourge of poverty and the effect that it has on our children, as well as the knock-on effects that it will have into future generations, is an issue that unites us all, and I am sure that many in this place, if not everyone, share much of the anger and frustration that he articulated in his opening remarks. Of course, he knows that child poverty is not confined to the central belt of Scotland; rural poverty is a blight as well. I know from personal experience in my Argyll and Bute constituency how awful it can be.
I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in the debate this afternoon. Notable by their absence have been the Scottish Conservatives. Some 21 minutes after the debate started, the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) rolled in, but no one from the Scottish Conservatives was here to contribute to this vital debate on an issue of importance to their constituencies, as it is to every other constituency in Scotland.
I am grateful to you, Sir David, for your judgment, and to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I tried to make a contribution during the previous speech. The hon. Gentleman’s attack on my colleagues and I, the Scottish Conservatives at Westminster, is all too typical of the antics that the SNP gets up to in this place. In relation to grievance, no one can match the SNP. It was said in the previous speech—I am sure that this will be the hon. Gentleman’s position as well—that if they had the ability to do something, the Government should do something on child poverty. Who is for child poverty? We are not. We are trying our best to eradicate it. The Scottish Government have the power to top up reserved benefits, so they could do something about this if they wanted to, but they do not want to because it is a convenient grievance.
Had the hon. Gentleman wished to make a speech of that length, he would have turned up in time and perhaps brought one or two of his Scottish Conservative colleagues with him.
As we have heard, there are 1 million people living in poverty in Scotland, and almost one in four of them are children. In 2019, 250,000 children living in one of the world’s richest nations are growing up in poverty. That is nothing short of scandalous. Poverty is not inevitable. People not having enough money to feed and clothe their children is not something that happens by accident. The existence of poverty in a country as rich as ours is a direct consequence of political choices.
The decade of austerity was a political choice. Massive long-term cuts to the social security budget were a political choice. The widening of the holes in the social security safety net so that more families and children would fall through was a political choice. The ill-conceived and hopelessly financed introduction of universal credit was a political choice. Making the poorest, weakest and most vulnerable in our society carry the can, and bear the brunt of a financial crisis that had nothing to do with them, was a political choice.
No matter how we look at it, it is an inescapable fact that the Tory Government, and indeed the Liberal Democrats, who were in the previous coalition Government—they, too, are conspicuous by their absence today—are directly responsible for plunging children and families into poverty across Scotland and the UK.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and will touch on that in a moment.
There can be no doubt that, as we have heard this afternoon, one of the main drivers of child poverty in Scotland has been the Government’s package of welfare reforms, which by any measure has been an abject failure. How else could one describe a package of reforms whose result is that 65% of all the children who live in poverty come from households where at least one adult is working? There is no need to take my word for it. The United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty said:
“Changes to benefits, and sanctions against parents...are driving the increase in child poverty”.
Some would still have us believe that it will take decades to turn things around and lift children out of poverty, but that is simply not true. There are measures that the UK Government could take right now that would immediately stop children and their families falling into poverty. One of those, which my hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) just mentioned, would be to end the benefits freeze immediately. The Government should then immediately stop the roll-out of universal credit, take their time, and find the money to fix the major problems in the system, which they are only too well aware of but choose to ignore.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) said, the scrapping of the five-week minimum wait for a first universal credit payment must come to an end. The idea that poor people who are given advances need to pay them back serves only to plunge people further into debt. I congratulate the Select Committee on Work and Pensions on today’s report recommending putting an end to the two-child limit and its despicable rape clause. The idea that sanctions work for people has been proven untrue.
There is therefore a package of things that the Government could do immediately to stop the situation and turn it around. Of course, none of what I say will come as a surprise to the Minister, as we and others have been making the argument in this place for some time. We will continue to make it until the UK Government do something about it, or until the Scottish Government are given full powers over welfare or, better still, until they have them as an independent nation within the European Union.
My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) spoke passionately and eloquently about the situation in her constituency, but her most powerful words came at the start of her speech when she quoted her constituent, Derek Kelter, who said:
“Poverty destroys everything in your life.”
Consider that. It is all that politicians need to hear, because it cannot be unheard.
As always, I am delighted that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has taken the time to be here. He made the powerful point that, although the debate is about Scotland, child poverty is not confined to Scotland but is rampant across every part of the United Kingdom. If it is a disgrace in Dundee, it is a blight in Belfast. If the UK Government cannot or will not do something about it, they should give the devolved Administrations the power to do so themselves.
My colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), gave a powerful and moving personal testimony about poverty in childhood and how it leads to poverty of hope, aspiration and opportunity. Most movingly, she said that even though one might escape material poverty as an adult, the deep scars do not easily go away even in adulthood.
We have heard much this afternoon about what the Scottish Government are doing, and I am extremely proud that they are using the limited powers at their disposal to tackle child poverty. What sets them apart from the United Kingdom Government is the fact that they are determined to use every possible way to eradicate child poverty. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently reported that the building of 87,000 affordable homes since 2007 was a huge help, and that enshrining essential child poverty measures in statute is having an impact on how Scotland tackles child poverty.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran was right to praise the new Scottish child payment, which will mean that £10 is given to every child in a low-income family that is in receipt of qualifying benefits. Initially, 170,000 children will be eligible for the payment, which will lift 30,000 children out of poverty by putting £1,000 a year into the pockets of their parents. John Dickie, director of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, described the new payment as a “game-changer”, and he is right. The Scottish Government care about people and, despite the meagre resources available to them, will do what they can. Just think what they could do if they had full powers to create a more progressive, economically healthy and socially just welfare system.
It is worth recognising that the achievement of the Scottish Government in tackling child poverty has been singled out by the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty, who praised their
“ambitious schemes for addressing poverty, including the Fairer Scotland Action Plan and the Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan”.
The rapporteur also praised the Scottish Government for using their
“newly devolved powers to establish a promising social security system, guided by the principles of dignity”.
Perhaps the Minister should take note of what the United Nations has said about Scotland and encourage the UK Government to follow our example.
It is a pleasure to follow so many passionate and thoughtful speeches. My reflection on the debate and Members’ contributions—particularly that of my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney), whom I congratulate on securing the debate—is that poverty is, fundamentally, probably the worst evil in our society. It is particularly pernicious, because it is a cruel and indiscriminate denial of opportunity to many people who have great potential.
My constituency has some of the highest child poverty levels in Scotland—and in the UK as a whole. When I go round it, I am constantly reminded of the denial of opportunity to many young people, particularly children. There was a turn of phrase used by Jimmy Reid when looking at high-rise tower blocks in my constituency—the infamous Red Road flats, which are now demolished and being redeveloped. He said that behind every one of the windows could be a Nobel prize-winning chemist, or a great Formula 1 racing driver, a fantastic doctor, engineer or perhaps Prime Minister, but—you know what?—they will never get the opportunity because of where they were born and the circumstances in which they were brought up. From birth they have been denied their potential. As a nation and as a community, that sabotage of young people’s lives is the greatest loss to us all, and in many cases it is literally a life sentence.
In the early 1990s Jimmy Reid made a documentary in Scotland, and he was filmed standing in a field between Milngavie and Drumchapel. The camera panned across the field, and he said that a child who is born on one side of the fields will live 10 years longer than a child born on the other side of the field, in Drumchapel. The average sentence for murder in Scotland is not far off 10 to 15 years, so for many children born in those circumstances, that is literally a life sentence. That destroyed potential is a great tragedy for us all.
Child poverty can be solved through political means—it is not inevitable, as many speakers have suggested; it can be solved. Child poverty has been both demonstrably reduced and demonstrably accelerated at the behest of policies of various Governments, and if there is one thing I can be proud of about the previous Labour Government, it is their efforts to reduce child poverty. When Labour came to power in 1997, child poverty stood at 3.6 million in the UK. When Labour left office in 2010, that figure had been reduced to 1 million. That was still too many, but it was a significant and demonstrable reduction. Today child poverty stands at 4 million—more than a reversal of those achievements—and we must address that generational tragedy.
We should not get too bogged down in the minutiae of Brexit; instead, we should focus on what we could be doing. What motivates me—and probably most Members—to get out of bed in the morning, is thinking about how we can leave a legacy that will improve lives for future generations. That certainly motivates me, my hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill and other Members of the House, yet this Government have demonstrably, deliberately and consciously implemented policies that have permanently damaged lives.
It is true. Those policies will have a material effect on children born in this decade of austerity. We are visiting huge destruction not just on their lives, but on a whole community that has been denied those opportunities, and when we reflect on what Members have said today, that is the greatest tragedy.
One of the most moving aspects of this is the fact that child poverty is driven primarily by insufficient income, yet 65% of all children living in poverty in Scotland live in working households. Parents are trying to do what they can. They are not feckless or idle; they are trying to achieve what they can, but the capacity of the economy to meet their basic income requirements is not there. That is a legacy of this Government, their failure to address the 2008 financial crash, and their entire counter-productive austerity agenda, which has retarded economic growth in this country and caused one of the most regionally unbalanced and slow-paced recoveries of any major economy in the western world.
Does the hon. Gentleman welcome the fact that this Government have lifted the threshold after which people start paying tax to £12,500? That really helps people. Combined with that, we have increases in the national living wage. Does he not welcome those as well? Does he welcome the fact that the Government have introduced policies to allow people at the lower end of the income scale to keep more of their own money, so that they can spend it on their families? Does he welcome any of the policies that the Government have introduced to tackle child poverty?
The hon. Gentleman makes a point about tax, but the tax threshold was never met by people on the lowest incomes in the first place, so that measure does not deal with people at that end of the scale. People who already rely on social security benefits have been crushed by the two-child welfare cap that has been mentioned. Those are the things that affect people.
One searing example of that can be found in a recent report by Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group Scotland and the Poverty Alliance, which addresses the issue of hunger in Scotland. It is an inspiring and chilling report, and the thing that strikes me most is the testimony that it contains. One example is from a lady called Alison. She is typical of many people—usually women—who turn up to my constituency surgeries in horrendous circumstances. A person might be born and brought up in a constituency and live there their whole life, as I have, but they never know the half of it until they become a Member of Parliament and realise what is going on behind closed doors.
Many people are too proud to come and demonstrate that they are suffering and have problems. They do not want to make a spectacle of themselves, and they are upset about having to speak to a Member of Parliament about their circumstances. The example from Alison is particularly egregious. Speaking about the whole issue of food insecurity and the wellbeing of our children, she said:
“My son, throughout the whole of this, was scared to put the heating on. He was scared to put the light on. He was sitting in the dark. He’s not playing his computer. What else is he meant to do when he’s socially isolated? When there’s no money to go on a bus, never mind take him out for the day…When things were on a level, it’s very, very sad to even say, he was just happy that we went for a hot chocolate and a muffin. Now that’s a simple thing. That is not doable anymore.”
Another parent said:
“Me and my daughter used to go everywhere. But now, I don’t have nothing like, so we can’t do anything.”
One mother said:
“I’ve felt suicidal more times than I’ve had hot dinners and that’s no joke.”
That is a true testimony from someone suffering in Scotland now.
To me, it is offensive at a very fundamental level if the great achievements of the welfare state have been rolled back to the extent that people are suffering in this way. Not only is there the shaming need for people to go to food banks and prostrate themselves in front of authority figures to demonstrate that they need help, but we have also removed the social floor that was there for many people. We created the idea that there was a floor beneath which no one would fall and above which everyone could rise. That is how my family progressed, and how I was able to have opportunities that my parents did not have. To think that that has been reversed under this Government is offensive.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that part of that has been the change from what used to be “social security”, to what is now called “welfare”? In the past, no matter whatever happened to someone, we knew that they would somehow be safe, but that has been removed. I served on a committee with the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) to consider the children’s future food inquiry. We took evidence from children about the hunger that they suffered from at school—I kept having to put my glasses on to hide that I was crying. That is ridiculous in a country such as this.
It is ridiculous. The scourge of things such as people having no recourse to public funds is a particularly horrific example of that. A couple of weeks ago a lady came to my surgery. She looked emaciated. I asked if she was all right, because she looked as if she was going to faint. I brought her in, sat her down, and we gave her a plate of shortbread. She scoffed it in front of us in a couple of minutes in a way that otherwise would have been impolite, but under the circumstances we were horrified that she could be so hungry that she was grabbing food in front of us. I could not believe that someone was in that situation because of having no recourse to public funds. She was destitute; she had left an abusive relationship with her child, and she was trying to find somewhere to shelter. There was no availability of homeless accommodation in Glasgow at that point. She was being helped by a women’s refuge charity, but it did not have long-term accommodation. That she was driven to that sort of desperation is just one example of the circumstances in which people find themselves.
The case of Alison in the report that I mentioned is typical. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) mentioned the concept of social security as a system that would save everyone, and the change from that to a welfare system—it is almost like a return to the poor laws of the Victorian era, with the idea that this involves some sort of virtue and vice.
My constituency has seen the biggest loss of anywhere in Scotland resulting from the change from the disability living allowance to the personal independence payment—£1.9 million a year out of the pockets of my constituents, and behind that figure is a lot of pain. This is about how fragile people’s lives are, not just about immediate need. Most people’s finances are delicate, and one unexpected crisis in their life—a failed relationship or job, an unexpected cost because their central heating has failed, or whatever it might be—could push them into relying on welfare. The truly horrendous thing is when they get into that spiral. Alison says,
“I vowed I wouldn’t take out credit cards or loans. But you find you get gobbled up, you have to do it because there’s no other way”.
People end up in the debt spiral, compounded by this Government’s universal credit policies. Instead of focusing on the immediate need for cash and income and the ability to bridge finances, there is the initial loan, which creates a spiral of decline as people dig themselves into compounded debt. That is the biggest tragedy.
In the case of Alison, we can see the build-up of debts. The milestones are indicated in the report. She is a lone parent with two sons, both of whom have disabilities. Alison loses her personal independence payment. Her son’s DLA is downgraded. Alison loses the carer’s allowance. Her son attempts suicide. As we all too often see, after she went to her Member of Parliament for help, the PIP and the higher-rate DLA were both reinstated—so it was an injustice from the start. But where was the pain? The pain was that her son tried to take his own life.
That is someone in Dundee. I cannot believe that it is happening in 2019. This is what we are up against, and it is seen as socially acceptable. All of it has been clouded out and displaced by the squabbling over Brexit and the high-level stuff that we have been consumed by. Going into this election campaign, I think most of us want to get down to saying, “This is a choice between death and life for so many people in this country.”
That is what is on offer here. It is not about what flags are where, what borders are where or what is going on in the constitutional sense; it is about whether we can get money into people’s pockets quickly through political decisions made here and elsewhere in this country, to improve lives. That is the priority for us all, I think; let us hope we can achieve that as best we can and make those arguments out there.
There is a multifaceted approach. Many hon. Members have talked about different aspects of child poverty. It is fair to say that it mostly tracks decisions made at a UK Government level, because the primary driver of the social security system, the dynamic in this country, is the Department for Work and Pensions. That is the primary driver, and the behaviour of incomes will track the decisions made there.
I will point out that there is a big opportunity in Scotland now, with the changes in devolved policy. I welcome the measures that have been taken. There has been a divergence between Scotland and the rest of the UK in terms of poverty after housing costs, but there is an interesting aspect to that. The reality is that that happens because more people in poverty in Scotland live in the social rented sector than in the private rented sector, and the larger social rented sector has long been considered a key reason why poverty after housing costs is lower in Scotland than in the rest of the UK.
We can see why that would happen. It is all about income. The rents are lower in social housing because there is more opportunity to control them—but that is still not going far enough. My hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill mentioned house building; I do not want to get into the quibbles over it, because I find them a bit tedious, but I point out that the records have been fairly consistent. If we look at completions per year, it was 3,617 units per year over the eight years of the Labour-Lib Dem Government in Scotland under devolution. Since then, it has been 3,316 per year under the 12 years of the SNP Administration from 2007.
However, there has been a significant drop-off in the rate of completions since 2010-11, which we need to address. Let us work together on this, because there is an opportunity to recapitalise Scotland’s social housing capacity, which is a key driver of bringing down poverty. Not only must we do that, but we must focus on rent controls. I am very proud of the idea of a Mary Barbour Act. Putting rent controls on not only the social rented sector but the private rented sector is a huge opportunity to reduce the overall cost burden on families living on the breadline. That is a major impact and we can make it now. Those policies are devolved. We can have an impact on that front. We can also improve aspects of poverty and access to work through transport improvements; removing the costs of transport and commuting can help families. However, we must also utilise the great capacity of financial powers to top up and enhance welfare benefits wherever we can.
The introduction of certain benefits has been positive, but we are seeing some teething problems. We know that the Scottish child payment is generally a great thing—it is a good idea and I congratulate the Scottish Government on it—but we also know that 58,000 children face losing out on the £520-a-year benefit on their sixth birthday, because their low-income families will stop getting the payment.
I know that that is to do with the transfer of information and so on between the DWP and Social Security Scotland, but we need to get a grip of it quickly. We need better management and better collaboration between the two Governments to get that sorted out, to ensure that we can lift another 30,000 children out of poverty more rapidly. I hope that that can be achieved, and that we can really make some inroads on it.
We must also look at the aspect of childcare—I will finish on this issue. One of my constituents, who I went to school with, wrote to me and said:
“My second child arrived in April this year. He is a very healthy child who I hope will go on to great things when he is older. However for the moment he is only 6 months old and when he is 9 months old my wife is to return to work after 9 months on maternity leave.”
They are a typical working-class Glaswegian family, with only relatively modest incomes. His wife is currently receiving the bare minimum statutory maternity pay, so as a family they are struggling financially, and have been since their first child was born. He states that he is,
“extremely dissatisfied with this mediocre maternity pay amount in what is supposed to be 5th largest economy in the world”.
My constituent’s main issue is how this new 30 hours of free child care scheme is being applied. His argument is that it is essentially
“robbing Peter to pay Paul”,
as resources for nursery are being pulled from the baby stage, from nought to two years, and reallocated to the toddler stage at two years-plus. He goes on to say:
“For a long time this government have been woefully inept at providing sufficient support to families, who particularly during the 9 month to 3 years stage…where the mother is required to return back to work as state/employer benefits stop at this point. How this 30 hour free scheme is being applied is just the icing on the cake.”
My constituent’s argument is that we cannot continue to allow this gap of nearly two years to continue. As it stands, his boy cannot get a place in nursery, because the cheaper ones are full and cannot take more, and the ones that are available charge a hefty day rate of £50 a day. It is completely unfair, and certainly does not make work pay for his family, so he wants that looked at. Access to childcare liberates people to get to work as well, so that is a critically important point in tackling this, and it cuts across Government, so let us hope something can be done.
I will not take any more time, but I think we can see that the problem is multifaceted. I hope that all Governments can work in collaboration to solve this intractable problem in our society. We know it can be done through political action, political agency and political choice, so let us make it a priority in this election campaign.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) on securing this important debate. There is no doubt that he is a passionate campaigner on this issue, and he knows me well enough to know that I share his passion for tackling poverty in all its forms.
The hon. Gentleman said that there are too many children living in poverty. I agree entirely—in my view, one child in poverty is one child too many. It is absolutely a priority for me, as it is for this Government. As he will know, I have not been in this role for very long—and, who knows, in six weeks’ time I may not be a Member of Parliament, let alone a Work and Pensions Minister—but I stress that I have made this a priority from day one in the Department, and I have been looking at all sorts of options that we could take up to tackle child poverty.
Hon. Members across this Chamber will recognise that very few of the figures that cross my desk end with an “m”; they end with a “bn”. They tend to be very expensive measures indeed, requiring a fiscal event, but I hope that hon. Members will rest assured, knowing me as they do, that I have been exploring those options and making submissions to the Treasury accordingly.
A number of issues have been raised, and I am conscious that, as always with these debates, we have very little time to address them in the level of detail and granularity that I would like. However, I stress to colleagues that—subject to my being back here in six weeks’ time—as I have always said, my door is always open and I am happy to discuss these matters with a group or on an individual basis. The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill raised topics including in-work poverty, universal credit, food insecurity and food banks, housing and temporary accommodation, and homelessness; I will try to address as many of those issues as possible in a very short period of time.
On the question of housing, I kindly ask the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill to make representations elsewhere. Although I have responsibility for the housing benefit budget, which is some £23.5 billion—with regard to his representations to me, he is largely pushing against an open door when he raises the need for more affordable housing and homes for social rent—I encourage him and hon. Members across the House to make such representations to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and to the Treasury, because in my view secure and stable housing plays an important part in tackling poverty at its root.
We also heard powerful contributions from the hon. Members for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), whom I have huge respect for and have worked with on a number of other issues. I take their representations very seriously indeed. I do not agree with every point that they made—they would be surprised if I did—but I thank them for the constructive nature of their contributions.
As the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill said, we all have the same objective: to tackle child poverty and wider poverty at its root causes. We do not want to see any children in poverty. We have different ideas about the journey and how to get there but, ultimately, we all want the same thing. I am absolutely determined to work as closely as I can with the Scottish Government, working hand in hand where we can and learning from each other about the different measures that we try, to ensure that we have the best approach to truly tackling child poverty. I will talk about that a little bit.
Delivering a sustainable, long-term solution to all forms of poverty remains a priority for me and the Government. Our welfare reforms are driven by our firm conviction that the benefits system must work with the tax system and the labour market to support employment and higher pay, so that everyone has the chance to succeed and to share in the benefits of a strong economy. Supporting employment is also key to ensuring better long-term outcomes for disadvantaged children, because we know that children in working households do better at every stage of their education.
We are proud, as a Government, of the progress that we have made. We now have a near record-breaking labour market, with more than 3.6 million more people in work across the UK compared with 2010. The unemployment rate has more than halved since 2010.
I will talk about in-work poverty, because that issue was raised. We take child poverty extremely seriously. I raise the additional 3.6 million people in work—around 1,000 per day since the Government came into office in 2010—because of the clear evidence that children in working households are not only less likely to grow up in poverty but have significantly better life chances.
To give the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw the statistics, a child living in a household where every adult is working is around five times less likely to be in relative poverty than a child in a household where nobody works, and children growing up in workless families are almost twice as likely as children in working families to fail at all stages of their education. It is important to note that 44,000 fewer children are in workless households in Scotland compared with 2010, and that child poverty in Scotland remained the same or decreased across all four main measures in the three years to 2017-18, compared with the three years to 2009-10.
It is important to stress that the Government believe that tackling poverty requires an approach that goes beyond providing a financial safety net through the Department for Work and Pensions. That requires a collective approach that addresses the root causes of poverty and disadvantage to improve long-term outcomes for children and families, which is why we have taken wider cross-Government action to support and to make a lasting difference to the lives of the most vulnerable, who often face complex employment barriers. That is people whose ability to work is, for example, frustrated by issues such as a disrupted education, a history of offending, mental health issues, or drug and alcohol abuse. That is why our jobcentre work coaches work with external partners to offer individualised, specialist support to help some of the most vulnerable people in our society to turn their lives around.
It is not the case that we have just pushed people into low-paid and insecure, part-time work—I do not know whether that is the point the hon. Lady is making. However, it is important to stress that around three quarters of the growth in employment since 2010 has been in full-time work. We know, because I shared the statistics, that being in full-time work substantially reduces the risk of being in poverty. There is only around a 7% chance of a child being in relative poverty if both parents work full time, compared with 66% for two-parent families with only part-time work.
Several hon. Members raised universal credit, which I do not think I have time to touch on in the detail I would like. However, universal credit supports full-time work through smooth incentives to increase hours, a general expectation that lone parents and partners should work—unless caring for young children or a disabled person—and generous childcare subsidies. It is important to note that we have also gone much further to support working families than previous Governments.
I thank the Minister for giving way; I know he is short of time. He touched on universal credit. Will he commit to looking at the five-week wait and people having to take out loans, which pushes them further and deeper into persistent poverty? People’s ability to repay them is not considered, and families and children suffer tremendously as a result. Will he commit to taking that up with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions?
I look closely at all elements within my portfolio. Universal credit is probably the largest element of my portfolio, newly added in the most recent reshuffle. On the first assessment period, it is important to stress that it is not a loan but an advance of the first indicative award, and it is interest-free and repayable over a 12-month period. We are already going further, because that will go up to 16 months, and I am exploring ways in which we could potentially increase that further. At present, around 60% of people take that up. The issue the hon. Lady raises is often raised with me by a number of the stakeholders and organisations that the Department works closely with. I am looking at it, of course, but fundamentally we can have a system based either on advances or on arrears.
We now also have a two-week roll-on of housing benefit for those moving on to universal credit, and as of 2021 that will include a two-week run-on of income support, jobseeker’s allowance and employment support allowance. This month we are reducing the maximum level of deductions from 40% to 30%. We are listening and we do make changes, but those changes can only be made within fiscal events. Of course, as I mentioned at the beginning, it will come as no surprise to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran to hear that I am looking at a number of measures ahead of the next fiscal event to improve universal credit, because we do listen to Members from across the House and to the stakeholders that feed into the Department.
I am conscious of the time, and I want the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill to have an opportunity to wind up the debate, so I will conclude. I reaffirm our view that the long-term approach that we are taking is the right one if we are to deliver lasting change. However, we are not complacent; this is an area of real focus for me and the Department. The Government believe that work provides economic independence, pride in having a job and improved wellbeing. I look forward to continuing to work with colleagues from across the House, the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations and charities to tackle poverty in all its forms.
I thank everybody who has spoken, including my hon. Friends the Members for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) and for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) and the hon. Members for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford), for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows), for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), and the Minister. I also thank the Library for the information that it supplied, as well as the Poverty Alliance, Shelter Scotland, Oxfam, all the food banks and, more importantly, all their volunteers. Finally, I thank all parents who do their best to feed and look after their children; I know that some of them starve themselves just to do that.
As I said at the beginning, we all care about our children. After all, they are the future adults who will, hopefully, care for us later in life. I thank all Members again. Hopefully, whoever returns to the House after the general election will pick up what we have said and, more importantly, will eradicate child poverty, not only in Scotland but across the UK.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered child poverty in Scotland.