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Social Justice and Fairness Commission

Volume 699: debated on Wednesday 21 July 2021

Before we begin, as many hon. Members will be aware, the weather in London and here in the Boothroyd Room is very hot. I have no problem with Members speaking without jackets on, and I have also advised Doorkeepers that they should take their jackets off, so that we all stay conscious. I remind Members that although social distancing is no longer in operation, Mr Speaker has encouraged us to wear masks between speeches and interventions. Members participating virtually must leave their camera on for the duration of the debate, and will be visible at all times to one another and to us in the Boothroyd Room.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Social Justice and Fairness Commission and implications for Government policy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell, and to introduce this debate on the important work that has been done by Scotland’s Social Justice and Fairness Commission, led by Shona Robison MSP and Neil Gray, the former Member for Airdrie and Shotts who now sits in the Scottish Parliament. The commission was established by Nicola Sturgeon in September 2019 and comprises both SNP Members and respected independent contributors, including Doctor Angela O’Hagan, former convenor of the Scottish Women’s Budget Group; Dr Nighet Riaz, academic, educator and community and political activist; Professor Sir Harry Burns, the former Chief Medical Officer for Scotland; and Chelsea Cameron, activist and campaigner and the Sunday Mail Young Scot of the Year 2017.

The commission took evidence from a wide range of organisations and individuals who provided valuable time and insights during a period of great uncertainty. The commission published its report, “A Route Map to a Fair Independent Scotland” in May this year. The focus of the report is how much more Scotland could achieve with independence, but it also considers what is achievable with the powers of devolution.

As the commission highlights, the powers of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government are under attack by a UK Government using the challenges posed by Brexit to undermine the very fabric of devolution. In the run-up to the first independence referendum in 2014, Scotland faced the choice of two futures. One of those choices—independence—is still available and will be revisited soon in a further referendum, as voted for by the people of Scotland. The other future, which was described by Theresa May as a “family of nations”, by Gordon Brown as a “new federal UK” or by Ruth—now the unelected Baroness—Davidson as the only way to keep Scotland in the EU is to vote no. The future that they described is now well and truly dead.

The question facing the people of Scotland, which also faces the people of other parts of the UK, is what comes next? Where are our Governments taking us and what is the vision that drives their actions? The commission’s report is based on the central principle that the function of Government is to make life better for everyone and to ensure that no one is left behind.

The words, “no one is left behind” have been used by Ministers in the UK Government, but it is clear to all but the most dogged idealogue that they are weasel words. Ministers use them to put a gloss on such regressive decisions as letting up to 3 million people fall through the cracks of pandemic support, and please let us not mention universal credit as a safety net. Many applicants receive little or no support, because someone else in their household has an income. There is also the wilful decision to remove the £20 uplift in universal credit in September, just as the furlough scheme ends and many workers face post-pandemic unemployment. The UK Government’s failure to bring forward an employment Bill is an example of calculated inaction, as Ministers understand that many people, including pregnant women and new mothers, face blatant discrimination in post-pandemic employment, but they have chosen to do nothing.

The commission highlights three key elements in the roadmap at a fairer Scotland, which I would argue are equally applicable to the UK. The first element is democratic renewal by changing how we make decisions to be more inclusive, consensual and empowering. The difference in the direction of travel between Scotland and the approach of the UK Government is stark. As the Scottish Government work to extend the franchise, the UK Government use manufactured concern about voter impersonation as a smoke screen to disenfranchise many of the UK’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens, many of who are likely to be from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. While the activities of the Scottish Parliament and devolved Administrations are subject to review by the courts, the UK Government have made clear their intention to use the anachronism of the UK’s unwritten constitution to put their own actions above the law. Given their scandalous behaviour, that is a worrying proposal.

The commission’s recommendations for citizen empowerment include working with affected communities to co-design and co-produce policies, developing and expanding participatory budgeting and giving communities greater control over their land with accelerated community ownership. These build on work already under way in Scotland, including the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016, which provides for greater transparency of land ownership, a fundamental resource for development. Ownership has been shrouded in secrecy for far too long. The UK Government are going in the opposite direction to that recommended by the commission, with a union connectivity review and levelling-up fund to haul decision making back to Westminster, and prioritise party objectives and vanity projects over local benefit.

The second leg of the route map is that Governments should operate based on values rooted in human rights and equality. As the Prime Minister chooses to align himself with leaders such as Viktor Orbán, the outspoken anti-immigrant premier of Hungary, his preferred direction of travel for the UK is clear—to the fringes of right-winged populism.

The commission highlights that the UK immigration policy is not only hugely damaging to Scotland, but inhumane and ineffective, founded on the relentless pursuit of a hostile environment. Recently, asylum seeker mothers and their babies were removed from flats in Glasgow and transferred to cramped bedsits where the babies had no room to even crawl. It is difficult to identify any logic to that policy, other than to say, “You are not welcome here.” The commission highlights the damage done by so-called welfare policies driven on the back of austerity. The bedroom tax, two-child limit, rape clause, benefit cap and five-week wait for universal credit all undermine social solidarity and make families reliant on food banks, charities and one-off crisis funding. How can the Minister can defend policies such as the rape clause? Surely that is simply indefensible.

The values underpinning these policies are not the values of the people of Scotland. They are not the values underpinning the job start payment, or the child winter heating allowance, introduced by the Scottish Government using their social security powers. They are not the values shown by the SNP in government, with the introduction of a range of progressive polices, such as the baby box, and game-changing poverty reduction measures, such as the Scottish child payment and the best start grant.

As a range of commentators have recognised, there is a limit to the ability of devolved administrators to tackle poverty while discriminatory polices remain in force at a UK level, and are reinforced by policies such as cutting the £20 weekly uplift to universal credit just as post-furlough unemployment is likely to soar. That change alone will wipe away the benefit brought to many families by the Scottish child payment.

The commission proposes pilots of two key models of social security: universal basic income and the minimum income guarantee. Despite repeated calls from the SNP and other devolved Governments, the UK Government continue to obstruct basic universal basic income pilots, content to leave gaping holes in the social security net for people to fall through. As the commission makes clear, by imposing cruel and damaging austerity measures, and undermining devolution, the Westminster Government are an obstacle to achieving a fairer society in Scotland.

I am learning the lessons of this dysfunctional United Kingdom. The commission recommends that an independent Scotland agree, define and enshrine our shared values and goals in a written constitution, incorporating international human rights conventions guaranteeing the right to home and access to a secure living income. Those values, allied to a commitment to equality, underpin the third and final leg of the route map: the delivery of transformative policies that put the wellbeing of people first.

By contrast with the centralising efforts of the UK Government to undermine devolution and take control of devolved powers, the re-elected SNP Government have committed to continuing strong action to tackle poverty and support families. The measures to be adopted include paying a further £100 for each child eligible for free school meals on the basis of low income, in addition to the £100 already paid at Easter; beginning the phased implementation of free school meals for all primary pupils, starting with primary 4 children in August and primary 5 children in January 2022; completing the roll-out of 1,140 hours of funded early learning and childcare; increasing the best start foods payment to £4.50 a week, and with the regulations already laid, families will start receiving the increased payments by mid-August; and legislating to give unpaid carers on some of the lowest incomes an extra coronavirus carer’s allowance supplement payment in December 2021. Such policies demonstrate the Scottish Government’s determination to support families and to give children in Scotland the best start in life. They are part of the Scottish Government’s commitment to creating a wellbeing economy, which is being taken forward internationally, with the First Minister taking a lead through the Wellbeing Economy Alliance.

Brexit and the pandemic have had a major impact on all our lives. With independence, Scotland would have the tools, such as the full range of welfare powers, tax and employment law, to navigate future challenges. The transfer of those powers to the Scottish Parliament would empower the people of Scotland and present us with the opportunity to transform our country for the better. However, those powers currently rest at Westminster. They could be used productively on behalf of the people of Scotland and people across the UK, but the UK Government have made it clear that they do not intend to act, and certainly not in a way that would be supported by people in Scotland.

The transfer of employment law would enable the Scottish Government to pursue a fair work agenda, including the commission’s recommendations of raising the minimum wage to the real living wage, banning the exploitative use of zero-hours contracts, outlawing unpaid trial shifts, and legislating against the practice of fire and rehire. The UK Government have failed to deliver such reforms, despite repeated calls to do so. They cannot even say that the reforms will appear in the much-promised Employment Bill. In fact, they cannot even say when the Bill will eventually arrive.

As the UK Government continue to dither over their plans for the post-pandemic economy, the suspicion grows that we are drifting towards the right’s long-sought-after Singapore-on-Thames, with the UK competing on the international stage with low-rights, low-cost labour forces, and a focus on international investors looking for low regulation. That is not the future for Scotland that is recommended by the commission, and I suspect it is not the future wanted by many workers elsewhere in the UK, either. A recent study in Grimsby, which has been published this month by the Institute for the Future of Work, highlights a yawning gap between the needs of that town’s residents and the UK Government’s focus on deregulated and low-tax freeports, which are claimed to attract internationally mobile investment. However, that did not stop the Conservative Government abandoning freeports in 2012. What emerges from the study is that the situation in Grimsby would certainly be replicated in communities right across the UK, as projects emanating from Westminster reflect the aspirations and influence of international financiers, rather than any clear analysis of local community aspirations.

Moving forward from the pandemic, especially in the world of work, we face a radically different future from the one that we faced just 18 months ago. The pandemic will undoubtedly be seen as a turning point for many industries, with home working, distributed working, automation and online access to services all challenging pre-pandemic norms. The sudden change will throw up a number of challenges for individuals, businesses, local authorities, transport providers, the retail and hospitality sectors and property owners. The commission sets out a coherent method of working as we plan for the unexpected shift in our future. It is an approach that puts the wellbeing of the people, whom Governments are supposed to serve, right at the heart of policy making—a method that is radically different from the approach of the UK Government.

I commend the commission on its work in these difficult times, and I encourage the Minister and his colleagues to study it closely.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Bardell. I start by commending and congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing the debate. Having campaigned with her in Clarkston and Neilston, I know what an advocate for social justice she is, not only in her constituency but in her role at Westminster.

I was reflecting during the debate, and I think that the past year has shown time and again the clear blue water between the British Government—the Conservatives in Westminster—and the SNP Government here in Scotland. The Scottish Government have stood in opposition to the Prime Minister and his Tory Government, who throughout the pandemic have implemented haphazard and irresponsible decision making, risking countless lives and causing economic hardship for a great many. On the other hand, the SNP has been clear and cautious in its covid-19 policy, relying on expert medical opinion and focusing on facts rather than the risky rhetoric of freedom day announcements that culminated in the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Health Secretary and now the Leader of the Opposition all having to self-isolate.

Our differences are not confined to the pandemic. The SNP has been clear that the £20 universal credit uplift must remain. We reject the benefit cap. We reject the rape clause. I know that the Minister does not like to call it the rape clause. Indeed, he wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) pleading with her to call it the non-consensual sex exemption; I guess he is not happy with it not being called its Sunday name. We also reject the five-week wait for universal credit. We have made clear our opposition to the brutal Home Office raids that took place here in the city of Glasgow, in Kenmure Street, earlier this year.

During the Kenmure Street protests, a man placed a sign outside his home that read:

“If this is team UK we reject it”.

I can tell hon. Members quite authoritatively from this great city of Glasgow that he speaks for every single one of us, not only in Glasgow but, I suspect, those in the Livingston constituency as well. The problem is that this is happening all across Scotland. People are rejecting the heartless policies of a British Government that we did not vote for—indeed, we have not voted by a majority for a Conservative Government since the 1950s in Scotland—and we continue to reject the Prime Minister and his band of cronies. Not only that, but Scottish people are rejecting this failed Union that does not serve them or reflect their values.

As my hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) so eloquently outlined, the Social Justice and Fairness Commission focuses on the routes that we need to take for Scotland to be a more fair and equal society. Key policies proposed include a universal basic income and a minimum income guarantee. Both those policies would ensure that everyone in Scotland could live healthy, financially secure and fulfilling lives. The UK Government have continually failed to raise people out of poverty—indeed, they have almost redefined what they define as poverty—while their heartless policies have pushed more and more people into financial hardship each year. I am afraid that the pandemic has only exacerbated that.

However, we in the SNP have a clear plan, starting with, as my hon. Friend suggested, full devolution of employment law, which the commission resoundingly backs. We are clear that we would recommend raising the minimum wage to the real living wage; ban the exploitative use of zero-hours contracts; outlaw unpaid trial shifts, as highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald); and legislate—yes, legislate—against the practice of fire and rehire, which has been called out so consistently by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands).

Alongside these key employment recommendations, the commission is clear that wider toxic Tory policies have devastating implications for employment in Scotland. For instance, Tory immigration policy is hugely damaging to Scotland, where our problem is not immigration but emigration. The commission recommends that freedom of movement be restored, and that asylum seekers have the right to work, which was so cruelly taken away from them by the new Labour British Government in the early 2000s.

Since taking office in 2007, the SNP Government have made enormous strides forward in implementing progressive policies, including the baby box, equal marriage, the Scottish child payment to best start grants, free university tuition and, of course, world-leading climate change legislation. However, this re-elected SNP Government have no plans to slow down. Indeed, in our first 100 days back in office, the SNP Government committed to strong action to tackle poverty and support families by increasing the best start food payments to £4.50 per week, paying £100 for each child eligible for free school meals on the basis of low income and commencing the phased implementation of free school meals to all primary pupils.

Despite those huge steps forward, there is undeniably a limit on the progress that can be made under the current powers of our precious Scottish Parliament. That is why the work of the Social Justice and Fairness Commission has made me incredibly hopeful. It paints a positive image of Scotland’s future—a future built on fairness, equality and social justice. However, the devolution of powers can only go so far, and the only way to achieve all the aspirations set out by the commission is with the powers of independence. With the full powers of independence, we could make a huge difference to the lives of a great many people across Scotland. With full powers of independence—in particular on social security—we could lift countless people out of poverty, allowing them to live full and healthy lives. With full powers of employment law, we could create fairer workplaces, increase wages, reduce insecure work and truly shift the curve on poverty. With powers over immigration, we could reinstate freedom of movement and promote fair, empathetic policies for asylum seekers and refugees.

An independent Scotland would not be constrained by the constitutional ceiling of devolution, which halts our ability to effect transformative policies. Independence would give our Scottish Parliament the tools it truly needs to eradicate poverty, rather than just reduce or mitigate the worst effects of harmful Tory welfare cuts.

The commission’s recommendations are a blueprint for what an independent Scotland can look like, and I for one look forward to the upcoming independence referendum that we know the UK Government are preparing for. Indeed, I look forward to watching people in Scotland seizing that opportunity for a more just, more equal and fairer society.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairship, Ms Bardell. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) on securing this debate, which has clearly been an opportunity for the Scottish National party to put their case on the record. I cannot blame constituents in Scotland—or in England, Wales or Northern Ireland—who are appalled at the Conservative Government’s failures over our social security system and employment law and want something better. That is perfectly understandable, and we agree with them, as I will set out. That does not mean, however, that we accept the SNP’s desire to break up the United Kingdom to achieve the changes needed.

The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said that the Scottish people’s aspiration is for a fairer, more equal and empathetic country, but that aspiration is shared across the UK. Labour opposed the Government’s plans to end the universal credit uplift, slashing £20 a week from the people who need it most and undermining demand in the economy. Everybody recognises the hurt that that will do to struggling families just as we enter the economic uncertainty of the post-furlough era. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation states that the withdrawal of the uplift will risk bringing 700,000 more people, including 300,000 more children, into poverty. It could also bring 500,000 more people into deep poverty.

Rather than cutting that lifeline, the Government should recognise that that uplift was an implicit recognition that universal credit was too low to begin with. They failed to give proper support to legacy benefits, income-based jobseekers allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, income support and child tax credit. Those should have been uplifted all along. It was discriminatory and unfair not to do that, and after stalling for so long, the Government now intend to have parity for all at the inadequate level.

Labour would keep the uplift and extend it to legacy benefits until a new, fairer system can be put in place. The delays to scrapping the rule of certifying that a terminally ill claimant has less than six months to live caused indecent anguish to too many people. Marie Curie and the Motor Neurone Disease Association estimate that about 7,000 people may have died while waiting for a decision on their benefits claim—utterly appalling. We have called for the benefits cap to be scrapped, for free school meals to be extended over holiday periods, and for personal independence payments and work capability assessments to be replaced with a personalised, holistic assessment process.

In short, we believe that the Tories are letting down the public, particularly those most in need, with their mismanagement of the social security system and demonisation of those who need to claim from it, a majority of whom, let us not forget, are in work. However, the SNP’s Social Justice and Fairness Commission, which suggests a land of milk and honey in a separated Scotland, seems not to recognise the choices that the SNP has made with the devolved powers that it already has. Labour is the party of devolution. In 2016, we helped to ensure that social security was devolved to the Scottish Parliament, but it has treated it like a hot potato.

SNP Ministers twice asked the Department for Work and Pensions to delay the devolution of the benefits in 2016 and in 2018. Now full devolution of the benefits has been pushed back further, to 2025. Why should people have to wait for a supposedly kinder and better system that they deserve now? Considering that the proportion of Scottish pensioners stuck in persistent poverty has increased under the SNP and is now higher than levels elsewhere in the UK, and that more than one in four of Scotland’s children are officially recognised as living in poverty, it should be a priority—not a fantasy to put off for some other day.

I have been really enjoying the hon. Lady’s contribution. I appreciated that we would have some areas of common ground and some differences, but in all this it would be helpful to hear from her whether she appreciates that the report deals with the here and now as well as the future, that it is important for Governments to aspire, and put action in place, to make things better for populations, and that it is for people in Scotland to determine what their future should be, rather than this place.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She refers to the commission’s report being on decisions to be taken in the here and now, but as I outlined, the Scottish Government have been offered those powers and chosen not to use them. They could be making things better for people in Scotland in the here and now, despite the fact that they are still waiting for further devolution from the UK Government, which my party and the hon. Lady’s can agree is an utterly inadequate Government in all parts of the UK.

What about the small policies that have a big impact? Scottish Labour has repeatedly called on the SNP to mitigate the two-child benefit limit, but it has refused. It would cost just £69 million, or 0.2% of the Scottish Government’s total 2019 budget spending. It is a toxic policy that has hit some of Scotland’s most vulnerable families the hardest, and it is inexplicable that the SNP has not sought to scrap it.

I agree with the hon. Lady about the policy and all that it stands for, but perhaps she is missing the point. This is an issue for this Parliament. If we look at it in conjunction with all the action that the Scottish Parliament and Government take to support children, and to make Scotland the best place for children to grow up, that would be a more sensible approach than expecting the Scottish Parliament to be simply a Parliament of mitigation. People in Scotland deserve better than that.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and refer her to my previous answer: we both agree that this is an utterly inadequate Government in all parts of the UK, but that does not mean that the Scottish Government could not be doing more to mitigate the effects of the UK Government, as has taken place with regional devolution in other parts of England. Why has the SNP chosen instead to talk up the findings of the Social Justice and Fairness Commission—a commission made up of SNP politicians? Presumably because it is easier to condemn than to construct with the powers available, and certainly easier to make utopian promises about the future.

We know that the SNP’s economic forecasts do not stack up. The London School of Economics reports that the combination of separation and Brexit would reduce Scotland’s income per capita by between 6.3% and 8.7% in the long run, equivalent to a loss of income of between £2,000 and £2,800 per person every year. The SNP’s blueprint for independence, the Sustainable Growth Commission, proposes a five-to-10-year timeframe to cut Scotland’s deficit to 3%, meaning that a separate Scotland would face many years of austerity. If that happened, it would be cutting social security, not extending it.

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for being kind enough to give way on one more occasion. I am enjoying our ability to have this debate, but may I point out to her that all the things that she has said are predicated on this place being in charge of Scotland and most of the levers of power? In an independent Scotland, Scotland will be in charge of all the levers of power, and it is inconceivable that we will run things the way this place runs things. The real issue is that Scotland cannot afford not to be independent.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, again, and echo her remark about enjoying a debate that, from the call list at least, seemed as though it would not be as lively as it has been. I thank her for that. As I said earlier in my speech, the economic forecasts that relate to the future of Scotland are the basis on which I made those remarks.

About 350,000 people in Scotland earn less than the real living wage. They deserve a better system than the one that the Tories trap them in and they deserve the genuine action that the SNP has refused them. The Labour party offers a better, fairer and more credible system than either of them—and I am really pleased to see the hon. Member for Glasgow East enjoying my speech and agreeing with me so strongly!

It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Ms Bardell. May I personally thank you for your enlightened approach and position in relation to jackets and the wearing thereof, given the heat? I also thank the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) for securing this debate on a report that covers many important issues.

The report from the Social Justice and Fairness Commission, set up by the Scottish National party, is very wide-ranging. It covers a number of areas where policy is already devolved to the Scottish Government. I will predominantly focus, as I mentioned to the hon. Lady ahead of the debate, on areas that fall within my remit and that of my Department.

Let me start by reminding hon. Members of the UK Government’s long-standing commitment to devolution. The Scotland Act 2016 gave the Scottish Parliament significantly increased powers as well as responsibility for social security benefits worth about £3 billion. It also has powers to create new benefits in areas of devolved responsibility, to top up reserved benefits and to provide discretionary payments in this area.

My Department has made every effort to support the Scottish Government in the delivery of their plans and priorities. There is close working at every level. There is also regular constructive ministerial engagement through the joint ministerial working group on welfare to discuss the transfer of powers, in the spirit of the Smith agreement.

Returning to the key focus of today’s debate, I share the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) and other hon. Members about poverty levels in Scotland and, indeed, in the UK as a whole. As a Government, we are wholly committed to tackling that, and it is only right that any Government are held properly to account for the effectiveness of their policies in this area. I want to put it on the record that I do not want to see anybody in Scotland—or anywhere in our United Kingdom, for that matter—living in poverty; and although I do not have within my control all the levers to tackle poverty, I want to assure the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire and other Members that I take this issue incredibly seriously and I am working with counterparts across Government to identify, tackle and address the root causes and drivers of poverty.

Over the past 16 months, our priority has of course been to help people to withstand the financial hardships brought about by the pandemic. Such unprecedented economic circumstances have called for an unprecedented economic response, and I believe that this Government have delivered that by spending more than £407 billion on support measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, including, for example, the furlough scheme and the self-employment income support scheme. That has helped to protect one in three jobs in Scotland, helped to keep businesses afloat and helped families, wherever they live across our United Kingdom, to get by. As we move forward, our collective priority must be recovery—recovering from the challenges that the covid pandemic has created. I stress that the UK Government will of course work hand in hand with the Scottish Government on this mission, because we will recover faster and stronger if we work together.

That spending also includes the additional £7.4 billion injected into the welfare system, which the hon. Lady referred to, to provide further support for those most in need, raising our total spend on welfare support for people of working age to over £111 billion in 2020-21. As she rightly said, this extra funding includes the temporary £20 increase to the universal credit standard allowance and the working tax credit standard allowance, and nearly an additional £1 billion to the local housing allowance, topping up the rates to the 30th percentile of local market rents, which we maintained in cash terms at the same level this year.

The measures brought in by this Government in response to the pandemic targeted support at those who needed it most in a swift and effective way.

The Minister spoke about the £20 uplift and then moved swiftly on, as if the people in receipt of that uplift will not still have the same need when it is pulled from under their feet. How does he think that the families concerned will manage without that money, which has clearly been much needed? How does he think that it suddenly stops being needed when he pulls the plug?

The hon. Lady is right to point out that universal credit has provided a vital safety net for approximately 6 million people during the pandemic and, as she rightly suggests, we announced the temporary uplift as part of the £400 billion package of measures that was put in place to support those facing the most financial disruption and economic shock as a result of the pandemic. I hasten to add that that measure was not being called for by any other party in the House of Commons. Nevertheless, it was a measure to support those facing that economic shock and financial disruption, and the point is that it will last—the temporary uplift having been extended further by six months—well beyond the end of the road map.

Notwithstanding the points that the hon. Lady makes, and I know that they come from the right place and that she is very passionate about these issues, our focus now is on our multi-billion pound plan for jobs, which will support people in the long term by helping them to learn new skills, to increase their hours and, of course, to find new work.

The report talks at length about universal basic income, so I will touch on that very briefly, if I may, and also services. However, we know that these do not target support at those in greatest need and that they fail to take into account the significant additional costs faced by many individuals, including those, for example, with disabilities or childcare responsibilities.

As we look towards our economic recovery, tackling poverty will be very much at the heart of our mission. We have long championed the principle that the best way to do so is to support people, wherever possible, to move into work and to progress in work through our reformed welfare system, which ensures that families of all backgrounds are better off in work.

Statistics for 2019-20 show that, before the pandemic, the UK was in a strong position overall, with record levels of employment, rising incomes and 1.3 million fewer people, including 300,000 fewer children, in absolute poverty after housing costs, compared with 2010. In Scotland, the proportion of children in absolute low income reduced by 3 percentage points to 17% before housing costs in the three years to 2019-20, compared with 20% in the three years to 2009-10. But there is still a lot of work to do in that area.

Helping people back into work is key to levelling up across the whole of Great Britain, and the Department for Work and Pensions is playing a central role in delivering this Government’s ambitious £30 billion plan for jobs, which is already helping people of all ages right across the country. That includes over £7 billion on new schemes such as kickstart. Since it launched last September, over 10,500 kickstart jobs have been advertised in Scotland and over 3,500 young people have started in kickstart roles.

The evidence is clear that parental employment, particularly where it is full time, substantially reduces the risk of a child growing up in poverty, but we know that having a job is not always enough to lift families out of poverty. People also need the right skills and opportunities to progress in their roles, so that they can increase their earnings and build a career. That is very much a focus of the Department going forward.

The independent In-work Progression Commission published its report on the barriers to progression for those in persistent low pay earlier this month and we will consider its recommendations carefully before responding later this year. I encourage both the Scottish Government and employers across Scotland—indeed, across the whole of the United Kingdom—to do the same.

Through our recently expanded UK-wide network of jobcentres, we are also taking wider action to support those whose ability to work is affected by a range of often complex barriers to work. Customers with a drug or alcohol dependency who are not in treatment can be referred for a voluntary discussion with a local treatment provider to discuss their dependency issues and treatment options, for example. We are able to put in a six-month drug and alcohol easement for those in structured recovery treatments, so that work availability and work search requirements within UC are switched off for up to six months, giving the claimant the time and space to recover. Furthermore, for those in recovery who are moving into work, our Access to Work grant provides adaptions and specialist equipment for the workplace.

Work coaches have been key to the support that we have been able to provide over the last 16 months. They can also play a crucial role in preventing homelessness through the provision of tailored support via universal credit. That can include pausing the requirement for homeless claimants to look for work while they resolve things such as accommodation issues, and helping customers to access the right additional housing assistance and all-important expert support. Additionally, work coaches can offer voluntary referrals to local housing teams under the duty to refer.

Before I conclude, I will touch on pensions, which are also referenced in the report. We are absolutely committed to maintaining a private pensions system that ensures financial security for current and future pensioners. Automatic enrolment has, without question, been hugely successful, with more than 10 million individuals—including more women, lower earners and young people—now building greater financial resilience for their future. We are committed to reaching more of those previously under-served groups by implementing the 2017 automatic enrolment review, and to further improving schemes and information for savers under the Pension Schemes Act 2021. That is a joint endeavour, so Government, employers, industry and individuals all need to play their part in delivering a system that is affordable and sustainable for all.

A number of important points were raised, and I understand that the Minister cannot possibly deal with them all in the short time available. However, I am particularly keen to hear from him about the rape clause and how such a policy, which causes such harm and damage to women, can be part of any just social security system.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that issue. I know that the two-child policy is not supported by the Scottish National party, and it is regularly raised at oral questions. What I would say is that a benefits structure that adjusts automatically to family size is unsustainable, notwithstanding the points that she makes. The 2020 figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that 85% of families with dependent children have a maximum of two in their family; for lone-parent families, the figure was 83%. The Government therefore feel that it is proportionate to provide support through child tax credit and universal credit for a maximum of two children, but we recognise that some claimants cannot make the same choices about the number of children in their family. That is exactly why exemptions such as the non-consensual sex exemption, which the hon. Lady mentioned, have been put in place to protect those individuals.

Given what the Minister has just said about the high proportion of families for whom such policies would clearly not be relevant, will he explain why he thinks the two-child policy and the rape clause have any place in a socially just system?

On this particular issue, the hon. Lady and I will have to agree to disagree. The policy is based on the principle of fairness.

Let me finish answering first. Even if we park the fact that it would cost around £2 billion a year to reverse the policy decision, it is based on fairness, because the idea is that those who are in receipt of benefits should have to make the same life choices—

It is important to say to the Minister on the record that it is unhelpful to use the phrase “life choices” when talking about things such as the rape clause. I know that he is thoughtful about matters in this area of social security, but he is trying to defend the indefensible. I come back to the question of how this could possibly be just.

The hon. Lady is conflating two issues. She is conflating the two-child policy, in and of itself, which is a matter of fairness—it is about putting those who are in receipt of benefits in the same position as those who are not, when it comes to facing life choices—with what she refers to as the rape clause, which I refer to as the non-consensual sex exemption. That is exactly why we have that exemption in place.

I am interested in how a policy that, as the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire said, affects only a very small number of people can be unsustainable. We know that all money put into early years represents a saving over a child’s lifetime, particularly for those children who are in the sharpest financial straits because of their family circumstances. Those are, of course, no fault of the child, so how can this be a matter of fairness?

To pick up on the point about the rape clause—non-consensual sex is rape—how can it possibly be fair that at a time when we have a conviction rate of less than 1.6%, women are being asked to re-traumatise themselves, not only through the justice system, but in accessing the support that their families need?

Again, on this particular policy, we are not going to agree. It is one of many issues on which the hon. Member for Warrington North and the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire will not agree with me, and I understand that. They say, “It is not very much money. It is a very small policy—it is £2 billion here.” If I add up in my head the cost of the policies that the hon. Ladies have said over the past half hour that they would like to bring in, it comes to more than £15 billion, plus inflation at the consumer prices index rate, every year for ever more. We should bear in mind that we already spend around £100 billion a year on benefits supporting working-age people. This is probably a debate for another day. I think that the position is very much one of fairness, but I have no doubt that the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire will continue to champion this cause and campaign on the matter.

Our full focus must be on recovering from the challenges that the covid pandemic has created. We have protected all the jobs we could through the furlough scheme, and we are now pivoting towards getting people back into work and progressing in work through our plan for jobs. We are also focusing on ensuring that our children can catch up on their missed education and giving young people the right opportunities to get a foot in the labour market.

It is absolutely right that as the country begins to recover from the effects of the pandemic, we ensure that the welfare state continues to support the most disadvantaged in our society. As we have done throughout the past 16 months, we will continue to assess how best to target taxpayers’ money on support for the most vulnerable families beyond the pandemic.

I thank all the contributors in this small but very interesting debate. It has been a useful discussion. The small number of participants has made the debate a little bit more interactive than many of us are used to. I am also very grateful to all who were involved in the Social Justice and Fairness Commission for the huge amounts of work that they put in.

This all comes down to what the right future for Scotland is, and that is obviously a decision for the people in Scotland to take. It is evidently a choice of two very different futures. The opportunity to have a fairer country—a country that puts social justice and equality at the heart of policy making—would make a significant difference to the life chances of people in Scotland now and far into the future.

The Minister talked about choices a couple of minutes ago when we talked about the rape clause, and that is what this comes down to. It is about what Governments’ choices and priorities are. The choices and priorities of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament are radically different from the choices and priorities that we see in Westminster. Supporting children is clearly a priority for the Scottish Government, over and above paying all the money that the Trident nuclear weapons cost. In their first 100 days, the Scottish Government are working hard to ensure that our recovery is right for Scotland and that it is sustainable. As we move forward and look to the future that the Social Justice and Fairness Commission has illustrated for us, people will see that having a fairer and more sustainable future is the way to make all our lives better.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the Social Justice and Fairness Commission and implications for Government policy.

Sitting adjourned.