Meeting the Challenge of Poverty

A report by Patricia Gibson, MP for North Ayrshire and Arran

The global health pandemic has highlighted the inequalities within our society. While the virus attacks indiscriminately, its impact differs dramatically depending on how financially secure you are.

Action taken to save lives and protect the NHS from COVID-19 has profoundly damaged the economy and employment, as businesses have closed, staff are furloughed, and many self-employed people are left without an income.

Universal Credit and Working Tax Credit were temporarily increased by £20 at the pandemic’s start, but this vital support is due to cease at the end of March, despite the ongoing crisis. I have repeatedly called on the UK Government to make the uplift permanent and extend it to other benefits. Last week, MPs from every political party voted for an extension to the uplift, despite the UK Government urging its own MPs to abstain.

In Scotland, unless the uplift is made permanent, a further 60,000 people, including 20,000 children, will be pushed into poverty. Removing this support will cut £1,040 a year from 6 million UK households, reducing the incomes of the bottom fifth of the population by 7%.

This is just another example that we are definitely not all in this together. I’m sure we’ve all been shocked by the pictures of the abysmal quality of the free meals given to children who have to stay away from school in England at the moment, while contracts to supply them are handed out to wealthy Tory Party donors. Some meal boxes can cost the taxpayer £30 but contain barely a fiver’s worth of food.

Closing schools even temporarily has a hugely disproportionate impact on children from poorer backgrounds and many fall further behind in their learning every day their school is closed. That’s why decisions to close are not taken lightly. The fiasco over free school meals in England caused concern because we cannot separate a child’s learning from the need for nutritious food.

That’s why in Scotland the guidance is clear; a range of free school meal replacements should be available, including direct cash payment, food vouchers or food delivery or collection from a school, with any special dietary requirements properly considered.

Whilst 85% of social security powers remain under Westminster control, the SNP Government has used its limited powers to tackle child poverty. It introduced the Scottish Child Payment of £10 per week per child for children under six years old, and Child Winter Heating Assistance. In addition, as of August 2022, the SNP Government which currently provides free school meals to all children in primaries 1 to 3, will provide them to ALL primary school children, making Scotland the first UK nation to do so. This will help to combat child poverty whilst the Tory Government does the opposite.

The benefit system is supposed to be there for those who need it, providing a safety net. We all face this health crisis and need to look after each other. It’s time the UK Government did the right thing; supporting those in the most difficult circumstances.