I, too, congratulate my colleague, John Wilson, on securing the debate. It is, however, with some frustration that I find myself debating the subject because we live in a very wealthy country in which there is absolutely no reason why there should be poverty.
I am happy to pay credit to those who have made efforts in the past to improve the situation, but we know that the United Kingdom is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and we know that that inequality is growing. That is reflected in the figures that we are discussing today. That said, it is absolutely the responsibility of everyone—the United Kingdom Government, the Scottish Government, local authorities and the national health service—to play their part.
It is clear that my preference would have been for independence and for Scotland taking full charge of its own affairs. We saw from the example of how the chamber dealt with the bedroom tax the consensus that can be built across it. I think that independence would have brought about a more humane regime.
We know that there are a number of contributory factors to the situation. I, too, thank the various organisations that have provided very helpful briefings to us. Low wages, for instance, are a contributory factor. My colleague John Wilson was quite right to highlight his constituency, because rurality compounds many of the factors that we are debating. Underemployment has been referred to as a contributory factor, and transport costs also have a significant implication.
On social security benefits, the universal credit is being trialled in Inverness, which is in my area. We also know about the sanctions. Simple things such as the cost of a telephone call have significant implications for individuals, and zero-hours contracts bring about the real dilemma of in-work poverty. I certainly do not think that it should be the state’s purpose to subsidise abusing employers who pay levels of wages such as they pay to their staff. To my mind, that is a catch-22 situation, as is the cost of childcare. We know, of course, that in the past six years, the cost of childcare has gone up by 44 per cent. Indeed, the minimum cost of raising a child—that might seem to many to be an unusual phrase—has gone up by 8 per cent since 2012 and by 11 per cent for a lone parent. During that period, there has been no rise in family benefits, of course.
Benefits are the subject of a lot of ill-informed comment. I want to comment on the level of unclaimed benefits in the UK. There is £10 billion of unclaimed benefits, half of which would go to working-age families. That money could be in individuals’ pockets and spent in communities. The effect of that money not being used is not only on individuals, but on our communities and local economies. Whose interests are served by that? Those of the people whom we are charged with representing certainly are not.
I commend the other steps that have been taken—free school meals, for instance, although there are capacity issues for local authorities with respect to them.
I want to touch on fuel poverty in the short time that I have left. Our new First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said in relation to a report on fuel poverty:
“There is no place for fuel poverty”.
That is absolutely right. We know that there is fuel poverty if 10 per cent or more of income is spent on meeting heating standards. There is the much talked about situation in which people have to make the terrible choice between switching on the heating or the cooker. The growth in food banks is an unacceptable issue that is being faced across the country.
The national performance framework includes the phrase:
“Our children have the best start in life and are ready to succeed”.
That will happen only if there is genuine redistribution of wealth. A living wage is a part of that and progressive taxation is another important part of it.
We must do everything with the powers that we have to eradicate child poverty.