Building a fairer, greener and better Scotland to tackle poverty

When MSPs debated social security in an independent Scotland, Maggie Chapman used her speech to explore the values that would undermine a fairer and more humane system, including the need for a Universal Basic Income.

There have been the inevitable comments about this debate being irrelevant fantasy given we are not an independent country.

Yet. But I believe it is important that we sometimes lift our sights to outline the better world we want to have the opportunity to create. A better world I just don’t believe we will get from Westminster.

As Peter Kelly of the Poverty Alliance did at a Fairer Aberdeen event recently, I begin by quoting Raymond Williams: “to be truly radical is to make hope possible rather than despair convincing”.  

And, my goodness, do we need hope!?! 

Our social security system in the United Kingdom is commonly depicted as a safety net, though many experts are describing it instead as a perilous tightrope over the abyss of poverty. For, so far as it is a safety net, it now has huge and gaping holes. 

For the first three decades of the modern welfare state, from 1949 to the eve of the Thatcher government in 1979, the equivalent of today’s Universal Credit standard allowance was usually between 25 and 30% of average earnings. Since then, it has plummeted, falling below 15% in the early 2000s and dropping again over the past eight years. So that, as this paper highlights, it is now, in relation to average earnings, at its lowest level ever. 

That erosion really matters. It means that families reliant on those payments, very many of whom are in work, are experiencing shocking hardship.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation have found that 90% of low-income households on Universal Credit are currently going without essentials. That’s not just a few people having difficulty in managing their budgets. It’s almost everyone. It is, as others have pointed out, destitution by design.  

That design incorporates not only the plunging levels of Universal Credit itself, but the many ways in which the toxic sanctions system works to reduce actual payments yet further. Punitive to an extraordinary degree, it offers pitifully little with one hand, then, with the other, takes away even that pittance.  

So, our first task, as responsible, compassionate, even barely humane legislators is to patch up the worst of those vast and gaping holes. Some of that work, as this report outlines, is already happening. It’s happening in the different approach that we’re taking in Scotland, an approach set out in our Scottish Social Security Principles, including an understanding that social security is not a work of charity or grudging generosity but a basic human right.  

It’s happening in the new benefits including five family payments, most importantly the Scottish Child Payment and in new ways of supporting disabled people and carers. And it’s happening in mitigations of the bedroom tax and the benefit cap and in work towards facilitating split payments that would respect, empower and ultimately save lives.  

But there is much more that can only be done with further powers of independence, measures such as abolition of the brutal two-child limit and prurient rape clause.  I warmly welcome the ten key actions set out in this report, including scrapping the vicious sanctions policy and malicious young parent penalty.  

But, vital, urgent and essential as these actions are, they are not enough.  

This report speaks of a desired move from a liberal to a social democratic approach. That is the right direction, but as a Green, as an eco-socialist, I would go much further.  

For my vision of social security is not merely as a safety net. That image suggests that what matters is what happens on the high trapeze above, that social security is what happens to those who fall. 

Instead, I see it as a seedbed – the essential nurturing foundation – for all the ways that human beings care and create for and with one another, not just through paid work but in every aspect of our lives.

I long for a Scotland where people are not primarily seen as employees or consumers but as citizens and neighbours. Our social security system can help make that Scotland a reality.

I want our social security system to have parity of esteem with our health service: the two must go hand in hand. 

So, I particularly welcome the Scottish Government’s exploration of a Minimum Income Guarantee and look forward to the final report from the Expert Group this year. Action on this would see a positive step change in the support provided to our citizens. 

And I’m encouraged to see that the report raises the possibility of Universal Basic Income being developed by future Scottish governments. 

A Universal Basic Income, paid to all, with extra support for those who need it, opens opportunities for a fairer, safer and happier future. It trusts each of us to follow our best path, to work, care and create, to develop ideas, enterprises and communities.

Along with other policies including fair work and pensions and a radical Just Transition, a Universal Basic Income could be a cornerstone of the wellbeing economy we are longing to create.  

In an independent Scotland we can do things differently. Indeed, it is why we want it at all. And how we see social security, how we work towards its transformation, shows the world the kind of Scotland we want to be.