Alison Johnstone: Citizen’s income could put end to a national scandal

More than 200,000 children are growing up in poverty in Scotland
More than 200,000 children are growing up in poverty in Scotland
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The past few days have been a calamity for Labour. At their Scottish conference the London mayor compared independence with racism, their only Scottish MP bizarrely claimed there is no mandate for a fresh referendum on independence and their UK leader said we must get on with Brexit despite Scotland voting to remain.

But amid all that, one small piece of logic did emerge.

Green MSP Alison Johnstone

Green MSP Alison Johnstone

Kezia Dugdale announced that Labour wants to see a Scottish top-up to child benefit. While this is welcome, it’s not a new idea. Green MSPs stood on an election manifesto pledging this last May, and last year I pressed the Scottish Government to top up child benefit by £5 a week – that’s £260 a year.

The Child Poverty Action Group, who have championed this, have calculated that this would reduce child poverty in Scotland by as much as 14 per cent, lifting 30,000 children out of poverty.

More than 200,000 children are growing up in poverty in Scotland. A survey for the End Child Poverty coalition shows one in four children live in low income households, up from one in five, five years ago. This is truly shocking.

While a future top up of child benefit would help, there are other ways we can act right now.

Scottish ministers have heeded a report I commissioned, which showed that with new devolved powers over employment programmes, we can end the need for cruel sanctions, as they quite clearly do not work.

It’s also good to see powers over universal credit being used to give recipients options of more frequent payments and payment of housing costs direct to landlords to prevent arrears.

I am also hopeful that we will see a young carer’s allowance, which would benefit the estimated 44,000 carers in Scotland under the age of 18, many of whom struggle financially.

Financial inclusion services have recently been highlighted by the Royal College of Paediatrics as a way of reducing poverty. Last autumn I persuaded the health secretary to commit to a national roll-out of such a service: Glasgow’s Healthier Wealthier Children scheme, in which health visitors helped vulnerable families access benefits, boosting their incomes by £1000.

I’ve also pushed for GP funding to be adjusted to increase the investment going into deprived communities, and continue to urge investment in affordable, easy-to-heat housing.

And thanks to constructive engagement with the Scottish Government, Green MSPs secured an extra £160 million for local councils compared to the initial draft budget, including £12.3m for Edinburgh, £3m for East Lothian, £2.6m for Midlothian and £5.3m for West Lothian. Council services such as education, social care and public transport are crucial to helping those on low incomes.

But if we’re looking for a bold approach to poverty, look no further than the longstanding Scottish Greens’ policy of a citizen’s income. This has come to public attention with plans for trials in Fife and Glasgow. I sit on Holyrood’s social security committee, which is investigating the policy. Done right, it can reduce stress, end stigma and cut bureaucracy. Finland is trialling it, as are cities in Holland and the Canadian province of Ontario. We can start to move towards it by assessing applicants to any Scottish benefit for all support they might be entitled to. I was pleased to hear the social security minister pledging to look into this idea when I challenged her about it last week.

Child poverty in the 21st century is a scandal, but with new powers and a Child Poverty Bill coming to Parliament, we have an opportunity to make real progress.

Alison Johnstone is a Green MSP for Lothian