During the Holyrood election campaign I spoke to many people on many doorsteps. However, there’s one chat in particular that will always echo in my mind. It was a cold night out canvassing and an elderly gentleman answered his door. After several minutes of interesting conversation, the man said clearly and wisely “I’m going to vote for you but make sure you remember the three most important things – encouragement, empathy and compassion.”
His emphasis on those timeless values was inspiring and reassuring. His words chimed with my aspiration to live in a fairer society – and my strong belief that it is our collective responsibility to build such a fairer society. A society where we give support to those in need, and have effective systems in place to provide such support. A society where we don’t allow anyone to live in destitution. A society where we help our fellow men and women well before things get desperate – and don’t need to pick anyone “up off the floor”.
In the current challenging financial circumstances, a sense of unified purpose to create a fairer society is as important, maybe even more important, than ever before. And with one in five children living in poverty in Edinburgh, we should and must continue to work together towards greater social justice in our city. One way to help with that is by creating a social security system in Scotland that is based on greater dignity and respect.
I am a member of the Social Security Committee in the Scottish Parliament. And I’m pleased that, as a Committee and as a parliament, (so far) there seems to be cross-party support to use the 15 per cent of social security spending being devolved to Holyrood to make a meaningful difference (for clarity, 85 per cent will still be controlled at Westminster). It will be complicated and challenging to build a new Scottish social security system, and make it work in tandem with the DWP, but there is real determination to get this right. With powers coming to the Scottish Parliament over ill-health and disability benefits (DLA and PIP), Carer’s Allowance, Sure Start Maternity Grants, Funeral Payments, Cold Weather Payments, Winter Fuel Payments, and Discretionary Housing Payments, there is real scope to make better policy for Scotland where and when we can.
Last month The Rock Trust marked their 25th anniversary with a reception in Holyrood. I was delighted to help recognise this occasion and celebrate their remarkable achievements. For all of those 25 years, staff and volunteers have supported some of the most vulnerable in our city – providing shelter, training and mentoring to young homeless people, or young people at risk of becoming homeless. Like the wise man said to me on his doorstep last winter, organisations like The Rock Trust remind us all that the most important things are “encouragement, empathy and compassion”. However, as we admire and support organisations like The Rock Trust, let us also be equally determined, as they are, to mitigate and, in time, remove the need for such assistance.
In the months ahead the Scottish Government will bring forward a Social Security Bill and a Child Poverty Bill. We can all look forward to these pieces of legislation being debated, enacted and then implemented. Assessments and sanctions introduced by the UK Conservative government in recent years have created a social security system which, at present, is too often based on suspicion and judgement. It has caused real and unnecessary anxiety and suffering for many vulnerable people. With the devolved powers coming, soon we can change some of that – we can build a Scottish social security system based on greater dignity and respect, benefiting our society as a whole.
Ben Macpherson is SNP MSP FOR Edinburgh Northern and Leith