Poverty in Lothians: Reality of life for many is truly shocking, but it doesn't have to be this way – Kirsty McNeill

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard a wee one still in primary school explain what day the Universal Credit comes or how much food there is – or isn’t – at home.
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I have – far too many times – and it will never cease to make me angry. Children who should be thinking about dinosaurs and spaceships are losing their childhoods to this hellish cost of living crisis.

Here in the Lothians, the figures are devastating. In Midlothian nearly half – 47 per cent – of Universal Credit claimants are having their payments clawed back through deductions. In East Lothian, at 41 per cent, it’s nearly as bad.

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Imagine only having £77 a week to live on in the first place and losing nearly a third of that to cover loans and back payments on the bills. There are bits of Dalkeith where child poverty rates are at 70 per cent. In one area of Prestonpans, it’s a staggering 95 per cent. In more than 20 years of anti-poverty work, I’ve never known a time as bad as this.

A few weeks ago, a volunteer with a furniture project in Midlothian told me a story I’ll never forget, about a baby being laid down to sleep at night on a folded-up duffel coat because there was no money for a cot. In December, families we work with said they’d decided that their children’s Christmas present would be a day with the heating on. And a Midlothian councillor told me they suspected a spike in the number of stray cats and dogs in their ward was people quietly turning pets out because they just can’t afford them any more.

Given all that, it’s hardly any wonder that Scotland wants change. The question is what kind of change will deliver the social justice people crave so badly.

We should never forget that this week’s economic headlines – that the UK is the only economy in the G7 set to contract in 2023 and that coming out of Europe is costing us £100 billion every year – reflect the Westminster government’s catastrophic mismanagement of the economy and the miseries imposed by Brexit.

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Independence would not resolve but exacerbate those challenges: the answer is not to get rid of the Westminster government but to change it. The next general election will decide for the rest of the decade whether a poverty-free and carbon-neutral country is possible through a reformed United Kingdom with a Labour government or whether we spend years repeating today’s interminable shouting match between ‘no change’ unionists and ‘one last heave’ nationalists and nothing ever moves forward for the people in the Lothians who need help the most.

Unions help workers get better pay and conditions (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Unions help workers get better pay and conditions (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Unions help workers get better pay and conditions (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

In my day job, I run a large charity’s network of community projects right across the UK. I’m proud of what we achieve through food pantries, toy libraries, baby banks and more. The trouble is, as a woman gently told me the other day, that “it’s finger-in-the-dyke stuff”.

She is absolutely right. Nothing any of us in the community sector can do will ever make as big a difference as national policies like Sure Start or the National Minimum Wage did. That’s why I’m so passionate about helping get Labour back into government so we can take action on the three Ps: poverty, pay and public services.

The welfare state has been decimated by austerity. We have to fight to restore it and get it focussed on ridding our country of the evil of poverty once and for all. In 2021, I helped lead the successful campaign to fend off cuts to Universal Credit. By holding them at bay for an extra six months we got £2.2 billion into the pockets of low-income families. That was not enough and the cruel cuts still came in the end but it proves what can be done if we work together to show how the headlines translate to real families, really suffering.

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Benefits are important but pay is even more so. It’s not an accident that the government has decided to launch an unprecedented assault on the hard-won rights of workers to organise for better pay and conditions – they know that organised workplaces and sectors win more money for working people and help rebalance our economy away from the super-rich.

Kirsty McNeillKirsty McNeill
Kirsty McNeill

We only need to look at the tax affairs of senior members of the government to see how brazen their belief is in one rule for them and another for the rest of us. There’s simply no route to ending poverty that doesn’t go through ensuring proper pay for workers and fair taxes paid by us all.

Finally it’s investment in our public services that will ensure even those with the hardest start in life get an equal shot. Scotland’s educational attainment gap is a national scandal and nobody can defend a gulf in healthy life expectancy between the most and least deprived areas in Scotland that currently sits at 24 years – longer than some Evening News readers have been alive.

This is what our politics should be all about. Ending grotesque inequality and creating an economy in which everyone has enough and nobody is left behind. Don’t let anybody tell you it’s impossible. We live in one of the world’s richest nations. Creating a Scotland without poverty cannot – must not – be beyond us.

Kirsty McNeill is chair of the advisory board of think tank Our Scottish Future, a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown and a Labour activist

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