Universal Credit: £20-a-week cut will make health inequalities between rich and poor even worse – Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP

The sixth session of the Scottish Parliament was opened on Saturday by Her Majesty the Queen.

Wednesday, 6th October 2021, 4:55 am
Queen Elizabeth shakes hands with Scottish Liberal Democrat leader and Evening News columnist Alex Cole-Hamilton on her arrival for the opening of the Scottish Parliament (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Regardless of your views on the monarchy, at 95 she’s still putting in one heck of a shift. At that age most of us, if we’re lucky enough to still be around, would be 30 years into retirement.

I’ve always been struck by a lesser known fact about one of the reasons she keeps so well and that is this: one of her personal physicians in Scotland, Professor Roy Robertson is also an NHS GP to one of Scotland’s most deprived communities. I’ve been thinking about him a lot as we approach anti-poverty week, from October 17-23.

Roy is a wonderfully kind and softly spoken individual, he’s also a leading expert in drug addiction and mortality – a particularly Scottish problem which walks hand in hand with deprivation. It says a lot about the depth of his humanity that on any given day he could be treating the monarch, or someone from the most impoverished postcode in the country.

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On a visit to his practice in Muirhouse last year, I was asked if I could estimate how many dementia patients they had on the books. Bearing in mind that Muirhouse Medical serves over 17,000 patients, it’s striking to learn that those with dementia number fewer than 100. The reason for this comes down to poverty. The harsh reality is that people there are more likely to die before dementia becomes a factor. Put simply, it is a disease of the better-off.

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This striking health inequality comes from the fact that the average male life expectancy in Muirhouse is a full 13 years lower than it is an affluent neighbouring area like Cramond.

It is an outrage that, in 21st-century Scotland, such a gap should still exist. Such grinding inequality comes from many sources, but chief among them is unemployment, in-work poverty and financial insecurity.

On the eve of the first lockdown, when the UK Chancellor announced the creation of furlough, he also announced a £20-a-week uplift for Universal Credit. That was transformative and gave struggling families a vital financial lifeline in the teeth of the pandemic.

With furlough ending the UK government will withdraw that Universal Credit uplift today. It’s going to be a devastating blow to thousands of families. It’s not fair either.

The Universal Credit uplift should not have been linked to furlough. Many on Universal Credit have not been waiting for their jobs to restart as the economy opens up, and those that have were in low-paid positions to begin with. Their earning potential remains precarious in any case and recipients will now face a winter of soaring energy costs with a big bite taken out of their monthly income.

As we look towards anti-poverty week, the UK government is pulling the rug out from under Scotland’s most vulnerable families. Such a move is going to exacerbate health inequalities and negative social outcomes like drug use and mental ill health.

I’m glad that Muirhouse has a GP like Roy in its corner, but he’s got a fight on his hands in the face of such overwhelming odds.

Alex Cole-Hamilton is Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for Edinburgh Western

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