Today I spoke in the Scottish parliaments welfare reform debate and set out my vision for a future where Jobs are the top priority and welfare is protected for the most vulnerable in our society.
Presiding officer, I hope that there can be some unity within the Parliament today when it comes to our condemnation of the impact of the UK Governments welfare reforms on individuals and communities here in Scotland. I also hope we can recognise the devastation that the reforms are having not just on people in Scotland but across the whole of the United Kingdom.
It was William Beverage himself a Liberal who brought forward a report in December 1942 which set out to tackle the five giant evils in our society. Squalor, Ignorance, Want, Idleness and Disease
The report proposed to tackle these through reforms to the system of social welfare, and it was the 1945 Labour government that progressed this through the introduction of the welfare state.
Whilst not always perfect, the principle of pooling and sharing resources across the UK and supporting people from financial hardship has meant that for the best part of the last century we had eradicated absolute poverty in Britain.
Absolute poverty is when people do not have the money to pay for even their most basic needs. It is therefore tragic that today, these reforms are driving thousands of men, women and children into absolute poverty.
The evidence for this is all around us. We have seen food banks come out of necessity and grow by the week across Scotland.
So for those on benefits – the absolute shambles that welfare reform has become, the sanctions and the delays are resulting in deeper and deeper poverty. As Oxfam has pointed out; “People on benefits usually have the lowest incomes with no savings to cover unforeseen circumstances, and even a slight delay in receiving benefit can mean they have no money to buy food for themselves or their children.
So – what Beverage identified as want in the 1940s we can relate to a basic need of food and fuel in 2014.
I hope that in this Parliament we can unite in saying this is unacceptable, and it is the UK governments making, an ideologically driven attack on the weakest in our society.
The same ideology that whilst attacking the sick, the disabled and the poorest, gives a 5% tax cut to the richest 1% of people.
That is why I support raising the top rate of income tax for while it will not solve all the financial issues it is right that those who have the most – pay a fairer share to meet the burden. I hope all in here can agree with that principle.
And, we also need to see a more robust approach to tackling tax evasion including promoting international action something that OXFAM argues for in its report ‘Walking the Breadline’. This will reduce the need for future cuts in benefits. So our message must be – attack the tax cheats, not the poor.
This UK government must think again – they need to consider the evidence. The evidence from the National Audit Office, the national charities who have provided briefings today and indeed the evidence from their own government departments.
The savings forecast have not been made, the system is chaotic and sanctions are being used disproportionately against people with mental health issues, people who are sick and people who are disabled. This shambolic mess is a blight on our society and one that people must speak out on.
And in looking to the future, I do believe that the best insurance policy for the people of Scotland – is to be in a position to pool and share resources across the United Kingdom with government at every level, the UK, the Scottish and crucially local governments working together.
For this vision we must build support – a vision for a union of social justice where every citizen, man, woman, child, Scots, English, Welsh or Northern Irish who lives in these islands, having equal social, economic and political rights – the same rights everywhere and anywhere to free health care, to social security, to employment opportunity and to dignity in work and in retirement.
And if you look at the history of the Labour movement – When the Jarrow marchers set of from the North East of England and marched on London in 1936 they did not march for benefits, they marched for jobs – when the UCS shipyard workers organised the work in on the Clyde and also marched on Glasgow, they did not march for benefits they marched for jobs.
So our vision for a future Scotland must be one built on social justice, one where the sick, the disabled and the unemployed are able to live without fear of poverty and where our growing elderly population can live with dignity in the knowledge that there pension is guaranteed and the services they need will be available at the point of need.
But going back to Beverage it must also be a Scotland free of ignorance and idleness where our aim is to give access to the highest skills and full employment. Every individual that can work should be able to work – full employment – that must be our goal for it is by achieving that goal that we will drive poverty out of every community across Scotland.
Alex Rowley MSP
Member for Cowdenbeath Constituency