By Anne-Marie O’Donnell
There is a “growing consensus” in UK politics that has allowed those battling poverty to be stigmatised as “skivers” and “scroungers”, an expert has warned.
In a submission to the Scottish Parliament’s Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, Morag Gillespie of the Scottish Poverty Information Unit at Glasgow Caledonian University said the emerging trend within UK politics was along “neo-liberal lines” but added that Scotland is in a position to set itself apart from the wider narrative.
The submission came on the same day as a report from Oxfam revealed that the Westminster coalition’s welfare cuts have pushed 1.75 million of the poorest households in the UK into further poverty, leaving families struggling to meet the most basic costs.
“There is a growing consensus in UK politics along neo-liberal lines in which poverty has been individualised and stigmatised and people relying on social security benefits are cast as ‘skivers’ and ‘scroungers’, responsible themselves for the situations they find themselves in,” Ms Gillespie wrote. “Debate is more about the detail of managing poverty than how to reduce or eradicate either poverty or the yawning gulf in inequalities of income and wealth.
“A country where the majority of people defined as poor live in households where someone works is testament to a system that isn’t working. Scotland has the opportunity to do much more than just manage the existing system more efficiently.”
She added: “There is an opportunity to start afresh and develop a vision for a poverty-free Scotland that includes (but is not limited to) a system of Social Security that sets out to: diminish and remove the fear and insecurity many face today; prevent poverty happening wherever possible rather than stigmatising those who become poor; and reflect the range of contributions that people make to society including, for example the caring roles undertaken – predominantly by women – that are currently undervalued but form a crucial part of the glue that holds a good society together.”
The Oxfam report, in conjunction with the New Policy Institute, found that 300,000 household have experienced cuts to housing benefit following the introduction of coalition policies like the Bedroom Tax, 920,000 have seen a cut in council tax benefit and 480,000 households have received cuts to both.
The report also follows recent figures from the Trussell Trust which showed nearly one million people have now been forced to rely on a foodbank to avoid starving, many of them children. Just days after the figures were released, it emerged that Prime Minister David Cameron’s constituency office called out police to deal with church leaders the Bishop of Oxford and Reverend Keith Hebden after they tried to deliver an open letter on food poverty.
Joan McAlpine MSP, a member of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee, said Ms Gillespie’s submission showed an urgent need for Scotland to take matters into its own hands.
“We must grasp the opportunity to truly tackle inequality – as Morag Gillespie points out in her submission the need to take action is more vital than ever with figures showing Westminster’s welfare cuts could push up to 100,000 more children in Scotland into poverty by 2020,” she said.
“Vulnerable children in Scotland simply cannot afford to be subject to Westminster’s austerity agenda any more. The opportunity to tackle poverty shows exactly why Scotland can, should and must be independent.”
Ms Gillespie’s submission outlined a range of policy areas in which she argued fairness and simplicity was needed, such as social security and taxation, and said lessons could be learned by exploring Nordic systems already proving effective at reducing poverty.