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Westminster ‘cannot wash hands’ of poverty battle responsibility – report

A new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted the ‘unacceptably high levels of overall poverty’ across the UK (Joe Giddens/PA)
A new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlighted the ‘unacceptably high levels of overall poverty’ across the UK (Joe Giddens/PA)

The UK Government could be “accused of shirking its responsibility” when it comes to tackling poverty in Scotland, a charity chief has said as a report revealed one in five people are struggling to get by.

The poverty rate in Scotland is 21%, with 1.1 million people north of the border affected, the latest research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) found.

This was broadly the same as England and Wales, where the proportion of people in poverty was 22% for both countries.

Scotland’s “much lower” child poverty rate of 24% – compared to 31% in England and 28% in Wales – was  attributed to “at least in part” the Scottish child payment, which provides low-income families with £25 a week for each child.

The JRF said this policy, introduced by the Scottish Government, “highlights the effect benefits can have in reducing poverty”.

JRF associate director for Scotland, Chris Birt, said politicians at Westminster had a responsibility to do more to help tackle poverty north of the border.

Speaking as the organisation’s UK Poverty 2024 report was published, Mr Birt said: “The UK Government has significant power and a duty to ease hardship in Scotland. They cannot wash their hands of responsibility just because it is shared with Holyrood.

“With hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland struggling to make ends meet, people need both of their Governments to grasp their responsibility to act.”

He added: “As this report shows, the UK Government could, however, be accused of shirking its responsibility because it is ignoring the basic fact that people cannot afford the essentials of food, heating and others, through social security.”

Mr Birt insisted the Universal Credit benefit was “failing if it can’t fulfil its purpose to help people in their toughest times”.

With poverty “deepening”, he added there are now “many people needing to double their income simply to escape poverty, never mind secure a good standard of living”.

Scotland had a lower child poverty rate than England and Wales, with this ‘likely to be due, at least in part’ to the Scottish child payment (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

His comments came as the report set out how the Glasgow City Council area has the highest child poverty rate in Scotland at 32% – ahead of North Ayrshire (29%) and Clackmannanshire and West Dunbartonshire (both 28%).

In contrast, East Renfrewshire has the lowest child poverty rate in Scotland, with just 14% of youngsters in the area affected.

Across the UK, the report said levels of overall poverty were “unacceptably high”, with some groups experiencing “appalling levels”.

The report said more than one in five people in the UK (22%) were in poverty in 2021-22 – some 14.4 million people.

“We can see that overall poverty has barely moved since Conservative-led governments took power in 2010,” it stated.

Of those in poverty in 2021-22, it said there were six million people suffering from “very deep poverty, with an income far below the standard poverty line”.

The report made a number of recommendations, including calling on the Government to improve the “basic level of workplace rights”, with expanded rights to flexible working and improved financial protection for those who lose their job or who cannot work.

It also called for action to ensure that social security payments “provide sufficient income to afford the essentials” and for more people to be able to live in secure homes, with intervention needed here to build more houses.

The report added: “Beyond all of this, we need a vision for reducing poverty in the broadest sense, making progress so that everyone can afford the essentials.

“This must reduce the level, depth and extremes of poverty across the whole of the UK, decreasing it quickly for the groups for whom poverty is virtually endemic.

“A suite of policies that are proportionate to the size of the problem is needed for this. These policies need to build into a coherent overall plan to end poverty in the UK.

“The Government must act with compassion, drawing on the lived experience of people who have gone through hardship.”

Social Justice Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said: “I agree with the conclusion that the UK Government is shirking its responsibility to help people struggling in the cost-of-living crisis.

“That is why we have repeatedly called on the UK Government to introduce an essentials guarantee, to ensure the value of the Universal Credit payment is always enough for people to meet their basic needs and that vulnerable people are properly supported.

“Unlike the UK Government, we are targeting resources at those most in need as we work to tackle poverty and protect people from harm. Despite cuts to our block grant, we are investing an extra £1 billion in social security.

“This extra support will ensure all our benefits, including those only available in Scotland, keep pace with inflation to help low-income families pay their bills and heat their homes.

“The report also recognises that the Scottish Child Payment is having an impact on efforts to tackle poverty. The Scottish Government estimates it is lifting 50,000 children out of relative poverty in 2023/24, reducing child poverty levels by five percentage points, according to the most recent modelling published in June 2023.”

The UK Government has been contacted for comment.