Around one million Scots were in poverty before the covid-19 crisis, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s new Poverty in Scotland 2020 report finds. That breaks down as 230,000 children, 640,000 working age adults, and 150,000 pensioners. These numbers have been rising over the past five years, especially child poverty, which is up to 24 per cent, almost one in four. The Scottish Government has a statutory target in place that child poverty should be no higher than 18 per cent by 2023-24 – that target is increasingly likely to be missed unless “more ambitious solutions” are brought forward urgently, JRF finds. The pandemic has made this doubly true.
The report includes insights into the impact of the pandemic on poverty, including from an advisory group made up of people with lived experience of poverty. One important finding from that group is that people are finding it difficult to navigate Scotland’s patch-work of welfare support on offer, which operates across DWP, HMRC, Social Security Scotland and local government. There is little co-ordination of welfare support between these services, so that if someone applies for Universal Credit, they aren’t also made aware of the availability of Discretionary Housing Payments or the Scottish Welfare Fund, which people seem to find out about solely from “word of mouth”.
This is the problem with welfare support being spread across various departments, and the benefits on offer being application-based rather than universal – it’s liable that many people will fall through the cracks. And then when people do apply for emergency support, there are eligibility issues. Disturbingly, one group participant said she had been turned down for the Scottish Welfare Fund “despite fleeing domestic abuse”.
One of the big areas identified in the report where the Scottish Government does have the power to take action is in housing. The greater availability of affordable housing in Scotland than England is the only reason why poverty is lower north than south of the border – before-housing costs, poverty basically looks the same either side of Hadrian’s Wall. However, the gap in affordability has been narrowing in recent years: in 2013/14 Scottish rents were 73 per cent of English rents, and in 2017/19 that figure was 81 per cent. In England there has been an annual one per cent reduction in social rents in recent years, unlike Scotland. The number of people at risk of poverty in the social rented sector has been creeping upwards in Scotland, from 35 per cent in 2012/15 to 40 per cent in 2017/18, with social rents rising on average by 9 per cent over this period. Meanwhile, there has been no effort made to curtail private sector rent rises.
A proposal in the Scottish Parliament for a two year rent freeze across all housing tenure was rejected. The only tenant-specific housing support, beyond an increase in discretionary housing payments, has been a £10 million “Tenant Hardship Loan Fund”, which JRF finds “could add unreasonable debt burdens to low-income households” and “does not solve some of the longer-term issues many are likely to face”. While a stop to evictions has officially been extended to March next year, Scottish courts continue to proceed with evictions. There has been a 4 per cent increase in homeless households (7 per cent with children) in August 2020 compared to the same month last year.
“It is likely that dwindling savings, increasing debt and the threat of eviction will still pose problems for renters by March 2021 and this threatens to pull many more households into poverty,” the report finds.
This report shows Scotland was going backwards on poverty before covid-19. The pandemic cannot be used as an excuse to not tackle poverty; indeed, urgency to address the poverty crisis must be ramped up, especially as the UK Government is about to pull the plug on the furlough scheme in less than a month’s time. There are clear and obvious things that the Scottish Government can do which wouldn’t cost it a penny. It comes back to priorities: no one wants more poverty, but what is the Scottish Government willing to sacrifice to address it? Freezing or reducing rent costs is the most direct and probably single most effective measure that could be introduced at Holyrood to address poverty. There have been plenty of U-turns this year – why not on capping the rents?
Source Direct is a free morning newsletter providing you with all the latest Scottish news in your inbox each morning, including:
- Analysis of the key stories
- A summary of what’s in the Scottish papers
- The latest on Source
- Interesting opinion pieces from around Scottish media
To sign-up for Source Direct, click here.