Speech in the Scottish Parliament on Poverty 31 January 2008

I welcome the debate and the early sight of the discussion paper, but I hope that we will revisit the debate, because—try as I might—I struggled with some of the concepts and the language in which they were captured.

We are interested in the notion of an independent inquiry that the Lib Dem amendment proposes, but we wish to reflect further on that, particularly because the Local Government and Communities Committee is to move on to an inquiry into child poverty.

Parliamentary committees might have a critical role at this stage, but we might want to move to the position that the Lib Dems ably presented—that will depend on the outcome of the consultation.

I regret that the Government has chosen to use language that does not sharpen the debate but which increases confusion.

I felt as if I had wandered into a parallel universe of golden rules and purposes with a capital P.

Opposition members have been accused of not making the transition to opposition well.

It is difficult for former Government back benchers and front benchers to lose the power to make a difference to people's lives.

The situation is all the more difficult when we see that the SNP might use the power that it has secured to reverse the significant progress that has been made on tackling poverty.

Labour members take the fundamental position that we have a contract on economic growth and shared prosperity—we need both.

We acknowledge the challenges in making funding decisions.

We know that a balance must be struck between spending in general and spending that is targeted on poor people to address poverty.

However, when that balance has been set, it is dishonest to conflate the results and imply that general spending addresses the needs of the poor.

Spending money generally on prescription charges may be good, but the Government should not pretend that that measure addresses poverty, because those who are in poverty will not benefit specifically from it.

We believe that we should build the economy and share the prosperity and that we need
Government action to intervene to support people who are further away from economic benefit—those who are most excluded.

Addressing poverty and exclusion must be at the core of our business.

Nothing happens by chance—action is required.

I was interested that Sandra White said that the SNP led the first debate on poverty in the Parliament.

The SNP drops the term "social justice" and then says that Labour did not debate poverty because we called it social justice.

Where is the logic in that argument?

The SNP's problem is that addressing poverty and delivering social justice are not at the Government's core.

I have said before that assertion is not fact.

If it were, the Government would not have as one of its key priorities an untested and unconditional business rates cut with nothing in return, no matter how much the Tories view such a cut as common sense.

It would not have prioritised securing an early agreement on a council tax freeze, even if such a freeze were very important, without moving at a pace that gave confidence to groups that rely on local government funding.

SNP members may believe in a concordat with local government, but they should have ensured proper engagement and the development of social outcomes and agreements in order not to end up with a series of national indicators but not one word about disability, for example.

We will not get people, including people with disabilities, into work if we do not fund an employability strategy.

Equally, if the Government was committed to tackling poverty—if doing so was at the core of its work—it would recognise that different groups experience poverty differently.

Women, for example, experience poverty differently.

Consequently, the Government would not have a budget that does not assess the gender or equality impact of spend.

What does the Government claim that it will do?

There are the three golden rules: cohesion, solidarity and sustainability. As we wrestle with being in opposition, I challenge SNP back benchers in particular.

They must make a transition and take on the responsibilities of government.

In today's Daily Telegraph, Alan Cochrane tellingly described SNP back benchers as "creepily loyal".

I have waited in the hope that he would be proved wrong, but there is no greater evidence that he is right than what has been said in this debate—or what was said in the budget debate.

The SNP's back benches have many people on them now who were not here during the previous eight years and it looks like the new SNP is in the grip of those who believe robustly in the politics of trickle-down economics.

They seem to have silenced the more radical elements in their own ranks—indeed, I am beginning to think that somebody has taken over Alex Neil's body.

I cite in my defence the fact that SNP colleagues dallied in alliance with the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party over many years and condemned us for not spending enough money or taking enough action to address poverty.

In my extensive research, I have not found one recent clarion call by the SNP on such questions.

I have never heard the chant, "What do we want? The cohesion golden rule. When do we want it? Now."

No matter how cynical of the SNP's underlying commitment to addressing poverty, disability and disadvantage I have imagined myself to be, I never in my wildest dreams imagined that the same colleagues who apparently support cuts in spending on antipoverty measures would end the sharing of the benefits of economic prosperity—the distribution of jobs to other parts of the country—or that they would support business rates cuts worth £265 million without one condition.

I thought that SNP back benchers might effectively lobby behind closed doors to secure changes in the budget.

However, John Swinney has not only supported unconditional business rates cuts but accelerated those cuts to secure his budget—and SNP back benchers are silent.

I say gently to SNP back benchers that, although we are learning to wrestle with being in opposition, they need to find their voice.

Organisations trying to address poverty deserve to know that, even if it is not applied publicly, pressure will be applied privately to ensure that the needs of the poor are addressed and that things are not simply asserted, but delivered.

If that does not happen, the serious charge can be made that the language of social justice, inclusion, equality and tackling poverty was used to secure votes, but that addressing such matters is not the principle that drives the use of the power that was entrusted to the SNP at the elections.

SNP back benchers must find a voice to ensure that those who want what has been seen as a commonsense deal with the Tories are not allowed to have their way.

We know that trickle-down economics do not work and that in order to tackle poverty, people must make a difference, rather than headlines.

A partnership with the Government at every level must be pledged.

We hear a lot about what is not being done by others.

We want to hear what the Government will do—with local and UK organisations that have expressed concerns—to ensure that a shift occurs, that the SNP's commitment to tackling poverty and deprivation is reasserted, and that the progress that has already been made is built on.