Poverty Framework speech 17th. June 2010

I am happy to participate in the debate, and I join Alex Neil in supporting the aspiration that he described at the end of his speech. However, the test for us is not our aspiration, but what we do to deliver on it and address the serious issue of poverty, particularly at a time of great change.
The reality of what precipitated the economic crisis—the failures in the global private markets that led to the banking system requiring Government intervention—has curiously been transformed into an argument that the crisis was caused by big government and a public sector that was too big, as if all public sector workers were useless bureaucrats rather than people who are employed to deliver services for some of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens. They are people such as care workers, classroom support assistants and those who work in child care, employability and educational support, and they work directly to address issues around poverty. I trust that our Lib Dem colleagues will bring their pressure to bear on the coalition to ensure that the hostility to big government does not involve attacking services that are required by the poorest in our communities.
Labour's amendment acknowledges the existence of the framework approach, but argues that it is not enough to have an approach; we need to be serious about delivering on it. I wish to say something about the weakness of the Scottish Government approach and the gap—not for the first time—between words and action. I will speak about some of the key challenges and provide some examples of how a national approach can be national and how the powers of the Parliament might be used.
The Scottish Government presided this year over an increased budget, but the reality is that whatever the size of the budget, it is simply a dereliction of duty not to maximise its impact among the poorest in our communities. A useful starting point is provided by the Child Poverty Action Group, which argues that the Scottish Government and local government budgets should be poverty proofed. If the Scottish Government took even a moment to poverty proof one of the critical elements that it often identifies in its poverty strategy—the council tax freeze—that would reveal that whatever it is, it is not an anti-poverty strategy. It is disappointing that the Government continues to resist the idea that single outcome agreements should be poverty proofed. I urge the minister to consider taking that approach, because it would cause a shift from asserting good works to doing what works.
The Scottish Government does assertion—indeed, the minister is a master at it—but it must trouble us all that a written answer to Bill Butler revealed that the centrally held poverty budget has been cut by a third. I understand that that funding could be used to support financial advice work, benefit uptake work and so on, which are all important to poor families. If one claims to take a national approach, one needs evidence of its effectiveness. There needs to be monitoring and assessment to test the gap between saying and doing, but also to allow government at every level to reflect on and amend what it is doing to address weaknesses or ineffectiveness.
There is a well-rehearsed debate on the concordat and single outcome agreements. It is not an academic debate; the framework approach is predicated on its being delivered through locally determined single outcome agreements. We can put aside the ludicrous haste with which the concordat and single outcome agreements were cobbled together as an approach; the lack of consultation with, for example, the voluntary sector; and the total lack of thought-through indicators. The reality is now serious. There is no effective monitoring, no reflection on input and clear evidence that too many services are subject to a postcode lottery. We know that local authorities are under pressure and are not helped by claims by the Scottish Government about resources and a lack of funding, and that local authorities are making difficult choices, but surely those choices should be shaped by basic standards across local government throughout the country.
In this carers week, the problem is highlighted by a clear example of what the lack of a national approach means. Information that we obtained under freedom of information legislation about the lack of assessment of unpaid carers showed three staggering elements: the huge variation in approach across Scotland; the apparent reluctance to assess unpaid carers, perhaps because, once assessed, the need has to be met with resources; and the number of local authorities with no information about the number of carers in their area.

Sandra White (Glasgow) (SNP): The member talks about national projects and policies and working together. What does she say about the green paper on the national project proposed by the Westminster Government that would have taken money away from carers? That is neither national nor local; it is disgraceful.

Johann Lamont: It is also not a policy. There was a green paper and the response to it was unhappy. I am asking us to look at what we can do here. The fact is that currently, only 3 per cent of unpaid carers have their needs assessed and most local authorities do not even know how many unpaid carers they have. That is a simple example. If we acknowledge that, as in the words of the motion, we have a responsibility
"to take long-term measures to tackle drivers of poverty",
what is the Scottish Government doing to address the needs of carers whose caring responsibilities often hold them in poverty? It is simply not good enough to look away or to blame others. If the Government is to take a national approach, it must address the problem of carers' wide variation in experience across the country.
As I said, the framework is underpinned by single outcome agreements. We all acknowledge the role of the voluntary sector in reaching out to communities and understanding how poverty is lived and what needs to change. The sector is pivotal in that regard. However, when voluntary sector organisations persistently express their concerns about the lack of specific indicators to test and shape local government and national priorities—for example, on disability—they are simply ignored. There is a lack of seriousness in the Government's approach that includes a cavalier disregard for any process of reporting, which means that voluntary organisations have to fund their own interrogation of single outcome agreements. If the Government is serious, that cannot be acceptable.
In my remaining time, I will flag up some areas in which the powers of this place could be used more effectively. The minister acknowledged the critical role of work and talked about the concentration of unemployment in some communities. Does he still think that it is acceptable that Scottish Enterprise no longer has any geographical role to support community regeneration and create employment opportunities for people in our poorest communities? It is important to support those who lose their jobs, but we need commitment and evidence of action to deal with those who are further away from work. The danger is that while supporting people who have lost their jobs, those who are further away from the market move even further away as the tougher employability actions of the Government become deprioritised. I urge the minister to reassure us on that point.
The minister spoke about pay issues. We need to establish what is being done to tackle problems around equal pay. I would welcome an update on the role of the Scottish Government in helping women who are currently trapped in equal pay tribunal processes. I would also welcome some progress in what the Scottish Government is doing with regard to the living wage.
Low pay is particularly prevalent in the tourism and retail industries. What is the Scottish Government doing in its tourism strategy to tackle that? What levers are being used to advocate for and reward those businesses that have a living-wage approach? The minister says that the national health service is a living-wage employer. Will he confirm that, in the Scottish Government, the living wage extends to agency and contract workers?
We all recognise the power of public spend. Can the minister confirm that the public procurement process includes a positive assessment for bidders who include commitments to the living wage? Can the minister give examples of how public procurement procedures incorporate the provisions of article 19 of the European directive on public procurement, which allows contracts to be reserved to sheltered workplaces? I would welcome some examples of current spending by the Government where that has been done, as it is an obvious way of tackling poverty among people with disabilities.
In recognising the importance of the Scottish Government's role in tacking poverty, I ask the minister whether he and his colleagues have reflected on what constitutes front-line service—I refer here to the point that I made about the education maintenance allowance. The most vulnerable people need services from mental health groups, carers groups and voluntary organisations to get them to the point where they can access front-line services, and my fear is that those services will be the first to go, and that most vulnerable people will not even get to the point where they can use front-line services in future.
I urge the minister, together with us, to wrestle with these tough questions. What are our priorities? How do we balance the roles of local government, central Government and voluntary organisations? How do we ensure that financial pressures do not impact disproportionately on those who need small amounts of enabling support in order to access services? I also urge the minister to ensure that what he says is followed by action. If he does that, we will certainly support him.
I move amendment S3M-6581.2, to leave out from "to take" to end and insert:
"; further notes the findings of research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust that child, pensioner and overall poverty fell faster in Scotland than in any other part of the United Kingdom during the period of the previous UK administration, led by Labour, but notes concerns raised by anti-poverty organisations, such as Save the Children and the Poverty Alliance, that single outcome agreements do not give sufficient priority to meeting shared poverty targets and have created further problems in terms of monitoring progress and accountability; therefore urges the Scottish Government to review the impact of the concordat and single outcome agreements to ensure a clearer focus on reducing poverty and that measures are put in place to monitor progress made at the national level, and further, in this European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion and given the critical role for the Scottish Government in tackling poverty, calls on it to report to the Parliament detailing how it will use all the powers at its disposal to tackle poverty and disadvantage."