MAYOR SADIQ KHAN’S decision to provide free school meals for every primary school child in London for a year has been met with relief and praise from organisations campaigning against child poverty.
Mr Khan said he hopes the UK government sees that, “if London can afford to do this with the limited powers and resources we have “, then they will “wake up to the importance of all of our children having at least one nutritious meal during the course of the day”.
It seems shameful that this bare minimum should ever be in doubt in a developed country, but the Mayor’s decision highlights just how much hardship in the UK is a result of political choices.
Since the Conservatives came to power at Westminster in 2010, they have deliberately reduced the incomes of some of the poorest people. Year after year, through freezes and cuts to public sector wages and social security benefits, decisions were taken that tipped struggling people into poverty, and those who were in poverty into destitution. The consequences are all around us, with a level of food insecurity not seen for a century, and millions cut off from heat and light because they don’t have the cash to top up their prepayment meters.
Many of the policies which produced this misery over more than a decade were announced in Budget statements. Indeed, the distributional analyses which revealed who gained and who lost from the choices the government had made eventually became so embarrassing in their ‘Robin Hood in reverse’ starkness that George Osborne stopped the Treasury from producing them, leaving it to organisations like the Istitute for Fiscal Studies to crunch the incriminating numbers.
And then of course, we had the Truss/Kwarteng budget, with big tax cuts for millionaires, prompting Mark Littlewood of the Institute of Economic Affairs to say approvingly, “You’re not going to like this package if you care more about the poor.”
Demonstrably, consecutive Conservative governments have not cared more about the poor, so the rich have got richer and people on the lowest incomes have seen their lives become ever more insecure and stressful.
But imagine if, for the last 13 years, we’d had a government which was focused on redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor. Imagine if we’d had a government which understood that for an economy to flourish sustainably, everyone must prosper, and that investing in our children is the best investment in a country’s future.
To see such an approach, we need look no further than Scotland. Within the very significant limits of its devolved powers, and with very little acknowledgement from the rest of the UK, the SNP has attempted to govern in a way which shares resources in a fairer way than its Westminster counterparts.
Some of these policies are egalitarian, and benefit everybody. Most emblematic perhaps are the baby boxes, sent to every new baby in Scotland, containing many of the essentials needed to give a decent start to each new life. As a sign that every baby is equally valued, they are a concrete rejection of the callous Conservative philosophy which denies social security support to third or subsequent children in a family, born on or after 6 April 2017, no matter how desperate their circumstances may be.
Other Scottish government measures help to reduce the stress which now pervades the lives of many people in the rest of the UK. Free NHS prescriptions, free hospital parking, free personal care for older and disabled people, and free university tuition – all help to remove some of the stresses which make life so difficult for so many people.
But it is in its efforts to relieve poverty, and particularly child poverty, through the redistribution of wealth that the SNP Government has most clearly diverged from the Conservatives in Westminster.
Several additional benefits unique to Scotland have been introduced to help boost the incomes of the poorest families. Most significantly, the Scottish Child Payment is now £25 per week for all eligible children up to the age of 16. Whilst the UK government abolished the Child Poverty Act and child poverty targets in 2016, (perhaps because they knew they would never meet such targets) child poverty in Scotland is projected to fall to its lowest level in nearly 30 years as a result of commitments in its Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan.
An IFS analysis of measures in the new Scottish Budget finds that the changes “will make the tax and benefit system in Scotland considerably more progressive than that in the rest of Great Britain”, and that “amongst the poorest 30 per cent, Scottish reforms to the income tax and benefit system are set to raise the incomes of households with children by around £2,000 per year on average. A typical out-of-work lone parent with two children now has their after-housing-costs income increased by 19 per cent.”
And in the last few days, Child Poverty Action Group has said: “By fully mitigating the benefit cap, the Scottish government has taken a huge step forward in its efforts to reduce child poverty. Its clear statement that families should get the support they need through our social security system, rather than be penalised by an arbitrary limit, is laudable.”
Within its limited powers, Scotland has made the choice to tax the better off, redistribute the money to poorer families, and invest in the future of its population. If the UK Government, with its far greater powers, had been inclined to do this over the last thirteen years, we would have faced the pandemic and other crises with a far greater level of security and resilience. More people would have more disposable income, which would support the economy. Instead, the Conservatives have created misery and hardship which starves the wider economy, whilst funnelling wealth to those at the top. The Scottish government and the Mayor of London have demonstrated that another way is possible.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020). Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden