We need to create a fair and sustainable society for all our children.

Last week I made it a priority to take part in a debate in parliament brought by John Wilson, a colleague in the Green-Independent group of MSPs.

The important subject for debate was the Child Poverty Map of the UK.

I share John’s view that tackling child poverty should include finding effective ways of offsetting the recent changes to the welfare system as well as rising energy and food prices that have pushed families further into financial decline.

Read on for my full speech.

Alison

Too much of a child’s life is set by the happenstance of where they are born, yet we know that children who are born into low-income families do not start without high aspirations. Some 97 per cent of mothers in low-income families want their children to attend university, but there is a continuing and persistent attainment gap and immense barriers to what we call social mobility.

Of course, the vast majority of people who are born into poverty make a brilliant success of their lives. They become dedicated partners, loving parents or great friends and they have successful careers. No one should be stigmatised because of the economic situation into which they are born, but it is important to look at the barriers that children face.

Looked-after children provide a stark example. Care leavers have poorer educational qualifications than their peers and poorer health outcomes and are notably more likely to have contact with the criminal justice system. That is not the case in Finland, where the attainment gap for looked-after children is far less stark. That achievement is likely down to a complex mix of reasons, but one that is highlighted is the education system’s focus on support for teacher attainment and qualifications. We have to learn from good practice in other countries.

The child poverty map of the United Kingdom is a useful way to see how child poverty plays out across the country. For a decade we saw a notable drop in child poverty, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and others, but as we know, that improvement is being reversed rapidly: we are going backwards. Child poverty is predicted to rise and an estimated 600,000 more children will live in poverty by 2015-16.

The motion refers to

“finding effective ways of offsetting the recent changes to the welfare system”.

I agree that we need to do that. The economics of austerity and welfare cuts are having a particular impact on women and on children as a result. The Fawcett Society tells us that a fifth of British women’s income comes from benefits, whereas for men the figure is a tenth, so the loss of benefits and services hits women hardest. Women are more likely to be employed in public sector jobs that are at risk of austerity cuts. As state services are withdrawn, women tend to fill the gap as, for example, unpaid carers.

A fair social security system is vital and social security should be devolved, but welfare is not the core solution to poverty. We have to think about poverty in terms of equality and the redistribution of power and money to close the gap between rich and poor. We need political will to tackle zero-hours contracts and we must address fuel poverty. Affordable heating and affordable rents are essential.

We know that for the first time more than half of people in poverty live in a working family. People are working, often in demanding jobs, but are being paid wages that keep them in poverty. Governments subsidise that situation and the companies that pay poverty wages with corporate welfare.

The fair solution is a living wage. The national minimum wage needs to be raised to living wage levels immediately. The living wage commission estimated that that would benefit 5.2 million people across the UK, or 17 per cent of the working population. Our election manifesto will include a new minimum wage of £10 an hour for everyone by 2020, a wealth tax on the top 1 per cent and company-wide pay ratios. That is a package of measures to truly tackle the UK’s persistent inequality and poverty. We need to create a fair and sustainable society for all our children.

Time to stop dodging the debate on Council Tax

Yesterday I asked the Scottish Government whether they would meet with other parties to come up with a way forward on local government taxation. You can view the exchange below.

When household bills are spiralling upwards, it’s easy to see why the council tax freeze must seem like good politics for the Scottish Government. The truth is it’s letting us dodge the need to replace this deeply unfair tax.

John Swinney confirmed last month that rates will be frozen for the eighth year in a row, meaning that poor and rich households alike will pay at the same rate they did back in 2007.

In theory councils can still put up their rates if they want to, but Mr Swinney has them in such a financial armlock that this is not a realistic choice for them to make. They certainly can’t make the tax fairer by charging wealthy people more.

The SNP talks a great deal about empowering communities, but they have done the opposite with this tax that pays toward our local services. By freezing the rates they’ve avoided the question of how we find a better solution for local democracy and for funding those services.

There is much talk of Scotland getting new tax powers, which I support, but ironically this is the one well-known tax that has been in our control since the start of devolution in 1999, and it’s gone unreformed in all that time.

Recently the Scotland Government replaced stamp duty on house sales with a fairer tax, and a much higher rate for those buying homes worth over £1million.

But under the council tax system, which is based on what homes were worth way back in 1991, the poorest in our society are hit much harder than the richest, and this is a substantial bill that most of us pay each and every month.

To be fair, the SNP did recognise this when they first got into Government, and proposed a local version of income tax instead, but they hit technical and political problems with their plan.

With the independence referendum debate behind us, and with cuts being made to local services while wealth inequality grows, it’s clear that the situation can’t go on much longer.

It would have made a real difference if those who could afford it had paid a bit more over the last few years. Instead, councils have been forced to increase fees and charges for things like care homes and leisure services, which is the least fair system of all.

Green councillors tell me of community centres facing closure as staff numbers are slashed and of damaging reductions that threaten nurseries and school maintenance. Homeless hostels face cuts while home care rates increase. Libraries are undermined by shorter opening hours and healthy lives affected by increased rates at sports centres.  It’s a desperate situation, which is why we need a new deal to replace or radically change council tax.

One of the best things about the referendum campaign was that masses of people took an interest in discussing political ideas for the first time in ages. I think the time is right for the political parties to offer some fairer and more honest tax policies before the next Holyrood election.

All parties will have their own ideas to contribute, and the Greens certainly have ideas about taxing land rather than house prices, but we might get some of the best ideas from outside of party politics.

And this is just part of a bigger debate about how local democracy could work better in Scotland. It’s easy to feel like you have no power to influence decisions made about your local area.

What the referendum has shown is that if we give people a glimpse of real power, we find a Scotland full of passion and energy for making a better society, and that includes how to pay for that better society.

The council tax question can’t be dodged forever. I urge all parties to enter into an honest debate to find a better way forward for Scotland.

Fracking campaign gathers momentum

20141008_120300

Below is a copy of an opinion piece I wrote for the Evening News on 1st November:

The campaign against fracking is getting louder each day. People realise that it’s a distraction from the task of growing the number of secure jobs in new, clean industries in Scotland.

Just this week, the UK Government closed bidding on licences for companies to explore for unconventional or ‘hard to get’ fossil fuels across 20,000 square kilometres of central Scotland, including most of the land surrounding the Firth of Forth.

Unsurprisingly, the Greens have opposed the development of unconventional fossil fuels from day one. Let’s not jeopardise Scotland’s exciting renewable energy boom, which is creating thousands of jobs. More and more communities are starting to develop their own renewables projects, securing themselves a financial income as well as energy from a clean source. We need to keep political and financial minds focused on supporting this greener future, rather than firing up another round of polluting fossil fuels.

There are many myths about the potential of fracking to cut energy prices or help the climate but they just don’t stand up to scrutiny. We’re in a very different situation from the USA and all the evidence shows that Scotland’s future is best served by clean energy and better insulated homes.

I held the first Scottish Parliament debate on fracking earlier this year and called for a straightforward ban on new projects, but was voted down by every other party. The Scottish Government has the powers to stop projects going forward, but it continues to see fracking as an opportunity rather than a risk. I also proposed a 2km buffer zone to create a barrier between any drilling and communities, but I was narrowly defeated in the Parliament’s Energy Committee.

The experiences of families in America and Australia where fracking is established show me that our communities have every right to be concerned about the prospect of local pollution and the associated health impacts. I’ve been out meeting people from West to East Lothian and they’re particularly alarmed at the UK Government clearing the way for fracking by removing your right to object if pipelines go under your property, and they want the Scottish Government to clear up its position too.

It’s time for the SNP to come down clearly on one side of this debate. We do need a new industrial policy to increase employment and opportunities across central Scotland, but it doesn’t need to start with fracking.