NEW Scottish Government poverty statistics released last week are a source of great concern. They showed that even before Covid-19’s massive impact on jobs and household income was felt, one in four children in Scotland was growing up in poverty.

Worse, one in six children is now living in persistent poverty and one in eight in households suffering material deprivation. This mean that far too many children are going without food, heating and adequate clothing. That is, and should always have been, unacceptable in a modern, wealthy democracy.

Therefore, the Poverty and Inequality Commission welcomes the Scottish Government’s ongoing commitment to tackling poverty’s scourge, evidenced by initiatives like the Best Start Grant and Scottish Child Payment. We also welcome the raft of recent measures introduced by both the UK and Scottish Governments to address the impact of Covid-19 to protect jobs, boost household incomes and reduce costs.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has brought home to all of us the importance of our public services. Just as we are relying on our health and social care services to keep us safe, more and more people are turning to our social security system to help them through this crisis – and they’re finding it wanting.

Amongst the most pressing issues are the lengthy delays that huge number of families are facing before they can receive the additional financial assistance that they desperately need. Tens of thousands of self-employed workers in Scotland face a three-month wait before receiving help. Reports suggest that 30,000 workers in the Scottish hospitality industry have already been laid off due to Covid-19, with more workers in other industries likely to join them soon. Other workers have been kept on but told that they will not be paid until the UK Government’s 80% contribution to their salary costs is received. Thousands of others, particularly those on zero-hours contracts, have had their hours reduced.

However, those lucky enough to have managed to make an online claim for Universal Credit (UC) or Statutory Sick Pay, or to have their call taken by overstretched DWP staff, will have to wait five weeks before they receive payments. Some will get an advance from the DWP, but it will be a loan to be repaid. The Poverty and Inequality Commission is calling for the help provided during the five-week waiting period to become a non-recoverable advance rather than a loan. Serious thought should also be given to scrapping the five-week waiting time for UC.

The alternative is that families will be unable to pay for basic necessities. That in turn will endanger their health and wellbeing and place enormous strain on relationships, with a knock-on effect to our public services such as the NHS and community safety.

The Covid-19 pandemic may cause us to reflect on how we have ended up with a social security system that seems better designed to punish than support. With millions of households currently being exposed to the inadequacy of UK benefits, we may hopefully find the will to reform a system that perpetuates, rather than reduces, poverty.

To address these and other issues arising out of the current Covid-19 crisis the commission will be forming a short-life working group which will produce recommendations that we hope will influence policy change.

In the meantime, the consequences of the gaping holes in our social security safety net will be felt most in those households already in the greatest risk of experiencing poverty – lone parent households, families with a disabled member and in our minority ethnic communities. Throughout this crisis there must be an ongoing effort at all levels of Government – UK, Scottish and local – and at a community level to plug those gaps as soon as possible.

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