Cunninghame North’s constituency candidates answer five questions

Porridge or noodles? That’s not a question that regularly occupies the average person’s thoughts, but for those in food crisis it is a choice they often have to make. And with last week’s Trussell Trust report indicating that food bank use has increased by two per cent on last year’s figures, where the next meal will come from has become a pressing issue for many more people.

When we also take into account Oxfam’s recent report that over 2 million people in the UK are estimated to be malnourished, and 3 million are at risk of becoming so, it seems clear that food poverty is not going away—it’s getting worse.

Right here on our own doorstep, North Ayrshire Foodbanks issued 4,750 food parcels in 2015—almost twice the UK average of 2,558 parcels per food bank—and served 3,600 meals to children through the Make a Meal of It (MAMOI) project that operates during the school holidays to replace the free school meals the children would otherwise receive during term-time.

The Scottish Government provides some financial support for MAMOI and similar projects across Scotland and they recently announced that funding to help tackle food poverty in our communities will be doubled in 2016/17. This is very welcome news, but why should it be necessary for the government of a developed country to provide hunger relief to so many people in the 21st century?

It is a question that many of us ask ourselves and I have no doubt that our politicians ask themselves the same thing. But what answers do they come up with?

With the Scottish Parliament election on 5th May almost upon us, now would be a good time to find out.

I asked each of the four Cunninghame North constituency candidates five questions on food banks and child poverty and what they would do to address these issues if elected.

This is what they had to say…

Click the candidate’s name to see their answers
Johanna Baxter
Question 1 Research carried out by Oxfam Scotland in December 2015 found that 82% of Scots believe ‘there is something fundamentally wrong in our society if people have to use food banks’. Do you agree with them, and if so, what can be done to correct it?
There is something fundamentally wrong in our society if people have to use food banks. Why? Because food banks provide emergency food supplies, to those who are in urgent need and have no other means of being able to secure food. In the last year the Trussell Trust has handed out 1,109,309 three day emergency food supplies to people in crisis across the UK. 133,726 of them were in Scotland. 133,726 people in our country in absolute crises. That should shame us all but particularly the Tory government at Westminster whose cuts agenda has created this issue and the SNP government in Holyrood who have done little to mitigate it. The way to turn this around is to lift people out of poverty by ensuring that everyone has the means to enjoy a decent standard of living. To do this the Scottish Labour Party will use the full powers of the Scottish Parliament to cut poverty and stop the cuts. We will legislate to tackle poverty in the first session of parliament. We will implement in full the 15 recommendations the Scottish Government’s Independent Advisor on Poverty and Inequality, Naomi Eisenstadt made in her report Shifting the Curve. An anti-poverty bill will be included in the first Labour Programme for Government to deliver on these recommendations. We will establish a Statutory Food Commission that will develop binding recommendations on the reduction of food poverty and we will make wages fairer. Our Living Wage Commission will be tasked to ensure no-one is paid below the living wage. The SNP voted against the living wage numerous times; in particular when Labour tabled amendments to the Procurement Reform (Scotland) Bill in March 2014 and at its third reading on 13 May 2014.
Question 2 The UNICEF report, Fairness for Children: A league table of inequality in child well-being in rich countries, emphasised the importance of a strong welfare system in reducing inequality, and carried a strong suggestion that the [UK] Government should reconsider its cuts to benefits. Furthermore, cuts to working and non-working benefits since 2013 are projected by the Institute for Fiscal Studies to increase child poverty by 50% by 2020. Do you agree with these assertions, and if so, what action (if any) would you take to reverse or mitigate these cuts in Scotland if elected?
A strong welfare system helps in reducing inequality and the UK Government should absolutely reconsider its cuts to benefits. But the Scottish Parliament has a responsibility too to stop them and the new powers it could use to do just that. Scottish Labour led the way in opposing the bedroom tax and is the only party in this election putting forward a manifesto that will end austerity in Scotland. We will reverse George Osborne’s tax cut for the top 1% and ask those earning more than £150,000 a year to pay a 50p top rate of tax so we can invest in our schools. We will set rates of income tax one penny higher than the rate set by George Osborne to invest in education and local services. We will reverse George Osborne’s tax cuts to the higher rate for the top 15%. And we won’t make the SNP’s Air Passenger Duty tax cut for the top 20%. The SNP bottled it and broke their promise to abolish the Council Tax. Labour will abolish the unfair council tax, making nearly 2 million households better off, with 80% paying less than they do today. We are willing to risk upsetting the millionaires to benefit the millions of people who are suffering under the current government’s austerity agenda. We will ask the wealthiest few to pay just a little bit more because the price of not doing it%mdash;more cuts to schools, thousands out of work and more children living in poverty—is just too great. We pledge that spending by a Scottish Labour Government on our public services will rise in real terms through to the next General Election. That means investment in education—£2,429,000 investment in nurseries and schools across North Ayrshire%mdash;to secure our nation’s future prosperity. It will prevent billions of pounds of unnecessary cuts and protect education and vital public services. We’ll build the 60,000 homes, including 45,000 social rent, to end the housing crisis. The SNP have been in power for 9 years; they haven’t built enough homes. In 2013 14,885 homes were built—the lowest number of homes since 1947 when 12,149 were constructed. Scotland’s private rented sector has doubled over the last ten years and there has been huge increase in rents. The Scottish and UK Labour parties have proud records on tackling poverty. Tax Credits, Sure Start and maternity grants all introduced by Labour all cut child poverty. Only our Party is putting forward proposals now that will tackle poverty and make the interventions to create a fairer Scotland.
Question 3 The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world but ranks 14th in its levels of child inequality. By contrast, Denmark is ranked as the 36th largest economy but has the lowest level of inequality amongst children. Both countries have similar levels of unemployment. That being the case, why can’t the wealthier UK afford to reduce child poverty to the same level as the Danes?
The UK can afford to reduce child poverty—it’s the choices the government make that determine whether it happens. In the Danish welfare system, a number of services are available to citizens, free of charge. The Danish welfare model is subsidised by the state, and as a result Denmark has one of the highest taxation levels in the world. You cannot deliver the benefits of a Danish welfare model if you choose not to invest in it. That’s why the choice at this election is so important—because it is a choice between those who are prepared to use the powers of the Parliament to invest and those will not. The Scottish Labour Party is very clear—if we want to create a more equal society and reduce poverty we need to raise more money and we will use the powers of the Scottish parliament to ask the richest to pay a little more to do this. Neither the SNP nor the Conservative Party are prepared to make a similar commitment. Additionally Denmark has a different social model to the UK—one based on the principles of flexicurity. They have an active labour market policy, which is sadly lacking here, and a long tradition of social dialogue and negotiation among the social partners. We could do much to improve our record in these areas and I am proud that Scottish Labour is putting forward proposals that will benefit workers and create stronger links with their representatives—a pro-trade union Work & Trade Union bill; sectoral bargaining and sectoral forums involving trade unions; an industrial strategy with skills investment and development; promotion of workplace democracy based on trade union representation and collective bargaining and a commitment to abolish the Tory tax on justice for workers that are employment tribunal fees.
Question 4 If the UK votes to leave the EU this year, do you think that in coming years the level of child poverty and the number of people relying on food banks in Scotland will decrease, increase, or stay the same, and why?
It is difficult to predict the future but I fear that it will increase because the £13bn deficit in our economy will only get bigger and there will be less money to spend on having a strong welfare state and investing in our public services – things that are necessary if we are to drive down poverty and inequality. Being part of Europe makes our economy stronger, helping British businesses small and large, creating jobs for British people, and delivering lower prices for British families. Almost half of everything we sell to the rest of the world we sell to Europe – and we get an average of £24 billion of investment into Britain per year from Europe. There are an estimated 3 million jobs in Britain linked to trade with the rest of Europe—with an unemployment rate higher now in Scotland than the rest of the UK (6.2% in Scotland compared with 5.1% for the UK as a whole) we cannot afford to put jobs at risk. Being part of Europe also means cheaper prices in our supermarkets, cheaper flights to Europe and lower phone charges when travelling. The average person in Britain saves around £450 every year because trading with Europe drives down the price of goods and services. We get out more than we put in. Our annual contribution is equivalent to £340 for each household and yet the CBI says that all the trade, investment, jobs and lower prices that come from our economic partnership with Europe is worth £3000 per year to every household. That’s a return on investment of almost ten to one. And many of the rights we take for granted at work are the result of the UK’s membership of the EU.
Question 5 If you had to choose between living on porridge or noodles for a week, which would you choose and why?
Porridge—because the energy you get from it lasts longer and I prefer the taste of it.
Kenneth Gibson
Question 1 Research carried out by Oxfam Scotland in December 2015 found that 82% of Scots believe ‘there is something fundamentally wrong in our society if people have to use food banks’. Do you agree with them, and if so, what can be done to correct it?
Yes, I completely agree with that statement. How could I not? Despite the recession, debts and deficits, Scotland remains a prosperous nation. It is appalling that people in twenty-first century Scotland rely on charity to put food on the table. Historically, the solution to such a problem would be stable employment and a safety net in the form of a strong and fair welfare system. Unfortunately, in recent years, both of these pillars have been weakened. Economic growth is essential to create jobs and ensure that these jobs provide stable contracts and a genuine living wage. Furthermore, we must strengthen the welfare state to ensure it treats people with dignity and respect when they need assistance.
Question 2 The UNICEF report, Fairness for Children: A league table of inequality in child well-being in rich countries, emphasised the importance of a strong welfare system in reducing inequality, and carried a strong suggestion that the [UK] Government should reconsider its cuts to benefits. Furthermore, cuts to working and non-working benefits since 2013 are projected by the Institute for Fiscal Studies to increase child poverty by 50% by 2020. Do you agree with these assertions, and if so, what action (if any) would you take to reverse or mitigate these cuts in Scotland if elected?
Yes, I do agree. The expertise of UNICEF in studying inequality and poverty cannot be ignored and their message should act as a wake-up call to a seemingly uninterested UK Government. As you and your readers will be aware, the Scottish Government have taken action to mitigate some the worst of the UK Government’s welfare cuts—including the Bedroom Tax. This money has come from the Scottish Government’s own budget, despite the fact that welfare is not devolved. If re-elected, the SNP have pledged to introduce a Scottish Social Security system which will instil fairness and respect back in to the welfare system. Furthermore, with our new powers, we will increase Carer’s Allowance to the same rate as Jobseeker’s Allowance; abolish the bedroom tax; introduce flexibilities around how Universal Credit is paid including giving people choice to be paid twice monthly and direct payments to social landlords. We will also scrap the 84 day rule which removes income from the families of disabled children.
Question 3 The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world but ranks 14th in its levels of child inequality. By contrast, Denmark is ranked as the 36th largest economy but has the lowest level of inequality amongst children. Both countries have similar levels of unemployment. That being the case, why can’t the wealthier UK afford to reduce child poverty to the same level as the Danes?
It is an interesting comparison to draw and surely goes to underline the fact that, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Denmark has the narrowest wealth gap in the developed world and this is achieved through a robust welfare system—including generous jobseekers payments for two years, job training, excellent child care, fuel efficiency grants and rent allowances for the elderly. Providing this kind of support doesn’t see those out of work or on low incomes demonised, but instead allows them to support their families and reach their full potential.
Question 4 If the UK votes to leave the EU this year, do you think that in coming years the level of child poverty and the number of people relying on food banks in Scotland will decrease, increase, or stay the same, and why?
It’s obviously hard to say. However, I am of the opinion that Scotland benefits greatly from EU funding in the form of development grants which help people in to employment and sees investment channelled in to our communities. I would also be sceptical that a UK Government—untethered from EU institutions—would act in a more compassionate and responsible way. Indeed, I could imagine the UK seeking to become ‘more competitive’ by adopting American or Asian employment standards, which would clearly have a negative impact in terms of wages and workers’ rights.
Question 5 If you had to choose between living on porridge or noodles for a week, which would you choose and why?
Neither sounds a particularly appetising prospect and I hope it’s not a choice anyone would have to make, even in the most desperate of circumstances. However, as a proud Scot, I’d have to say oats. I doubt noodles have the same nutritional value either.
Jamie Greene
Jamie felt that the individual questions ‘didn’t do justice to the complexity of the issues’ and preferred to provide a general response.
We know that many families are facing very tough times as a result of the largest recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s. When people are struggling, the welfare system helps to support millions across the UK who are on low incomes or out of work to ensure their basic needs are met. But the service and support that food banks provide is also extremely valuable for families who have hit hard times, and I pay tribute to the dedicated volunteers who go above and beyond to help run these centres. Food poverty is a serious issue with a number of complex and often interrelated causes. High food prices have put pressure on family budgets in recent years, but evidence shows that these have fallen since 2013 and that prices in the UK are actually lower than in other European countries, including Germany. Further, it is worth noting that food bank usage is increasing across Europe and the US, with one in seven Americans now relying on a food bank, while Germany has 1,000 food banks that support 1.5 million people. The UK Government has a clear, multifaceted strategy to help people who are unable to meet the costs of living. For example, it is working to improve competition to help producers and retailers offer the best prices and to promote a sustainable food and farming sector to keep prices down. In this regard, the Scottish Conservatives have called for immediate action to open new markets and reduce tariffs in existing export markets. It is also focused on making sure work pays and that benefits are targeted to those most in need – and this approach is working. More JSA and ESA claimants get their payments on time than under the Labour government in 2009/10. Employment is at record levels, the proportion of children living in workless families is the lowest since records began in 1996, and 3 million people have been take out of income tax, helping to protect the pay packets of hard-working families. However, the Scotland Act 2016 gives the Scottish Parliament unprecedented level of control over a Scottish welfare system. It devolves most disability benefits, introduces new flexibilities in the main out of work benefit and allows for reserved benefits to be topped up, as well as the creation of new social security schemes. The Scottish Conservatives want to see a Scottish welfare system with three basic principles at its heart—it should primarily support the most vulnerable in our society, it should be flexible and personalised, and it should give those who can and want to work the opportunities and support to do just that. Blaming the UK Government is no longer the go-to answer for Scottish politicians—we can take a different path in Scotland if we choose to. The Scottish Parliament now has substantial ability to do what is best for the people of Scotland. From a personal point of view, if elected on May 5th as an MSP in the Scottish Parliament, regardless of my political colours or allegiances rest-assured that I will work hard in the West of Scotland to help make my community and country better. Whilst we may differ in our views on how to achieve that, ultimately I want to listen, learn and make a difference. It is the sole and primary reason I got into politics. Poverty is one such issue that is close to my heart and I hope people will appreciate my earnest contribution.
Charity Pierce
I tried to contact Ms. Pierce via the email address listed on the Liberal Democrat’s website on 14th April and again on 18th April. There was no response on either occasion and no obvious alternative means of contacting her.

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