By Bill Heaney
Nicola Sturgeon replied: “ I am deeply concerned—as, I know, Monica Lennon and other members will be—about the hardship that people are facing as a result of the cost of living crisis.
“This Government has allocated almost £3 billion in this financial year to helping households to face that, including £1 billion that is not available anywhere else in the United Kingdom.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Labour MSP Monica Lennon.
Ignoring the fact that the electorate would find it difficult to get their head around these huge figures, she added: “That includes the Scottish child payment, which will shortly increase to £25 per week, and the Deputy First Minister confirmed yesterday that we will double the December bridging payment for families to £260 and increase the fuel insecurity fund to £20 million.
“We must see the UK Government use all the levers at its disposal to tackle the emergency rather than make it worse. That must include increasing benefits in line with inflation and increasing universal credit by £25, and that should also be extended to means-tested legacy benefits. I hope that we will see the UK Government take those steps.”
And playing the Independence card, she said: “However, if those powers lay in the hands of this Parliament, we would not have to look to a UK Government to do those things—we could do those things by our own hand.”
Monica Lennon asked: “Why has the working group on malnutrition, which was announced by this Government more than a year ago, not met? If it has met this week, it would be good to know about that. I know that there has been some bad publicity.
“Free school meals are not yet universally available for young people in Scotland. There was a commitment to make them available for pupils in primaries 6 and 7 in August of this year, but we missed that deadline. We have heard about a pilot scheme for secondary schools. Will the First Minister give a clear timetable for the delivery of the roll-out of free school meals, and will that pilot scheme be published?
“Campaigners and front-line workers with both children and older people raise the alarm every day, so I ask whether the four calls to action by the Eat Well Age Well project will be taken on board by the Government.
“There is really good work on universal free school meals in Scotland, and I give credit to the Government for doing that, but we all know that we must do more, so I hope that the First Minister will set out those details very soon.”
Ms Sturgeon replied: “Monica Lennon says that we all know that we can do more here. We will always seek to do more and to do as much as we can, but there is a limit to what we can do within a fixed budget. I do not know whether Monica Lennon listened to John Swinney’s statement yesterday.
“We are at the limit—probably beyond the limit—of what we can do financially without additional resources from Westminster. I wish it was not like that, because I wish that we were in control of our own finances, but we are not.
“We have an ambitious plan for the roll-out of free school meals, but right now we are already way ahead of any other part of the UK on that. In Scotland, during term time, free school meals are already universally available to more than 280,000 children in primaries 1 to 5 and in special schools, as well as to eligible pupils in P6 through to secondary 6. In England, universal provision is available only in the first three years.
“In Wales, where Monica Lennon’s colleagues are in government, free school meal provision is based entirely on eligibility. I think that they have just started work on universal provision for the first year.
“We have some way to go, but we are absolutely serious about getting to the end of this journey. However, we have already come much further than anyone else, and we are doing all of it within a budget that is being eroded by inflation and that is essentially fixed.
“If Monica Lennon wants us to do much more and to do it faster, it is not enough for Scottish Labour to will the end; it must also will the means.
“That will involve giving the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government full control over our own finances instead of leaving us at the mercy of Tory Governments at Westminster.”