People who shared personal stories with Humza Yousaf of living in poverty say the lack of concrete action in his first programme for government last week felt like “a kick in the teeth”.
Yousaf convened a cross-party, cross-sector summit on tackling poverty in May as one of his first acts as SNP leader.
Linda Craik, who was invited to share her experience as a full-time carer at the event, told the Guardian: “I left my dignity at the door when I went to that summit and shared my very personal experience with the first minister. Now I wonder: was he even listening?”
Yousaf insisted last week’s programme for government – the Holyrood equivalent of the king’s speech – was “unashamedly anti-poverty”, setting out expanded childcare provision, minimum income guarantees for social and childcare workers, plus further investment in the Scottish child payment, alongside a pledge to “build a new relationship with business”.
But it has been variously described as timid, hollow and a missed opportunity by charities and campaign groups.
Craik, who worked as a civil servant before becoming an unpaid carer for her severely disabled brother and then her father, accused Yousaf of “paying lip service” when his programme was made up of piecemeal interventions, existing plans repackaged and pilot schemes that would take 12 months to report back.
She said: “Does he have any idea how bleak things will look in a year?”
Responding to similar criticisms, Yousaf cited “the confines of devolution” on his budget. The Scottish government is facing a forecast spending gap of £1bn amid surging inflation and rising public sector wage bills, putting huge pressure on Holyrood’s budget – set in December – and limiting scope for expensive new policies.
Craik argued: “The public aren’t stupid, we don’t think there is a money tree, and if he’s honest with people rather than making wishy washy promises, they’ll respect him”.
Danielle Ramage, who also attended to summit, said: “I asked the first minister to be brave in that room, and this programme for government is not brave enough for me or anyone else. People living in poverty have to be brave every day, just to get up and hold their heads high.”
Ramage, who works with struggling families in Kinross-shire for the local group Broke not Broken, added: “I do believe he wants equality at the heart of everything. He was making the right noises but there wasn’t the substance there.”
Ramage urged ministers to consider “parent poverty”, pointing to the toll on “exhausted” adults who were “fighting every day to hide how they are living from their children”. Nor did the plans consider the living costs of older children or ways to support parents back to work, she said.
Their personal disappointment was shared by third sector leaders, who have previously called on Yousaf to bridge the delivery gap between progressive rhetoric and the reality of policy implementation that they say characterised the Nicola Sturgeon era.
David Reilly, the acting director of the Poverty Alliance, said: “The actions don’t yet match the ambition of government’s rhetoric,” pointing out that ministers were not on track to meet their own statutory child poverty targets, which include bringing child poverty levels below 10% by 2030.
“We fear this programme for government will do little to change that,” he added.
Charities were especially concerned about plans for housing. The director of Shelter Scotland, Alison Watson, said the programme offered no new resources for the fight against homelessness, and that if this was “a preview of what to expect in the budget then it’s cause for alarm”.
The Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland acknowledged the fiscal pressures facing Yousaf’s government, but its director, John Dickie, challenged the first minister to consider raising taxes in his first budget, “the next big opportunity to match ambition with resources”.
He said: “In a country as wealthy as Scotland there can be no excuse for failure to meet child poverty targets.”
Yousaf told MSPs last Tuesday that “progressive tax and spending policies” were key to tackling poverty, but he later hinted that the threat of tax flight if Rishi Sunak cuts rates across the rest of the UK could make him reconsider.