A right to the essentials in life

This week sees the Period Products (Scotland) Act come into effect – a world-leading law which requires local authorities to make free period products obtainable by all who need them. It’s a great example of universal human rights in action – extending access to period products as a universal basic service, without stigma. It’s hard to know what the uptake will be – the midpoint forecast is £8.7m next year and it could go higher. Absolutely money well spent.

So how best to spend money to mitigate the cost of living crisis? This demands Government intervention at both Westminster and Holyrood, and last week the Scottish Government reconvenes its resilience group and set out its initial stall –
• Direct financial assistance to those most in need
• An emergency budget review
• Regulatory action to limit increases in costs for people, businesses and other organisations
• Bring together energy companies, banks and food retailers to develop ideas
• Strengthen the safety net of emergency food/fuel provision, prioritising a ‘cash first’ approach
• Provide further advice to households on using energy more efficiently and reducing consumption

These are good parameters for action, as is the recently-passed Good Food Nation Act which recognises ‘the fact that adequate food is a human right and essential to the realisation of other rights’. So, what would a rights-based approach look like in practice?

Scottish Government has already committed to a ‘cash first’ approach and to ending the need for food banks. There’s no doubt food banks, food pantries and other charitable initiatives provide valuable social support and an opportunity to give and receive kindness. But the overall volume is small – even with likely increases in demand the cash value of food provided is only around £7.5m

Cash is key. UK Government needs to do the heavy lifting by raising Universal Credit again and further reducing the tape when people have income from work. The Scottish Child Payment will make things easier for many families when it increases to £25 this autumn and extends to age 16.

But what if, as with the Period Products legislation, public bodies were required to make free food obtainable by all those who need it? This crisis impacts on all of us, and making free or discounted food universally obtainable by all those who need it would reduce everyone’s sense of food insecurity.

Scottish Government could use the existing infrastructure of Best Start Foods, increase the value and widen eligibility and let people shop for themselves. A card could be provided to anyone who applies, without any income test and government could top up with say £20 every week. They could use the card in a supermarket, a corner shop or a café. People who felt they didn’t need the card wouldn’t apply, but even if they did the card is still progressive in that food is a much more significant part of the budget for anyone on a low income.

It’s not such a strange idea. Arguably multiple retailers are already taking a universal approach with for example the £1 meal for children being offered by ASDA. Public kitchens – in schools, leisure centres and museums could make a similar offer over the winter, with school kitchens well-placed to provide affordable healthy takeaways following the example in East Ayrshire.

Government also needs to intervene on fuel prices. Here too, there are examples of a rights-based approach to help people through the crisis and beyond. It’s time to stop the regressive standing charge which means that the people who use the least pay the most per unit for their power.

But we could also make the tariffs genuinely progressive – for example by providing every household with 2 or 3 units of power free per day, which would at least allow people to cook a hot meal.

Households would pay more for units above this free allowance, providing a further incentive to reduce consumption and insulate homes. Households who use less than their free allowance could cash in the difference. Such a ‘citizens’ power’ scheme reflects the fact that the land and sea which generates so much energy in Scotland should be serving the public good. It helps to reduce emissions. And, like the Period Products Act, it extends universal basic services. One way of getting started on this would be for Scottish Government to buy Bulb and use this base of 1.7m customers to create a publicly-owned retailer of choice.

As we thole this winter, we need to look at policy choices through a rights-based lens. No-one should be cold or hungry, no-one needs to be.