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Neil: We need a new democracy for Scotland

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Alex Neil says community-led democracy can combat social injustice

Poverty is the biggest challenge Scotland has faced since the Second World War and we need a fundamental shift in our approach to democracy to combat the problem.

Alex Neil, cabinet secretary for social justice, communities and pensioners' rights told representatives of the third sector at The Gathering that a new social justice agenda will put communities and people at the heart of decisions affecting them.

Scotland needed a new democracy where communities had more control of local budgets ensuring money went where it was most needed he said.

And new welfare powers - a consequence of the Smith Commission - mean the Scottish Government will be developing a new social justice strategy which will place civil society at its heart.

"We face substantial cuts in welfare,” he said. “Prospects of up to another £30bn of cuts are on the Westminster agenda. So social justice has never been more important.

"It’s the biggest challenge we've faced since the Second World War and a draconian Westminster-led austerity agenda makes it exponentially worse.

"The sanction regime for example is a vile policy. The whole machinery of social security is inhumane. I want to see a society that doesn't need foodbanks, for example," said Neil.

Communities need to drive regeneration with support from local government he said.

"We (the Scottish Government) need to support that but not drive it. So we need to support things like volunteering to support the services in communities that make a difference.

"We've tried all sorts of programmes but these have been delivered by local and central government. I want communities to spend money on what they think is right for their community - not civil servants."

The debate also heard from Rhona Cunningham, manager of Fife Gingerbread, who said the culture of victimising the poor had to change.

"We're dehumanising people on benefits," she said. "This needs to change. We need to see a more equal society that treats people fairly - that's the starting point."

Later today at the Gathering, John Swinney, deputy First Minister, will set out his ideas on how economy to reduce poverty.

Martin Sime, chief executive, SCVO, said: “Our politicians can’t just keep making all the right noises about healing the scars of poverty and inequality in Scotland. It’s time for a lot more action.

“A good starting point would be thinking more realistically about what government can and can’t achieve, and being more ambitious about how politicians work with wider society to give people real power to make decisions about the things that affect their lives.

"This will help us to build stronger communities and support more people to help themselves and others – not to replace public services but to augment them."

Don't miss reading TFN's exclusive interivew with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon