THE study Poverty in Scotland 2014 contains a damning attack on the Coalition Government's austerity programme.

One of its editors, Gerry Mooney, says that while austerity has come to be seen almost as a neutral, technical term, any critical investigation exposes it as an assault on the UK's social fabric and on the social contract that has underpinned it for generations.

Mooney dismisses attempts to persuade voters, through expressions such as "we're all in this together", that Westminster's austerity measures fall equally across society.

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"If we approach the notion of austerity with a more critical eye," he says, "we can see that it was never going to be equal or fair in its impact - nor was it intended to be."

Mooney, a senior lecturer in social policy and criminology at the Open University in Scotland, also insists that Scotland cannot afford to wait for any future constitutional arrangement to bed-in before rethinking its anti-poverty programme.

The study is aimed at putting rising poverty at the heart of the independence debate.

Mooney acknowledges that the referendum makes 2014 a "momentous" year for both Scotland and the UK, underlining Scotland's "rapidly changing political landscape". But, he adds: "This is a landscape which remains profoundly disfigured by poverty, disadvantage and, of course, by inequality. The constitutional question and the poverty-inequality question have become inextricably linked."

He adds: "Any discussion of poverty in Scotland must acknowledge from the outset that the patterns, distribution and depth of poverty and disadvantage are shaped in no small part by a policy-making agenda that takes place outside Scotland (at the UK Parliament in London), policies that are working to erode social protection."

On the subject of the Coalition's austerity programme, Mooney and the study's contributors say that it amounts to the slashing of public spending, public services, pensions and other welfare benefits. These cuts will, he says, impact most adversely on the most disadvantaged in society and will have a disproportionate impact on women.

Mooney insists that the cutting of wages, benefits, pensions and public services "is also about restoring conditions for profit and wealth accumulation.

"It is clear from the UK Treasury's own analysis that, aside from the very richest quintile, the cumulative effect of the Coalition's spending decisions on tax, benefits and services is highly regressive."

Westminster-imposed policies have helped reduce expectations of a secure working life and may have detrimental health outcomes for working-age people who receive benefits the survey claims.

Mooney notes that the Scottish Government has begun to develop a Scottish welfare system, and welcomes the debate around it, which has led to new ways of thinking.

But he adds: "At the same time the challenge is also to advance now the issue of poverty in a way that is free of stigma and disrespect.

"We simply cannot afford to wait for independence or any other future constitutional arrangement to be bedded down before rethinking poverty and anti-poverty policy."

The 311-page study reports that:

l More than one-third of households with annual incomes under £20,000 have no savings. They are far more likely to suffer fuel poverty. Many have no car or home internet.

l Despite an improving position relative to other European countries, poverty in Scotland and across the UK is significantly higher than in many countries.

l Despite the SNP government aiming to reduce inequality in Scotland by 2017, income inequality has yet to fall. Trends suggest that without substantial policy changes, income inequality is unlikely to reduce dramatically.

l More people are income-deprived - in receipt of benefits or tax credits - in Edinburgh than in any other local authority area except Glasgow and north Lanarkshire.

l Almost 100,000 people in rural areas are income-deprived.

Various authors who contributed to the study suggest possible ways forward, including:

l Progressive forms of income tax focused on the highest earners can have a "marked impact" on income inequality.

l Increasing the national minimum wage, extending the living wage and seeing collective-bargaining coverage grow to Nordic proportions.

l Universal benefits achieve all-round better outcomes, with the poor less stigmatised and gender equality improved.

John Dickie, head of Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, told the Sunday Herald: "The challenge now for all sides in the debate is to not just settle the constitutional question but to build the public support and political will needed to create a more equal Scotland wherever powers end up lying.

"That means making the case for the progressive taxation, universal services, living wages and gender equality that the range of expert contributors to this study make clear are fundamental to a Scotland free of poverty."