Last week’s anti-poverty summit called by the First Minister was a welcome initiative and I was an enthusiastic attendee on behalf of the STUC. The cross-party approach and getting the right people in the room – including, importantly those with lived experience of poverty – is suggestive of a leader who wants to roll up his sleeves and tackle the scarring effect of poverty on so many of our people, not to mention our longer-term economic health.

So far so good, though actions speak louder than summits. Regrettably, for all the talk, the most dominant theme which seems to have emerged is of reneging on promises to extend free school meals and increased targeting of previously universal provisions.

Any strategy to combat poverty starts with pay. That’s why unions take industrial action. Workers in Scotland gained over £1.1 billion last year as a direct result of taking, or threatening to take, strike action. Most of the improved settlements we achieved were weighted towards the lower paid.

In-work poverty is at shameful levels. Aside from the obvious injustice of it, this in turn increases pressure on our social security system which should be able to focus on those unable to earn. Decent, more equal pay; good public services, free at the point of delivery for all; a dignified system of welfare; safe, secure, affordable housing. These are the pillars upon which any society that wants to eradicate poverty are built.

This is why we have welcomed the First Minister’s openness to consider redistributive taxation and in particular taxes on the wealthy. We simply cannot afford to bleed money from our local communities to fund excessive pay and unearned income. The STUC has brought forward proposals which, even given the limited fiscal powers of the Scottish Parliament, could play a vital role in addressing the urgent need to redistribute wealth.

We will certainly work closely with the Government to make those tax changes we need. However, what gives great cause for concern is this apparent shift away from universal to targeted provision. The justification for such moves can slide easily off the tongue. To quote Humza Yousaf, “I've got a 14-year-old now. Should people be paying for her free school meals when I earn a First Minister's salary? I don't think that's the right way to use that money. A better way is to target those that need it absolutely the most.”

Cue a debate over, not just whether the SNP should U-turn on its promise to extend free school meals, but whether other universal benefits such as free prescription charges should be abolished.

📝 Sign up for Unspun – Scotland's top politics newsletter. Enjoy exclusive opinion and analysis from some of Scotland's best political writers and commentators sent directly to your inbox every weekday evening. Click here to sign up 👈

Of course, the answer to the First Minister’s question is that he would be paying for his 14-years-old’s free school meals - through his taxes. If his and the taxes of other very well-paid people were a little higher, they could contribute even more. He would also be paying to end the stigma for those 14-year-olds who are picked out as “different” because their parents cannot afford the price of those meals.

The redistribution of wealth across income bands is only one of the purposes of progressive tax and spend policy. Another is supporting those who at a given period in the life or, because of other circumstances, have greater need.

Bringing up children is an expensive business. The gulf in disposable income (even for those on healthy wages) between those who have children and those who do not, is profound. The cost of childcare is eye-watering. It also acts as a barrier to parents seeking paid work. I hope the SNP’s admiration of Sweden is not waning, because free school meals and affordable childcare for all is a hallmark of that country’s success.

So yes, our campaign proposals to expand (not reduce) universal access to free school meals would mean that at this particular point in his family’s life, the First Minister would be getting out as well as paying in. But in future years this would change. Younger families would benefit from the taxes he pays, as they do from the free provision of education that our taxes also fund. The same is true of prescription charges. When we require ongoing use of medicines, we benefit from free prescriptions. When we aren’t sick, we pay through our taxes for others who find themselves in that unfortunate situation. It’s not rocket science and it is certainly not unfair.

It is perhaps unsurprising that in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis and as the Tories embark on Austerity Mark 2, well-intentioned leaders shift their gaze toward increased targeting. In the same week as the SNP was flirting with a policy shift on free school meals in Scotland, Keir Starmer was signalling that Labour will likely drop its promise to scrap university tuition fees in England.

SNP MPs attacked Labour on this, as Labour MSPs attacked the SNP on on free school meals. Ironic, given that both proposed policy shifts come from very similar stables. And don’t even start me on Douglas Ross. The Tory leader champions extending free school meals in Scotland but quickly swaps his superman cape here for a vampire’s cloak down south as his party bleeds the public sector dry. You couldn’t make it up.

I hope and expect our sister trade unions down south will be as vocal in defence of future university students as we will be in defence of pre-school and school aged young people up here. Because be in no doubt, vocal on this issue we intend to be.

Roz Foyer is General Secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress