Poverty, social exclusion and an independent Scotland
This week, the former chancellor Alistair Darling launched the campaign against Scottish independence, Better Together. So it was a good time for us to begin work on our latest report on poverty and social exclusion in Scotland.
These reports always begin with a consultation of sorts - meetings with government officials, people working in the third sector and anyone who might have an interest and an angle on how to tackle poverty in Scotland. This time we met our advisory group in Edinburgh for a wide ranging discussion on what we might cover this year.
We left with plenty still to think about regarding content and possible audiences for the report. But some early, slightly diffuse, thoughts emerge. Firstly, the referendum on independence looms large, but it’s not a magic poverty solving bullet. Scotland has actually had a range of powers at its disposal to tackle poverty since devolution in 1999. Its use of them to those ends has been mixed.
On the one hand, there is a greater focus on “solidarity”, with the target of increasing the share of income that goes to the poorest 30%. But there are plenty of examples of powers available and not used. Despite having tax raising (and, indeed, lowering) powers, not a single change has been made to the tax system in Scotland that would lower the amount of tax paid by the poorest. So simply having the ability to do something does not ensure that anything will be done.
Moreover, waiting for the result of a referendum whose date is yet to be agreed does nothing to solve the problems Scotland faces now. Like everywhere in the UK, unemployment is some 50% higher than before the recession. In total, 530,000 people lack the work or working hours they want. These problems won’t wait.
With regards to tackling poverty, there has been a type of double devolution, albeit an incomplete one. Following the Concordat in 2008, responsibility for developing strategies for reducing poverty fell to local authorities. But with this responsibility came no legal requirement to do anything and little extra resource. The concordat has now lapsed, and it is not clear what central government would do to address any gaps or shortfalls in 32 separate strategies.
Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said at the SNP party conference that "only independence will give us the tools we need to rid Scotland of the poverty and deprivation that still scars our nation". But the government launched a child poverty strategy last year, to little fanfare. Why not make more of it?
What also emerged is the centrality of housing to any discussion of poverty, whether it be about the benefits system, about high housing costs, about rising homelessness - the list is long. This is, of course, something Scotland shares with its neighbours – there is a shortage of affordable, suitable housing right across the UK.
One final point, though. The Scottish government’s purpose sets out a vision of not just economic growth, but strong communities, shared decision making and societal solidarity. Its commitment to, for instance, Community Planning Partnerships and balanced growth has a clarity that puts the nebulous warm words of the (English) “Big Society” to shame. But as cuts bite, and individuals whose talents would be well used to such an end increasingly devote their time to searching for work rather than contributing to their local communities, the concern is that this vision is disappearing.
And this would be a sad loss. Whatever type of independence Scotland opts for in 2014, it would be a stronger country if some of the original purpose could be made real.