Is poverty the hardest word to say?

What might we want the new Scottish Government to focus on in its programme of government, to be announced by the First Minister on Thursday?  A guest blogger has their say:
As the First Minster prepares to unveil his programme for Government it has been noticeable that ‘poverty’ is not a word that has cropped up often – if at all – in the pronouncements and announcements over the first fortnight of the new Government. ‘Inequality’ and ‘social justice’ are conspicuous by their absence too and no surprise to see ‘redistribution’ make no headlines at all as a way forward for Scotland, devolved, independent or any other constitutional mix you prefer.
“Come on now” I hear you cry. “Give them a chance. Surely we can’t be sorting all that out in the time it takes to pop off to Tenerife and come back with a tan?” Eh well no but how much of an indication is it that dealing with growing poverty and inequality in Scotland is going to be a priority for the SNP?
To get at least part of an answer it’s useful to look at the approach since 2007 and what the 2011 manifesto and these first few weeks tell us about the majority Government’s approach to poverty.
In many ways, there is logic in punting the council tax freeze and free prescriptions as anti-poverty measures. They were electorally popular, relatively easy to do and of course, within the gift of the Scottish Government. Having such high-profile policies are especially important when you have no control over tax and benefits. Whilst there are many folk who have benefitted, it’s stretching it too far to think that these policies will make a significant difference to the poorest Scots, many of whom won’t pay council tax anyway and, if they need medicine, would be exempt from prescription charges.
Actual measures – a high level “solidarity” target and a commitment to reduce income inequality – were more like the real thing but little progress was made.  Governing with a minority in a devolved Parliament meant that a hefty dose of political expediency was required and it was administered fairly skilfully. The opposition could find little antidote to the administration’s claims that hands were tied by not having enough powers in Scotland and at the same time that local authorities were responsible for spending and identifying priorities in their areas. Failure to make progress on poverty was due to factors outside Scottish Government control.
Yet, this argument only stands up if you can be sure you are pulling out all the stops to use the powers you do have, such as, on fuel poverty.  Advisers would have been very aware that the target to eradicate fuel poverty by 2016 was being undermined by increasing energy prices and weak regulation. Progress has been made with the Energy Assistance Package but not nearly enough investment has gone into energy efficiency or other innovative ways to lift households out of fuel poverty.
Using the powers you have and maximising investment to tackle poverty and inequality need to be combined with the political will and leadership to force change through.
The living wage is a good example of a policy only partially implemented. Sure, workers in the NHS and core government staff get no less than the current living wage of £7.15 but so much more could be achieved by including a living wage in public procurement, requiring all public bodies pay the living wage and promoting the living wage to the private and voluntary sectors. The living wage is not just a policy announcement or even a one-off pay rise but a belief that low pay and in work poverty are unacceptable.
So what now for people living in poverty with a majority Government?  The signs, so far, are mixed. The manifesto contained some good things but the focus is heavily on economic growth. No problem with that but more thought needs to be given to who benefits from that growth.  Assuming that the ‘green revolution’ will benefit poor Scots just because it’s there is not enough.  Amidst the jousting on the Scotland Bill jobs have emerged as a priority: a positive move but we need to avoid simply adding to the hundreds of thousands of low paid Scottish workers.
It is a real concern that there now appears to be no Minister with direct responsibility for poverty and inequality. These issues sit with Nicola Sturgeon but her brief has increased and ministerial portfolios focus on sport and public health. Sure they are related but without a Minister with direct responsibility there is a danger of drift and a lack of focus on policy required for progress to be made quickly.
It would send a strong and compelling message if the First Minster ensures his programme for government includes a focus on dealing with poverty in Scotland.
Actions could include preparing for the imminent devolution of benefits such as the social fund and council tax benefit.  Real inroads could be made in supporting the poorest if we get the criteria and administration of these key benefits right.  Fully implementing the living wage and including it in public procurement rules would make a real difference:  the government could start by including this in the promised sustainable procurement Bill. Making sure that low income communities can benefit from community renewables will help strengthen those communities, generate income, reduce the number of fuel poor households and contribute to reducing carbon emissions.
It would be a real sign that the SNP were going to govern for all Scots if solutions to inequality, social injustice and disadvantage were at the heart of the work – and the language – of the Government and Parliament over the next 5 years.

11 thoughts on “Is poverty the hardest word to say?

  1. This should be a priority for the government now – so that Scotland can show it treats all its people with respect and dignity and ensures people can live in that way. Thank you for reminding us of this, because you are right – it’s all really quite silent when this should be shouted loudly…

  2. Pingback: Taking Scotland forward « A Burdz Eye View

  3. More money, not the answer unless its life changing value for money for individuals who live in communities, education has had money thrown at it, but its still failing by 20% not saying money wont help , but that’s on in five who may have an attached cost for the rest of their life because they didn’t get an equal opportunity at school.
    Getting it right first time for everyone in education and all other public services, for people not Politian’s might even save public service, because I would suggest there is a realisation that the public thinks the PS cup is over following.
    Restructure/ Modernisation to take account of reality yes, if that includes getting ride of corrosive, power personality and politics which suppresses talent and innovation by favouring political card carrying lackeys . .
    Allow committed effective employees to get on with it, yes, with measured accountable outcomes, who are not comfortable with paper exercises, tell you what the problems and challenges are, and identify a solution strategy with programme times attached to deal with it, for people and not for the papers/media and politics.
    What is the risk, if they make a mess of it, we well see no change. Centralised strategy localised implementation, to Community Council Area for example with parallel capacity buildings for CC , with no financial management only financial, services,outcome and service provision scrutiny. attached to influence.

  4. There’s a danger in Ministerial “responsibility” for alleviating poverty and the creation of a numbers game that it remains a political/statistical exercise rather than a human/economic one.

    I would like to think it is the responsibility of all and that someone stops and asks how you address the causes. Ultimately, that takes investment of time and money largely in education/training but also creating opportunities directly an indirectly.

    Then there’s funding it. I advocate wholesale restructuring of local and national government in Scotland. Restructure the local tax base (take your pick but I like the sound of the Green’s land tax plus a myself). Throw in a premium VAT rate on alcohol at source not point of sale (nothing major – say 1%).

    Ultimately the joy of self-determination is that there are way more options open to the folk making the decisions and they are within striking distance of the people that elect them. That’s progress, at least.

  5. Poverty effects, the mind, body and environment of every individual who suffers from it, in years gone by there has been an acceptance of it, and, an acceptance and a settled position that poverty has to be managed, rather than managed out and eradicated.
    There is a poverty industry, some of which is still fighting Thatcher or using Thatcher to justify their existence, and needs poverty to exist thats a reality, its not going anywhere soon and young people are still being fundamentally failed.
    There is a minimum wage, and there has to be strategy to ensure as many people get the opportunity without being forced, to get a self-respecting, fulfilling job, without losing what they would have had on benefit, for whatever period of time it takes to readjust to work, not because they are work shy because they are not stupid.
    Education and social services, health, housing, all public service, should ensure young people from conception to 18yr get a guaranteed equality of opportunity benchmark chance at life, with intervention for the sake of the young persons chance at life, by public service, robustly for the young persons guaranteed right to have a chance life, despite whatever detrimental circumstance or environment they find themselves in.
    Poverty, Is not just about money, but, economic growth stimulates opportunity and aspirations, which, with the removal of poverty of the mind, will provide equal access to those opportunities and personal growth.
    Banks, shares and financial industry have had their day, let people get rich but tax them if they don’t spend the income locally creating sustainable jobs for others, sensible simple ones, people will always, eat drink, have their hair cut, buy clothes, need energy, education housing and building materials, revitalise Scottish manufacturing service and retail industry for Scotland, with pride and confidence, it costs nothing if it creates full employment and tax payer rather than tax consumers, tackling the imbalance will eradicate all form of poverty. Stop blaming others for were we are, take responsibility pride, confidence and commitment for the future, while not being happy or content to accept second place or second best lets be number one in everything mind, body, social environment and economy and except nothing less, that’s not a quick fix, just needs quick decisions and the removal of personality, politics and power from all levels of public service letting employee get on with it.
    In short, poverty cost nothing to solve, but everything to manage. Poverty crosses all ministerial portfolios, and it shouldn’t be restricted to, one ministers office.

  6. Putting Poverty in a persons job title actually does nothing for the relief of poverty. Other than make some people feel warm and fuzzy.

    As much as I disagree with the SNP approach to some National Outcomes (4 four kids and none for Older People) it does mean that every government policy has to at least address some, if not all, of the national outcomes. Poverty is a generational thing and will last beyond this SNP government and either into independence or another party leading Holyrood. And every area of this and future governments policy work will, in some way, impact on the reduction of poverty.

    Short-term gains (like tax credits and benefits) are often lost in economic downturns as the process of just giving people money is not that effective in the long term. Changing peoples hopes and aspirations for their kids will be a start. Changing the structure of our economy will be a start.

    The living wage will be a start. But then it will drive up the costs of all public activity in Scotland. Which means less public money to be spent elsewhere.

  7. Good post which I largely agree with.

    I think it is important to be fairer to the lower paid. To this end I’m glad we are seeing the minimum thresholds on Income Tax being raised to support the lower paid – and importantly help make work more valuable and play a part in stopping people being trapped in benefit dependency.

    Health will be important and efforts to tackle us being sick man of Europe are important. So much of this is directly tied in with poverty and inequalities. So tackling cancer care is v important as is tackling diet, exercise and things like alcoholism.

    The focus on economic growth is actually v important as without prosperity it is hard to provide for social justice. We need our economy to do well especially if we are to move away from an over reliance on financial services. Also we need a stronger private sector as we have become too reliant on the public sector for jobs long term and this is not healthy. These things help us tackle poverty too.

    Gavin

  8. Great blog with many points I’d love to make; being on my android doesn’t help. If only the govt would show leadership and political will to produce genuine, tangible plans/directives on tackling inequality of all types, in an integrated approach that has genuinely listened to affected communities, allowed/enabled them to participate AND negotiate their own desired/agreed outcomes; an INTEGRATED. MUTUAL approach to creating solutions in the ‘responsible’ society we all declare we are part of and want. Note I use all the current buzzwords in their fullest meanings and not as lipservice to political correctness or as vote-winning tactic. It’s too easy to make excuses because these are difficult social issues. But hiding behind a wall of “local authority autonomy” or “Westminster’s not playing ball” is highly irresponsible.

    • Stephen Noon, the SNP’s manifesto supremo, is right with you on this one so here’s hoping. Does no harm for someone to lay a marker down before Thursday though!

  9. I am hoping that Nicola at health and Angela as minister for children and young people with an overview of all children’s services and education will be a powerful force aiming to tackle poverty.

    • Yep here’s hoping but my guest poster points out rightly that poverty now falls between many portfolios with no one seemingly to have overall responsibility for the brief – why cities in Nicola’s portfolio title and not poverty?

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