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.