There is more we can do with the powers our Scottish Parliament has to tackle poverty, and especially child poverty. But we could achieve even more with independence.
Independence offers the SNP and Scotland a golden chance to create a better future. For while we are tied into UK Government macro-economic policy, our economic fortunes are effectively tied to a welfare state that is past its sell-by date and a tax regime which allows income inequality to grow and has nothing fair about it.
This majority SNP Government provides a once in a generation opportunity for Scotland to have the debate on our constitutional future on our terms. The SNP has in its gift, to offer Scotland and her people the chance to do different. To design a path to the future that consigns child poverty to the past.
Nicola Sturgeon, the Depute First Minister, told the annual SNP conference that “independence means having a welfare system that can tackle the scourge of child poverty”. I think independence can and should mean even more.
Independence will give Scotland the powers, levers, resources – and responsibilities – to create a truly different society, one that is child-centred.
Think on this. Currently, there are approximately a quarter of a million children in Scotland growing up in poverty. By 2020, thanks to Tory policies and cuts, there could be another 50,000.
We will fail as an independent nation if we do not invest all our energies and resources to not only lifting these children and young people out of poverty, but also to preventing any more being born into a life of poverty. In a nation of five million, we simply cannot afford to have so many children born poor, growing up poor, dying poor.
Because poverty is not just an income equation. It causes, and is caused by, ill-health, substance misuse, poor parenting, violence, sectarianism, premature death, low educational attainment and poor economic productivity. If we want as a nation, to realise our potential, then our number one aim must be to identify the causes of poverty and eradicate them from our society. they are manifest and complex but not inaccessible nor insoluble, if we have the will and the means to address them.
What would being child-centred actually mean? Here are five big concepts that we could and should deliver with independence that contribute to being child-centred.
1. A society where everybody knows, regards and exercises their responsibility to protect and nurture children – and that means creating a state infrastructure that enables and requires people to do so
2. A fiscal system which rewards and enables work, ensures everyone pays their share and treats everyone fairly and equitably
3. Communities where we invest in the resilience, independence and capacity of people, where they feel they own and have a stake in their futures and destinies
4. A society where we value and respect children and young people for the contribution they do make and will make to Scotland
5. A country where children come first in everything we do
Yes it’s aspirational – deliberately so – and some might consider it exponential, so a few tangible examples of what these concepts might mean in practice.
If we have universal, affordable childcare, that is a fiscal system that rewards and enables work. If we ensure that women earn the same as men and are not punished financially for taking time out to have children, that is a fiscal system that treats everyone fairly and equitably. If we encourage and enable fathers to stay involved in their children’s lives after relationship breakdown, and ensure they contribute appropriately to their children’s financial well-being, that requires a state infrastructure that creates and enforces that culture. If we provide tax incentives for the growing, production and sale of healthy foodstuffs, and ban the use of items like trans-fats and tax punitively unhealthy foods, then we are putting children first.
Such policies have cyclical effects. They mean having to spend less on a health service that tries to fix obesity after it has happened, spending less on welfare to support families out of work or on low incomes, spending less on supporting children whose well-being and self-esteem is impacted by a lack of positive male role models in their life. But it also means employers do not lose out on their investment in training because women can afford to return to work post-children, and happier employees, less stressed about precarious childcare arrangements make for more productive employees. Less poverty results in better health and especially mental wellbeing, and therefore less money spent on prescriptions and patching people up.
This is not to suggest that work is the panacea. A big part of our investment in a child-centred society should be to allow families to be families. Shorter working days, time off for extended family members to spend with children in their lives – and for childless adults to volunteer with child-related activities, and a premium on time to be spent as a family by having proper public holiday shutdowns. That’s what is meant by investing in communities’ capacity and resilience, and putting children first.
I believe our approach to independence must be people-focussed. The big aspirational stuff on energy and economics is important, but there could nothing more aspirational than setting out our stall for how Scotland would harness all its wealth and resources to tackle poverty and end the conditions in our society and economy that conspire to create and reinforce it.
The First Minister talks a lot these days about the independence generation. But that is not us.
We are not the independence generation. Our children and grandchildren are. We will help deliver independence, they will benefit from it.
Independence not for us, but especially for the quarter of a million Scots children currently growing up in poverty. Let’s use independence to create a Scotland free from poverty.
This post is adapted from a speech the burd gave at a fringe meeting at SNP conference hosted by the Poverty Alliance and CPAG Scotland entitled A Scotland Free from Poverty – next steps