Help prevent the Million from becoming Missing again (1)

On the last day to register to vote before the independence referendum – Tuesday 2 September – a group of Yes campaigners visited Edinburgh college with their stall at lunchtime. We didn’t actually manage to set it up.

Instead, we spent the next hour and a half registering people to vote. Almost a hundred of them, men and women, young and old, of all nationalities and backgrounds, from all over Scotland, the EU and the Commonwealth.

And the whole time I kept thinking, what if we hadn’t come? No one else – neither the college management, the Electoral Commission, the Electoral Registration Officers (EROs) nor even NUS Scotland – had bothered to do a voter registration drive with a group that was clearly vulnerable either to not being registered at all or being registered in the wrong place to actually vote on 18 September. They would have missed out on participating in Scotland’s historic vote.

That day, I ended up handing in over 100 registration forms in an 11pm dash to the registration office. Forms of people signed up at bus queues, on buses shuttling to and from some of Edinburgh’s most deprived schemes and by hanging about outside bingo halls, libraries, schools and delapidated shopping centres. Over the whole of the campaign, I alone supported hundreds of people to register to vote – and there were many like me.

Highlights included the 16 year old registering on his birthday, the Latvian woman who’d lived here three years and whom no one had told she could vote as an EU national (who came and said hello when she voted) and the twin 15 year olds, whose 16th birthday was two days away and in typical teenage boy fashion, faffed around with it all so much they nearly missed their bus. They made for fitting last registrants of the campaign.

Then there’s the woman who took an age to be persuaded to do so, partly because eyeing up the form, it was clearly a literacy step too far but also because she feared someone – whoever he was – knowing where she now was. Whether or not she actually voted, she gave herself the choice to do so, taking an empowering step forward in asserting herself and her sense of self as a person with rights. Actually, there were a lot of women like her.

There’s also the young woman who lived at the top of a block of flats who reckoned she didn’t know enough to be voting. When asked to say what she thought the referendum was about, she gave a powerful and eloquent explanation about power, control and responsibility. Not things I’d hazard, she’d had a lot of in her own life. I talked her through the form which she completed herself and then by arrangement, went back on Referendum day to walk her to the polling place. Although only in her 20s, her capacity had clearly been compromised by some sort of trauma in her life and if I hadn’t gone for her, she wouldn’t have come out to vote.

It wasn’t just registering people to vote. On that floor of those flats alone, we helped four people keep their right to vote by giving them postal vote application forms to complete. We also posted them for them.  And I went back to check if they needed their actual votes posted for them too. Why? Because the lift in the flats was often broken and when it was they were captive in their own homes, unable, either through ill health or age, to use the six flights of stairs, and reliant on neighbours to run messages and errands.

When I appeared with my pile of forms an hour before midnight, the helpful ERO sighed in exasperation. They had had people in these areas earlier in the year, knocking on doors, trying to persuade people to register to vote, he said.

But therein lies the problem. People in areas like these don’t open their doors to men – and women – in suits. They don’t trust them, they mistake them for suits they are trying to avoid. Folk in these areas have acute antennae, they smell officialdom a mile off and have spent most of their lives avoiding it. The missing million aren’t just missing from the voter roll or from actually voting, they are also missing from day to day life as we know it.

The Electoral Commission’s proposals to tighten the Code of Conduct for campaigners to prevent folk like me from handling completed registration and absent voting forms completely misunderstands the reasons why traditional registration campaigns have failed and why efforts during the referendum campaign succeeded. I’m trying to work out if this is accidental or deliberate.

What is being deployed is a sledge hammer solution to an acute but minor problem of electoral fraud. The changes are a knock on requirement from the introduction of unique identifier requirements to such forms. The chosen unique identifiers of date of birth and National Insurance number are the problem here. There is no doubt this is highly sensitive personal information which requires careful handling and it is indeed highly valuable to potential and actual criminals, because it provides a gateway to identification theft.

But had the authorities decided to use our other unique identifier – the National Health Service number we are given when we are born or when we register with the NHS – this would have been less of a potential problem. Stealing that number might get you a hip replacement but there’s much less potential for monetary fraud. So now, we are getting the wrong fix to the wrong problem, which incidentally potentially exists within officialdom as much as within political parties.

In any event, we already have laws in place to protect against such fraud: using them more effectively to capture the tiny minority of political campaigners who abuse the system would provide more of a deterrent.

I’m not sure people in the Missing Million were asked for their opinions in the Electoral Commission’s research. But the conclusions drawn and the measures proposed also suggest an attempt by the establishment to pull up the drawbridge on those who, for the first time ever, managed to breach fortress entitlement through the participation process.

Until and unless we invest far more resources than we do currently in citizenship at the earliest age – primary, not secondary school – and in voter registration and education, and at the same time, simplify the process with plain language and procedures, then these proposals take us back, not forward. The Million will become missing once more, which might be in their interests, but it certainly isn’t in ours.

The Referendum has effected change that we cannot allow to be unmade and attempts like this to do so must be resisted strenuously. So, here’s something for the 45% to focus its pent up energy and enthusiasm on. It might not galvanise quite as much as a rally with flag waving or a tub thumping speech made from a platform, but then it might also just have some practical effect.

The Electoral Commission’s consultation runs until Monday 20 October. Please respond. 

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Why family norms result in inequity and inequality for children

What constitutes a family these days?  We know from our own acquaintance, that they come in all shapes, sizes and combinations.  Limiting this post’s interest to the demographics of child-full ones, the 2012 Scottish Household survey finds that 12% of children live in small families, 6% in large ones and 5% in lone parent households.

Given that there are myriad combinations of adults/children in families, how is it that policymakers and providers of goods and services persist in assuming a norm of couples with two children?  And does it matter?

Well, yes on a host of levels.

This week, there will be one last heave to remove pernicious charges from the new child maintenance collection scheme.  The regulations which will introduce a 4% fee on collection reach the House of Lords on Tuesday and anachronistic though they are, I have blogged previously on  my admiration for the Lords and Ladies on this issue when they batted down the original welfare reform proposals.  They represent the last great hope of preventing a calumny on children who already often live in the poorest households in the land.

Gingerbread is running an excellent campaign to “stop the CSA charges” – please do take a moment to sign the petition – and has produced a great graphic to explain what is happening.

If you cannot agree a sum with your partner, you can ask the UK Government to work out what should be paid.  That service will cost the parent with care an upfront fee of £20 – significantly better than the £100 originally proposed but still an upfront charge on the person with the children.

Then if you cannot get the sum calculated paid voluntarily, you can ask the Child Maintenance Service (which used to be the Child Support Agency) to collect it for you.  They will do so but deduct 4% of what is collected as their fee.  They won’t add on the 4% collection fee to what they are collecting from the absent parent but from the parent receiving the maintenance, meaning that children will effectively lose out.

All new cases since November 2013 have been dealt with under this regime but the Lords will also consider regulations to transition existing cases – some stretching back all the way to 1993 – onto the new rules.  The process will involve ending all existing liability and inviting those who cannot make voluntary arrangements to make new applications for maintenance calculation under the new rules.  Given that many of the cases that ended up at the Child Support Agency did so because parents could not agree on maintenance, you can see how this might work out.  The UK Government is alive to the potential for disaster for some families and will transition the toughest cases, those subject to enforcement action of some sort, last.

But the old sums agreed will be swept away and presumably, if the new amount is less than currently paid, tough. Children will go without. Again.

So, potentially less maintenance, an upfront fee for the privilege of having this calculated and a possible 4% deduction to collect it all and some of the country’s most vulnerable children, in terms of their income levels, are going to be hardest hit. It amounts to discrimination against children in particular circumstances that they didn’t ask for. 

It’s not just government which is intent on treating children living in single adult households differently.  For years, lone parent families have been subject to unfair treatment in fees and charges for services compared to couple ones, and not just by the private sector.

Take the National Museums of Scotland membership scheme. The old and new National Museums are wonderful places, oases for parents on rain-soaked Sundays and miserable weekends.  The fact that entry is free ensures they are high on holidaymakers’ must see list and the membership scheme is a great way of creating a supporter base and generating income, while working out at great value for those who like to take in all the special exhibitions.  Unless you are a child, for there is no special membership rate for children.

There is an “individual” rate of £35 annually, which reduces to £28 for students or £23 per person for a joint membership.  Then there is the family membership for two adults and up to two children, with under 5s going free, which works out at a bargain £14.50 per person in the family.  But what about lone parents?  If you are a lone parent with one child you can either opt for the joint membership of £46 per year or the family at £57 (which presumably would allow you to take a pal and a child’s pal at times).  Clearly the family option works out better value if you are a lone parent with two children but what to do if you have three?  And what if you are a couple with more than the norm of two children?  If you buy a family ticket, what do you do about the spare child?

Whichever way you slice it, children in non-norm family situations are worse off.  And in effect, that means poorer families, for they are more likely to constitute lone parent and large family households.  The National Museums are not alone in this inequitable treatment of poor children and families.  Visit any leisure centre, cinema, holiday broker or visitor attraction and you will find, largely, that family prices are predicated on the supposed norm of two adults, two children.  Some have improved their practice in recent times – many holidays offering child go free discounts now apply to a single adult as to two adults – and those whose practice is poor are guilty of thoughtlessness rather than deliberate attempts to discriminate.

But discriminate they do and what it means is that children, often from poorer backgrounds, do not enjoy equal access to a host of activities which are exciting, enabling and educational.  Throw this into the big picture of a wide and widening educational gap and then it really starts to matter.

While Scotland had the second highest acceptance rate of university places last year in the UK, it has the lowest level of applications from young people from disadvantaged areas (see figure 53 in the linked report).  While there has been significant improvement in the numbers in Scotland applying to university from the most disadvantaged areas, the current rate of around 15% is less than the proportion applying from similar areas in, not just England but also Northern Ireland and Wales.

When the universities are encouraged to do more, they reply that they alone cannot fix the problem and that the issue is one of attainment which needs to be addressed further down the education chain.  Clearly, schools have a key role to play in this, but so do other parts of our society. And if children are being made to be poor or poorer by dint of UK government policy and then being priced out of the market of valuable cultural and educational opportunities by providers failing to take account of the complexity, and indeed, flexibility of family situations in 21st Century Scotland, then it is clear to see that we have a big problem.

The solution is not to address each issue, sector and policy in turn but to commit to taking a child-centred approach to all policy-making and service provision.  And the way to do that is to protect all children from discrimination and to put the  best interests of children at the heart of everything we do: incorporating articles 2 and 3 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law would remove at a sweep the concept of family norms, which as well as resulting in unequal treatment, also reinforces unnecessary and unfair cultural stigmatising of children whose family status is not the norm.

Such an approach is a pre-requisite for a transformational shift in our attitudes to and treatment of children.  It would enable us to start creating a more equitable future for Scotland’s children.  All of them, but most particularly the ones who currently have the least.

Focusing on the council tax freeze ignores the need for wider reform

Before we pick apart some of Professor Midwinter’s arguments set out in today’s Scotland on Sunday, first let’s welcome the debate.

It is rare that we have serious – or at least semi-serious – debates about policy in the public domain and this one is a biggy.  While it is framed around the need to consider the affordability of public services and provision in the current landscape of cuts to the Scottish block grant, at its heart is a more fundamental matter.  Should we strive for universal provision or target funding at those who need it most?

In truth, it is the kind of policy area that whets the whistle of Labour much more than the SNP, which has far less of a social policy tradition in its DNA.  Indeed, the party’s approach to policy formulation in this area has always been of less interest to the big brains of the party whose boat is floated by economic stuff.  The party is great at the vision thing on the kind of Scotland we want to be, advocating a distinctly left of centre, socially progressive hue.  Words like fair and common weal and social wage pepper speeches but what is lacking is the intense policymaking and dialogue within party structures to work out what that actually requires a nation to do.

Hence, the attraction of universalism or as some have dismissed it, retail politics. There’s an element of truth in this – why would a party which has successfully campaigned its way into majority government on the back of universal policies tear those up?  Whether the SNP and the Scottish Government is in fact examining the affordability of any of its so-called “free” policies and working out different ways of tailoring the offering is a moot point:  it doesn’t have to, when Labour is doing the heavy lifting for it.  Labour might just find itself advocating, for example, raising qualification for a free bus pass to 65 – as Midwinter suggests – and the SNP deciding to accept the shift reluctantly in public and with some glee in private.

But a point of placement. Let’s not forget that Labour started the craze for universal and free stuff.  Free personal care, free bus travel, free heating systems for older people – all of these were introduced by a Labour-led administration when money was no object. In fact, I recall that Labour-Lib Dem executive resisting attempts to widen energy efficiency measures to the poorest families with young children because the money was needed for rich pensioners to get new heating systems.  And indeed, at Westminster, somewhat bizarrely it was Labour and the left which led the charge against cutting off child benefit for the most wealthy on the basis that it overturned the principle of universality in one of the last benefits to offer it.

So, having welcomed the debate which Labour is having with itself and bringing to our attention, let’s get on with cutting through some of Professor Midwinter’s crap.

Firstly, the charge on the Scottish Government that it has dismantled anti-poverty spending to the tune of £1 billion. To arrive at this figure, Midwinter selects policy and spending programmes which he considers to be anti-poverty and of course, ignores others. But he is right:  the Community Regeneration, Supporting People’s and Fairer Scotland Funds were handed over to local authorities and community planning partnerships to spend. But if they decided not to spend them on tackling poverty, they are to blame for the loss, not the Scottish Government.

And this actually points at a bigger issue. Unlike Labour which ring-fenced every new pot of money for every centrally announced and planned initiative – to the tune of nearly a billion pounds by their end days – the SNP trusted local government when it said it should be freed up from central constraint to deliver “local solutions to local needs”.  If those same local authorities have over the last six years made spending decisions which mean those funds haven’t been targeted at their original purpose, then maybe we need to shine a critical light there.  And work out how to fix that.

Indeed, it would be interesting to know just what councils have spent the money on.  They should be required to justify this, rather than wrongly blaming the Scottish Government for trusting councils to do as they said they would.  And that might well lead to a much broader discourse about whether local authorities as currently structured and populated are fit for purpose.

Secondly, the criticism against free prescriptions policy is unjust – and somewhat disingenuous, given that Labour was at pains to remind the voters of Dunfermline that they supported its introduction. For every well-off person who benefits when they occasionally need a pill or lotion, there are far poorer people who are reliant on whole streams of medication to manage their conditions who used to have to pay out significant parts of largely limited incomes on doing so.

Nicola Sturgeon’s objective on becoming Health Secretary in 2007 was always to introduce free prescriptions for those who need it most – the rules on who qualified had emerged in haphazard fashion so that some people with long term health conditions and disabilities got and some didn’t. But analysis suggested that expanding the qualifying criteria and the means test would actually cost more to administer than actually making all prescriptions free. Professor Midwinter ignores this context completely.

If the bill for free prescriptions is rising, then that is bound to be linked to our ageing population and sick man of Europe tag – entirely separate issues which need different policy solutions.  Keeping people healthier longer ie preventative activity, is actually a keystone for Scottish Government health policy, and more of it is required. Investing in this will bring the overall prescription bill down in the long term.

Finally, there’s the council tax freeze. There is no quibble here that given its longevity, it has meant a substantial saving for better off households and that even proportionately, those on the lowest bandings are not saving as much from the policy as others do.  But it is unhelpful only to quote the savings at the top and the bottom:  I’d imagine UK Labour, given its focus on the “squeezed middle”, would be just as interested in the savings applying for Bands C to E housing where these “hard pressed families” are likely to be living.

And even if they are still not saving as much of their income as those in these highest bandings, the wider picture of who is bearing the brunt of UK cuts and austerity measures needs to be factored in. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has been telling us since 2010, that’s these same “hard pressed families”. Take away the council tax freeze and that would no doubt tip some of these families – with children – over the precipice. What are the wider consequences of this for other public services like housing, social work, health and education?  This kind of modelling has to be done before arriving at the conclusion that the council tax freeze is inherently unfair and now a massive problem.

Looking simply at local authorities’ needs, ‘m afraid I’m not getting how allowing them to raise council tax will add significantly to their spending power. £70 million is the total estimate for a 3% increase at Band D levels across the whole of Scotland, yet the total local government allocation last year was just over £10 billion.  We are talking pennies here in budgetary terms, yet the increasingly shrill calls from some councils to be freed to use their tax powers give the impression that we are talking serious money.  We’re not.  And say, councils are allowed to raise tax and they all choose to do so by say, 3%. It’s a universal, flat rate increase paid by folk in the wee houses as much as the big ones.  Who does such a raise hurt the most?

Moreover, what impact would any council tax rise have on council tax benefit requirements?  Would more people become eligible for benefit? How would that be paid for? Is Scottish Labour remembering that the monies for that pot are now devolved and were only kept at last year’s levels because the Scottish Government reinstated the UK Government’s 10% cut? It is to be hoped that Professor Midwinter’s analysis of the situation is rather more detailed than the simplistic statements in this article suggest.

There is no doubt that the parties are effectively dancing around the pinhead of the council tax freeze to avoid the bigger issue of local tax reform. The SNP parked its commitment on local income tax a long time ago;  no one except the Scottish Greens has investigated the plausibility of a land value tax;  and Scottish Labour appears to have shelved its 2007 manifesto commitment to add new bands to the top of the council tax structure.

Yet, working out how local authorities can be made more accountable for their spending decisions by allowing them to raise more of their own income is a key part surely of this debate.  Professor Midwinter is right – fiscal realism is necessary but we won’t get it if no party is prepared to consider how we create a more sustainable funding base for all public services, including local ones.  Targeting universal and supposedly free services to justify a shift towards means-testing might provide some short-term political answers for Scottish Labour, but it won’t provide effective policy solutions in the long-term.