Independence can create a Scotland free from child poverty

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

Born to be free

It was lovely to be back with “my ain tribe”, though still quite nice to not be fully back in the fold.  Participating but also observing as the first ever fully accredited blogger, which bestowed the exciting benefits of access to media facilities and an invite to the media reception.  This latter gift was much less exciting than might sound:  there’s something deflating about being allowed to attend an event successfully gatecrashed in years gone by.

The SNP’s reputation as the party that likes to party is undimmed.  Revelling into the wee small hours, with daft craic but also serious political discourse – I found myself engaged in intricate debate about the Attlee Government’s treatment of those who took the Covenant south at 2 am, astounded at the knowledge on display – the only thing missing was the community singing section.  Shame.

Everyone has remarked at how overflowing the conference was.  Exhibitors packed in, lots of fringe meetings, lots of receptions.  Media from everywhere and the much reported 20 offical delegations from other nations.  All this in itself was pretty amazing.

The scale and the number of SNP folk, though, really did have to be seen to be believed.  Thousands of them – not just official delegates, but supporters and members who just wanted to be part of it all.  It was incredible.  Yet, it still only represented a snapshot of the membership, now numbered at 19,000.  Astonishingly, the goal is to go into the referendum campaign proper with double that number of members.

There were so many new folk, but also a fair number of returners – eight years since I had last been at conference, and there was even someone who hadn’t been for sixteen.   Gathering all the sheep into the fold is important:  these people have generally been away busy with careers, families and lives that couldn’t quite accommodate space for activism too.  They bring with them valuable experience of life outside the bubble and are back because the prize is within sight.  As one pointed out, if I have to remortgage the house to afford a leave of absence to campaign for the referendum, so be it.

At times, it seemed as though the whole independence generation was thronging conference.  So many young people!  So confident, articulate and knowledgeable.  And excited by it all.  I reckon about at least a quarter of the SNP folk in Inverness were under 30 – no other party can match that.

And another difference was the number of women at conference.  Many more than in my heyday and what a good thing that is.   Though a few more perched on the high stools on the stage would be helpful, it is clear that the SNP’s traditional hurdle with women has been crossed.

Conference is now a fully fledged family event, not just couples, but so many babies and children there too, prompting some of us to suggest it was time to create a Born to be Free affiliated organisation.  I met some of the party’s more famous offspring, and some who reminded me how old I really am, now they are all growed up.    Eight years ago, it was unusual to see whole families at conference – weans were barely tolerated – but the mood and atmosphere is now very different.  Room for all:  the SNP’s reputation as a big tent is well-founded.  And such shifts in demographics matter.

Not only do they make for a different conference but also, a changed dynamic in the whole party.  A party that can encompass the widest possible range of experience and opinion is a very good thing, evidenced in the latest broadcast Forward which includes an emotive orchestral treatment of Let’s Work Together.

The excitement in the hall at the launch of the Roadmap to Independence was tangible and showed just how much groundwork, how many hours invested and how much attention to detail paid since May.  The four step approach that aims to galvanise first members, then supporters, then the wider public is a slow march to victory, one which starts with a 35% base in support for a yes to independence.  There is no doubt that the targets for voter identification are also in place – numbers and timelines – as well as the policy positions on some of the tricky issues and of course, the funds thanks to that remarkable bequest from Edwin Morgan.

Nothing is being left to chance.  The best campaigning machine in Scottish politics has set out its stall to create the biggest and most successful campaign ever.  With all those people on its side – the old hands, the new kids on the block, the ones that have been away and are now returned, activists ranging in age from 12 to 80, from a range of backgrounds and communities – who all share a fervent belief in a single goal, you really wouldn’t bet against the SNP pulling it off.



Where is the SNP’s social wage for children?

We are all aspirational now.  One of the reasons cited for the SNP’s spectacular success at the 2011 Scottish election was its ability to appeal to the aspirations of Scottish voters – the hope triumphing over fear mantra.  Labour in coming to terms with its “gubbing” has agreed that it needs to do more to appeal to aspirational voters.

Recent research suggests that people, particularly children, living in poverty are just as aspirational as everyone else.  The  Joseph Rowntree Foundation discovered that between the ages of 13 and 15 young people living in deprived areas in Glasgow, Nottingham and London have the same aspirations and career ambitions as other young people their age – to go to university and to have a decent career.  But something happens in their adolescent years to take those dreams away:  it’s not poverty of aspiration or ambition young people suffer from, but poverty of opportunity.

Weak family experience in knowing how to realise such ambitions, the lack of professional career opportunities in their communities and a paucity of support, particularly in schools, to open up pathways all conspire to frustrate younhg people’s aspirations.  In short, as a society, we write poor young people off at an early age and do not help them to escape.

The previous Labour government set itself an ambitious target to end child poverty by 2020, the SNP and even the Conservatives have adopted the challenge.  Yet, the Institute of Fiscal Studies’ modelling on cuts and changes to welfare suggests that Tory and Liberal Democrat policies and actions could make at least 800,000 more children poor in the UK by 2020.  By then, nearly one in four children will be growing up in poverty – in Scotland as much as anywhere else.

Even without an injection of austerity and public sector cuts from the current UK Government, there were signs that Labour’s approach had hit the buffers.  That’s the problem when the state tries to fix it for you.  Top down interventionist policies which catapult resources into poor communities, rather than grow assets and resilience from the grassroots, don’t work.  The same can be said of the tax credit system – its aim was true, but using public money to reinforce low wages and offset expensive childcare costs, could only ever mask rather than eradicate poverty.

In Scotland, previous Labour/Lib Dem administrations fixated on poverty, giving it new names like social justice, a raft of strategies and milestones, targets and outcomes to achieve and record levels of investment.  Yet, when the SNP assumed power in 2007, we still had several hundred thousand children living in poverty, with key indicators stubbornly refusing to budge.  Worse infant mortality rates, appallingly low levels of breastfeeding, obesity on the rise, parental substance misuse rocketing, violence blighting communities, the lowest life expectation in Western Europe and the bottom 20% still leaving school with few qualifications and even fewer life chances.  Thanks Labour.

The SNP is trying a slightly different approach.  It gets, with its strategy to end child poverty, the need to prevent dismal outcomes, to invest in preventative spending, to pump prime the early years of life to give all children the best start in life.  But its simplistic view of the solutions to income poverty – “we will continue with our efforts to strengthen our society, with more Scots sharing in our nation’s wealth” (from the manifesto) – is also doomed to fail, as decades of application of the trickle down economic approach in other countries will testify.

But the party is also hanging its hopes on the concept of a social wage.  Alex Salmond, First Minister, introduced the concept as he set out his stall for this Scottish Government:  “a social wage is part of the pact—the promise—between politicians, public services and the people. We will deliver the social and economic circumstances that allow people to dream, to aspire and to be ambitious, but it is for the individual to realise their dreams, to reach for their hopes and to meet their ambitions.”

Since then, the Government has outlined what it sees as its side of the bargain – maintaining free personal care for older people, and free bus travel for older and disabled people, free tuition fees for Scottish students, free prescriptions for all, no bridge tolls and a freeze on council tax bills until 2016.

But where is the SNP’s social wage for children?

They can argue – and they do – that children benefit indirectly from some, if not all, of these measures:  that trickle-down effect again.  So let’s rephrase the question:  where is the SNP’s social wage for children growing up in poverty?  For, as research and indeed, decades of experience show, it is not enough to allow people to dream and to aspire, and to leave it then to the individual to reach for their hopes and to meet their ambitions.

In such a societal marketplace, poor children will always lose out.  Poor children need extra help to escape the impact of a childhood lived on a low income, to follow a different path than the one society – not they themselves – has marked out for them.

Gone are the high universal ambitions for children of free school meals and smaller class sizes.  Neither affordable nor desirable apparently, yet universality which promises to continue targeting increasingly scarce resources at wealthy pensioners and adults is deemed acceptable.  Universality needs to be well, universal, surely to work?

Free higher education, arguably, benefits young adults – though just as arguably, you could say it benefits their parents more, just as free school meals would do.  But that amounts to an investment in the already-achieving, those who have a life chance before them.  Despite platitudes and resources aplenty, Scotland’s education system from 3 to 23 has done very little to enable the poorest and most marginalised children and young people to realise their ambitions of degrees and professional careers.  All that money and so little social mobility to show for it.

And even suppose targeting is okay, why so little investment in the ones who need it most?  The Early Years, Early Action fund is a great initiative but it has only been given £6 million to spend, and even then, its funds have been scattered like confetti around 24 three year projects.  You do the maths.

The £50 million Surestart fund is another fantastic commitment, as is the share of the £500 million (as yet unquantified) preventative spending pot for early years activity.  But handing it over to local authorities and community planning partnerships means it will find its way into the same black hole that consumed the Fairer Scotland Fund.  Council officials will decide, with little say from those living in poverty, how this money is spent and such is the way of local government that much of it will inevitably be spent on posts and bricks and mortar, rather than activity.  If that £50 million is to reach its destination and have a chance of achieving its purpose, it must be invested using a community assets approach, not a professionalised model, that is bottom up not top down.

But it can and could be very different.  With independence, we could do so much more to tackle the scourge of child poverty, particularly if we aim to be a child-centred society.  A theme I hope to expand on at a fringe meeting today at the SNP Annual Conference.   Hosted by the Poverty Alliance, the event will hear from Michael Matheson MSP, Minister for Public Health and John Dickie, Director CPAG Scotland, and little ol’ me, on creating a Scotland Free of Poverty.  Please do come along if you are in Inverness!