It’s time to deliver on the fairer society

Volunteers at an Edinburgh food bank sort donated items, which will later be distributed to those in need. Picture: Neil Hanna
Volunteers at an Edinburgh food bank sort donated items, which will later be distributed to those in need. Picture: Neil Hanna
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Oxfam agrees with Scots about the type of country they want, but we cannot place social justice on pause while parties argue, says Jamie Livingston

In the last week I’ve spent a lot of time talking. I’ve spoken with colleagues, business people, fellow campaigners, family and friends.

Each of them is – to varying degrees – struggling to fully understand what the No vote in the independence referendum means for Scotland; finding an answer is far from straightforward.

We know the people of Scotland voted to stay within the UK, that much is clear.

They did so after a promise of more devolved powers for the Scottish Parliament. But no-one really knows which powers will be devolved or how powerful will they end up being.

As a charity Oxfam is resolutely non party political, and as such these are not decisions for us to take.

However, we have a duty to assess any proposals on two levels: their effect on people living in poverty in Scotland and the scale and quality of the help Scotland provides to poor people overseas.

We know the change we want to see in Scotland: we want a fairer and more equal country. Right now, the richest three families in Scotland own more wealth than the poorest 20 per cent of the country’s population put together.

And, at the same time, we face scandalous and rising levels of poverty. Encouragingly, a desire for greater social justice emerged strongly in the referendum debate.

We played our part by highlighting the issue of inequality at a cross-party political hustings in which politicians from both sides committed to working towards a fairer Scotland.

Wherever powers rest, we must now challenge the root causes of poverty and inequality, deliver a social safety net for everyone and build an economy that delivers not just any jobs, but good jobs.

We must end the need for food banks and reverse the growth of in-work poverty.

And we must maintain and develop our contribution to tackling global poverty too.

International development is reserved to Westminster but Scotland has a small, and effective, International Development Fund of its own and an innovative Climate Justice Fund.

This funding is additional to the UK government’s aid budget and must be maintained, and grown, regardless of what happens next; they are a tangible expression of Scotland’s international outlook.

But, amid all my discussions over the last week, one thing struck me most clearly – a near uniform desire for the people of Scotland, not just the political parties, to have a say.

Lord Smith, the chairman of the commission announced by the Prime Minister to help determine the next phase of devolution, has said that he wants civic Scotland to be involved.

This is a welcome statement of intent, but Lord Smith’s desire to consult sits alongside – and perhaps even in competition with – a tight timescale for decision-making and rival political visions.

In this context there is a legitimate fear that consultation could be the element to suffer.

Oxfam knows from our work with partners in Scotland, people in poorer communities have a voice, indeed many voices: but they tell us they are simply too seldom listened to. The referendum started to bridge this disconnect – a process we must build on, not walk away from.

When we created the Oxfam Humankind Index – a tool for measuring what really matters to people beyond the inadequacy of economic growth – we reached out and listened to those rarely heard. In doing so we believe we created an index that more closely reflects Scotland’s priorities. We should adopt a similar goal as we work together to determine the next phase of devolution.

But while this process unfolds, we cannot simply place the struggle for social justice on pause at either the UK or Scottish levels. Will, for example, the Scottish Government strengthen the Community Empowerment Bill to ensure it genuinely empowers every community in Scotland, including the poorest? And will the UK government tackle tax dodging whilst ensuring we have a social safety net for everyone?

Will the Scottish Government take the action needed to deliver on Scotland’s world-leading climate targets and will the UK government enshrine our welcome delivery of aid commitments in law?

We cannot delay these progressive and overdue steps – the need is simply too great.

• Jamie Livingstone is head of Oxfam Scotland www.oxfam.org.uk/scotland/blog

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