Brian Wilson: Doctoring poverty report a poor inequality strategy

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon with Naomi Eisenstadt, independent adviser on poverty and inequality
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon with Naomi Eisenstadt, independent adviser on poverty and inequality
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The decision of an independent advisor to the Scottish Government to ‘make changes’ to an official poverty report can not hide Holyrood failures, writes Brian Wilson.

I recommend Seth Meyers’ ‘Saturday Night Live’ monologue on Donald Trump’s use of executive orders which includes a clip of him being asked about the foot injury which secured exemption from military service.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon with Naomi Eisenstadt, 'Independent Advisor on Poverty and Inequality at the Scottish Government. Picture: Julie Bull

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon with Naomi Eisenstadt, 'Independent Advisor on Poverty and Inequality at the Scottish Government. Picture: Julie Bull

“Which foot was it?” inquires a reporter. Trump replies: “I don’t remember. It’s all in the records.” Meyers observes: ‘So Donald Trump doesn’t just not know the difference between right and wrong. He doesn’t know the difference between right and left.”

I’m afraid I regard the claim by Naomi Eisenstadt that she “doesn’t remember” which bits dropped out of her report on Scottish poverty in the same sceptical vein, especially when Ms Eisenstadt added plaintively: “It was a long time ago.”

READ MORE: Poverty adviser insists she didn’t have to change report, amid ‘whitewash’ row

Well, actually, it wasn’t. Her report was published in January 2016 which is not exactly pre-history. As well as memory lapse, Ms Eisenstadt displays difficulty in recognising the difference, in this context, between right and wrong. It is plain wrong to defer to party political imperatives while posing as an independent champion of the poor.

If we didn’t know before, the latest appalling report on attainment in Scottish education confirmed where a decade of misdirected largesse has led us. Half the kids can’t read or write properly but every wealthy 60-year-old has a free bus pass. You might call it post-factual radicalism.

In other respects, Ms Eisenstadt seems politically savvy which makes it unlikely that she did not realise the significance, in the run up to an election, of agreeing to the doctoring of key passages in her report, or the motivation of those who accomplished it.

Saying that the council tax freeze “is no longer an anti-poverty measure” was very different from stating bluntly (as Ms Eisenstadt did originally) that it is “not an anti-poverty measure” (or ever had been). A paragraph challenging the claim that the freeze had been “fully funded” to councils was ripped out. Her critique of universal free things as misdirected was rendered bland. Dynamite was transformed into damp squib.

I’m surprised Ms Eisenstad doesn’t remember any of that. Dilution of her report made it easy for Ms Sturgeon to accept it in full. The appropriate headlines were secured (which is really all that matters). War had been declared on poverty. A new dawn had broken. Except it hadn’t.

The good news for Ms Eisenstadt is that her actual conclusions were right. Universal free things have not done a blind bit of good for those in poverty because they would be getting them anyway, under any government. The council tax freeze was sustained at the expense of the poor, who are more likely to rely on public services than the biggest beneficiaries. The latest council cuts perpetuate that injustice.

Though all this has been obvious, “universalism” has been a remarkably effective fig-leaf for an agenda which has redistributed away from those with least towards those with most. Any time Nationalist luminaries were asked to quote measures to match their rhetoric, their answer was the list of free things, usually with “free tuition” at its head.

That too is a con, as far as the poor are concerned. In order to fund this “universal” policy, all other forms of student support have been slashed, making it more rather than less difficult for disadvantaged Scottish students to see the inside of a university. Remarkably, the regime south of the border which charges fees has a higher proportion of students from low-income backgrounds than Scotland’s “free” system.

There is then the awkward question for Scottish society which, we are perpetually told, is so much more caring than our neighbours. Does anyone actually care much about the poor, other than possibly the poor themselves?

It did not need Ms Eisenstadt to discover that the poor have been losers from the council tax freeze and universal free things. Campbell Christie’s Commission spelt out the same conclusion in 2010, before being ignored. So have many others, always to be met with a barrage of rejection by Ms Eisenstadt’s employers.

When Johann Lamont, the former Scottish Labour leader, tried to stimulate debate by making the same points, she was blown away by brutally dishonest distortion from the Nationalists and their helpers in the media. This was an attack on “the elderly, the sick, the struggling family or the young person aspiring to a university education,” declared Sturgeon.

Labour would force poor children to pay £9000 tuition fees and take away old ladies’ bus passes, crowed her cheerleaders. There would have been much self-congratulation in the Murrell household on the success of this ruthless campaign of patriotic misrepresentation. What it certainly achieved was to intimidate anyone else from going near the subject politically.

So the poor continued to get poorer and money that might have been spent on reducing inequality was instead devoted to increasing it. Ms Eisenstadt knows all that but pulled back from saying so. The voters who benefited knew that and carried on voting for it.

In the light of this week’s revelations, I looked back at Ms Eisenstadt’s report. Given her background, it is not surprising she devoted much attention to reducing disadvantage in the early years of life. When Labour south of the border introduced the Sure Start programme in 1998, Ms Eisenstadt was put in charge of it.

What her report omitted to recognise was that pre-devolved Scotland was actually ahead of that particular curve with Early Intervention. Virtually everything she recommends under this heading, as if it was new, has been steadily eroded over the past decade.

How different would “poverty” in Scotland be, or these dire educational indicators, if Early Intervention had been at the centre of policy, rather than an increasingly poor relation?

Was slashing 150,000 places in Further Education designed to fight disadvantage?

What good does stopping publication of educational statistics do for anyone other than those they indict? Who will these latest council cuts, far beyond what Holyrood has suffered, hit hardest?

When not working for the Scottish Government (which would not allow such a sentiment to pass its collective lips), Ms Eisenstadt has acknowledged the substantial success of Labour in taking large numbers of people out of poverty. Can she point to a single comparable success from her present employers over the past decade? I thought not.