Brian Wilson: No borderline case on child poverty

The idea that all Scotland’s woes can be blamed on our neighbours south of the Border has to be challenged, writes Brian Wilson

The idea that all Scotland’s woes can be blamed on our neighbours south of the Border has to be challenged, writes Brian Wilson

I read the lead story in yesterday’s Scotsman on-line and my eye inadvertently strayed to the most adjacent of the comments attached to it. This is always a mistake since it serves as a grim reminder of what passes for debate in Scottish cyberspace.

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The story was about Professor David Bell’s paper on the costs of welfare to Scottish taxpayers in the event either of independence or the benefits system being devolved to Holyrood. Professor Bell’s researches validated what might have been guessed – that Scottish taxpayers would be forking out considerably more than at present if they alone were responsible for funding Scottish benefits.

Needless to say, the abuse directed at Professor Bell was considerable. Answers were demanded as to his political affiliation. The fact he is an adviser to Holyrood’s finance committee appeared to have escaped the notice of our on-line community though such knowledge would only have led to demands for his instant removal and worse.

A typical sage opined: “After we regain our independence, we will have a lot more money. After independence, the English will no longer be able to steal all our money and resources”. There speaks the unembellished voice of Scottish Nationalism. Anyone who disputes it is part of the conspiracy. Professors of economics are particularly suspect.

The previous day, there was another report, this time from the End Child Poverty campaign, which claimed that in 27 out of Scotland’s 32 local authority areas, there are wards where more than 20 per cent of children live in poverty, defined as households with below roughly half the income of the national average. In north-east Glasgow, the figure rises to 43 per cent.

This UK-wide report revealed that there are even worse figures in parts of Manchester and Belfast. Five of the top ten local authority areas for child poverty are in London, within a bus-ride of Westminster if you can afford the fare. Poverty is not a function of geography but of much deeper, more insidious divisions within society .

As Alison Garnham, executive director of the campaign, said: “The child poverty map paints a stark picture of a socially segregated Britain where the life chances of millions of children are damaged by poverty and inequality”. To most people, this might suggest that the causes are much the same in every part of the country and therefore the remedies might also be similar.

This does not, however, deal with the Nationalist factor. For them, further analysis is unnecessary since “the English” – a category which presumably includes the poor families of Manchester and London – are stealing our money and our resources. That is our uniquely Scottish problem.

Lest you think I am unfairly caricaturing the Nationalist cause on the basis of musings from one on-line contributor, please consider the official SNP response to the child poverty figures, as attributed to “a Scottish Government spokeswoman”, which essentially says the same thing in only marginally more sophisticated terms.

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This taxpayer-funded civil servant declared: “It is nothing short of a scandal that any child should live in poverty in a resource-rich country like Scotland and this report simply underlines the urgent need for Scotland to have the economic powers to tackle poverty”. Please note the use of the word “simply”. Change the constitution and everything becomes “simple”.

No mention of “socially-segregated maps” from this lady. No mention of taxes, costs or the need for redistribution of wealth. In Scotland, we are all Jock Tamson’s Bairns. Just change the constitution and all else follows. Simple as that.

Sadly, the causes of poverty are very far from simple wherever they arise. And while a benefits system, however generous, may ameliorate child poverty, it does not tackle its causes. At very least, that requires the patient, sustained application of well-developed policies, backed up by the political will to stick with the task and to make it an absolute priority of government.

And that, I fear, puts the ball firmly back into the court of the current Scottish Government – the last place where either our on-line friend or “a Scottish Government spokeswoman” would wish it to bounce. For while it is true that not all the “economic powers to tackle poverty” reside in Edinburgh, it is equally true that many of them do. Or that very few are being used in the way I describe as necessary.

Quite the contrary, actually. The freeze on council tax does not save the poorest families a single, solitary penny – yet it attacks the services on which they disproportionately depend. The boast of free university places does not benefit a single child from poor backgrounds – the small minority who qualify would get them anyway while the vast majority will never sniff the inside of a university.

Meanwhile, the incomprehensible assault on the Further Education sector has removed for many families a crucial route out of poverty. Incredibly, 85,000 part-time places at Scotland’s FE colleges have been lost since 2009 – exactly the kind of opportunities that people from low-income backgrounds need. The SNP have also slashed the bursaries for the poorest full-time FE students by £1,700 a year.

The idea that all of this – and there is much, much more – adds up to a committed assault on child poverty by the Scottish Government is clearly risible. And that should be the test – not what they say they would do at some future date if only they had more powers, but what their priorities are now with the powers that they indisputably possess.

Let’s take the “Bedroom Tax” as a test case of whether they are prepared to do something to help Scotland’s poor, or if they are just useful political footballs in making the case for “the economic powers to tackle poverty”. So far, the SNP’s response has been to denounce the Bedroom Tax as disgraceful, which we can all agree on, and promise to abolish it post-independence which, even on their own reckoning, is more than three years away.

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Meanwhile, serious people who care about these issues have come up with a very specific demand of the Scottish Government – rapid legislation, for which there would be overwhelming support, whereby Bedroom Tax rent arrears would be treated as ordinary debt so that tenants cannot be evicted because of it. This campaign has the support of Oxfam, Shelter, the STUC and Money Advice Scotland.

A promise of what might happen in 2016 is of academic interest. People need help now. Surely there should be no dilemma?