Brian Wilson: SNP’s poverty of ideas on key issue

THE newly published report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion in Scotland 2013, does not make happy reading.

It headline findings are that, since 2008, the number of unemployed under-25s in Scotland has almost doubled to 90,000. The number of people working part-time who want a full-time job has increased from 70,000 to 120,000 – masking a high level of under-employment.

And the most depressing, though scarcely unfamiliar, conclusion is that a boy born in the most deprived 10 per cent of Scottish communities has a life expectancy of 68 – fully 14 years fewer than his counterpart born on the same day in the least deprived areas.

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The good news, I suppose, is that the Scottish average figures continued to rise, to 76 for men and 80 for women, but the differential between rich and poor, advantaged and disadvantaged, must remain a primary challenge for any society that espouses values of equality and social justice.

The statistics are disappointing for another reason. After a decade of things getting steadily better, they have now gone into reverse. According to Rowntree, child poverty in Scotland fell in the first decade of the 21st century from 31 to 21 per cent. In the same period, pensioner poverty halved.

In contrast, the immediate future looks bleak. As a result of benefit changes about to take effect, 60,000 people in Scotland will lose at least some of their entitlement while 65,000 currently in receipt of ESA or Invalidity Benefit will leave the benefits system altogether.

The Rowntree report states: “Some may find work and benefit reform as a whole is centred on improving incentives to do so. For those who do not, the effect is straightforward – lower incomes and deeper poverty.”

The question is not whether it is virtuous to move people from benefit to work but how that can be a credible rationale in places where the jobs don’t exist.

From a partisan political perspective, there are plenty opportunities to cherry-pick from the Rowntree report. It is indisputable that things did indeed get very significantly better for low-income households during the years of Labour government – a reality which sticks in the gullet of those who are committed to a different script.

But the more recent trends underline the fragility of progress painstakingly achieved and its vulnerability to changed economic circumstances. There is no elixir for any government. Turning around the statistics of deprivation requires persistence, commitment and an unwavering sense of priorities.

In that context, the report also poses awkward questions for the Scottish Government. Where does its own priorities lie? The authors point out that Holyrood already has powers over many relevant areas of policy – health, schools, childcare, council services and housing among them. The Nationalists’ preferred option of blaming everyone else is not viable.

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They too have to explain why Scottish youth unemployment has doubled during their time in charge without any very obvious priority being given to tackling it. As the report pleads, almost certainly to deaf ears: “It is important that discussion of independence does not obscure the need for policy development in all these areas to tackle problems that will exist whatever decision the Scottish people take in 2014.” I wish.

To me, the crying message of this report is that the highest priority of the Scottish Government should be to attack the roots of poverty at source and try to turn around these gloomy statistics. And if one believes that the benefit cuts about to come down the track are as dastardly as advertised, then that priority must embrace a serious attempt to ameliorate them.

In other words, every sinew of the Scottish Government should be geared towards addressing the causes and symptoms identified so clearly by the Rowntree report. Countering youth unemployment should be absolutely top of the policy pile before it creates another inter-generational cycle of marginalisation which will 
then have to be addressed afresh. And so it goes on.

The chasm in educational achievement between schools in areas of deprivation and aspiration will only ever be narrowed if it is tackled at source. Anyone serious about reducing educational inequality in Scotland must realise that Early Intervention is by far the highest priority and that, without it, everything thereafter is working against the odds. But how serious are we?

I read the headlines last week about the First Minister’s speech, in the curious setting of the Foreign Press Association’s club in Northumberland Avenue SW1, about what he intends to put into a written constitution for Scotland. Embedding “free education” and “existing homelessness legislation” as constitutional rights were the headline-seeking catchphrases.

With all due respect, and having read the speech in full, this is back-of-an-envelope hogwash utterly irrelevant to the issues highlighted by Rowntree. There has been free school education for all since 1872. At present, many thousands of young Scots cannot get a place in Further Education colleges because of draconian cuts inflicted by the Scottish Government, contributing directly to these youth unemployment figures. 
So what kind of “free education” is to become a constitutional right, and to what end?

On homelessness, the chief executive of Homes for Scotland, Philip Hogg, has already given an eloquent rejoinder. Despite there being 160,000 people on housing waiting lists, the number of houses built in Scotland in 2011 fell to its lowest level since the Second World War and 40 per cent fewer than when Mr Salmond took office in 2007. So which is more important – actually building houses or floating an undefined “constitutional right”?

In so far as the policies pursued by the current Scottish Government have been redistributive, it has been in entirely the wrong direction from the perspective of the Rowntree Report. Only in the eyes of those most anxious to be deluded do vague musings about the future content of a written Scottish constitution present themselves as a satisfactory substitute for the reality of what should be happening here and now.

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Judging politicians according to actions rather than words is a pretty sound principle. Those in the Scottish Parliament who believe that it is their moral and political duty to address the urgent messages of the Rowntree Report on Social Exclusion and Poverty in Scotland 2013 should start acting accordingly. There are plenty of levers at their disposal without waiting for a constitution to tell them which ones should be pulled.