Comment: Fairness vital to help those in poverty

MIND the gap may be a cliche but to too many of our poorest people, it’s a cruel reality, writes Jamie Livingstone

The proliferation of food banks has become a contemporary shorthand for rising inequality in the UK. Picture: TSPL

The general election result has led some to conclude the UK has become a divided nation.

It is – in at least one key sense: the economic gap between the richest and the rest.

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Last year Oxfam research showed that, in the UK, just five families had roughly the same wealth as the least well off 12 million people in Britain put together.

Oxfam is resolutely non-party political but we take a clear and unequivocal stand against such glaring inequality – an issue we believe is inextricably linked to poverty. We are committed to working with others to challenge both issues, at home and abroad, and all political parties must prioritise specific policy change to narrow the inequality divide.

During his first Cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister said the work of the newly elected UK government must be rooted in “social justice and genuine compassion”.

Oxfam will continue to engage with the government in a positive yet challenging way to ensure this laudable aim is placed at the heart of policy-making.

In doing so, we will also carefully monitor the policy commitments and initiatives of all parties at Westminster; including those, given the general election result in Scotland, of the SNP.

With the election of 56 MPs, the party will have a much enhanced profile and level of responsibility at Westminster – giving it a major opportunity to influence UK-wide debate. We hope the SNP will use its increased parliamentary time and enhanced representation on select committees at Westminster to focus on tackling poverty and inequality.

For us, that includes action to ensure we have a just tax system in which everyone pays their fair share – each according to their means.

Pre election we challenged all parties to tackle corporate tax avoidance in the UK, whilst also helping poor countries capture the estimated £160 billion they lose each year.

It was heartening that all parties made reference to tackling tax avoidance ahead of polling day – including the SNP, with the party also calling for a global fair tax summit.

But with the ink just dry on one set of manifestos, another batch is being developed with the race to see who forms the next Scottish Government in Edinburgh on the horizon.

Over the next 12 months, Oxfam will work hard to ensure every political party in Scotland outlines how they would use devolved powers to tackle economic inequality – whilst living within our environmental limits and continuing to support the world’s poorest people.

Latest figures suggest 820,000 people live in poverty in Scotland. More than half of working age adults in poverty live in households where at least one person is working; the old adage that work is the clearest route out of poverty rings hollow.

Yet, in March, Scottish Government analysis revealed the wealthiest 10 per cent of households in Scotland own 20 times more wealth than the least wealthy 30 per cent.

Behind these statistics lies a gruelling reality for hundreds of thousands of people in Scotland who are struggling just to get access to life’s bare essentials – including food.

But change is possible and an inspiring feature of last year’s independence referendum was the way in which people who previously felt disengaged from politics became directly involved in the debate about what type of society they want to live in.

Since then a great deal of consensus has emerged on the need to prioritise the fight against inequality and there have been some welcome signs of political commitment.

Tackling inequality has been placed at core of the Scottish Government’s new economic strategy with a new cabinet secretary for social justice installed and a fair work convention launched with the aim of ensuring more “good quality, well paid jobs”.

But we clearly must go further.

The general election turnout in Scotland surged 8 per cent on five years ago; it is crucial this level of engagement continues in the run up to the Scottish Parliament election. It is a critical opportunity to pressure Scotland’s political parties to commit to deeper change.

We will be working with our supporters and allies to give people with personal experience of poverty the opportunity to talk, question and challenge Scotland’s politicians to do just that.

And Scotland’s politicians must demonstrate they are listening.

Those suffering the consequences of extreme inequality and poverty deserve nothing less.

• Jamie Livingstone is head of Oxfam Scotland.