More devolution can mitigate austerity

We can offer better deal than Tory-run UK, says Helen Hunter

Chancellor George Osborne. Picture: PA

The welfare cuts announced by the Chancellor in his recent budget demonstrate that the UK government’s programme of austerity is designed to impact disproportionately on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.

Restricting tax credits and Universal Credit to two children and cutting benefits for those on the work-related activity group of Employment Support Allowance (ESA) will reduce the income of those already struggling to make ends meet and increase poverty and inequality and making their situation worse.

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Quarriers supports disadvantaged families in projects such as the Ruchazie Family Support Service in Glasgow east. Many of these families are on low incomes and are reliant on working and non-working benefits including Working Families Tax Credits and ESA. Withdrawal or reduction of these benefits will reduce incomes for families both in and out of work and cause increased hardship. The measures also risk diminishing employment incentives as well as reducing people’s confidence and ability to return to work after being on sickness related benefits.

Low income, however, is only one of many factors which impact negatively on the life chances of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society. Quarriers commissioned Demos to carry out research in 2013 which explored disadvantage from a multi-dimensional perspective and identified seven indicators of disadvantage: low income; worklessness; no educational qualifications; overcrowding; ill-health; mental health problems; and poor neighbourhood.

The study found that 24,000 families with children in Scotland were affected by four or more of these seven disadvantages. While low income was found to be the most prevalent disadvantage, affecting one in five families in Scotland (20 per cent), this was closely followed by ill-health (18 per cent) and worklessness (15 per cent). It is families who face a combination of these indicators and experience multiple-disadvantage who will suffer most from last week’s cuts.

We know that tackling poverty and inequality is not a short-term fix. Children who experience poverty are more likely to experience poverty as adults and this cycle is often repeated over successive generations. It is crucial, therefore, that there is a co-ordinated approach to policy at both local and national level and that there is an in-depth understanding of the diverse nature of the problems faced by disadvantaged families.

The Scottish Government’s strategy Achieving Our Potential sets out priorities for action including: reducing income equalities; introducing longer term measures to tackle poverty and the drivers of low income; supporting those experiencing poverty, or at risk of falling into poverty; and making the tax credits and benefits system work better for Scotland. This strategy alongside Getting It Right for Every Child and the Early Intervention Framework has been central to the Scottish Government’s approach to tacking disadvantage in families and improving children’s outcomes.

These approaches which recognise the social and economic factors which cause poverty and the importance of improving children’s outcomes in early years are strongly supported by Quarriers.

However, we fear there is a risk progressive policies such as these will be undermined by the ideologically based cuts being made in Westminster. The proposed cuts will increase poverty and compound inequality, mitigating the work of Quarriers and other charities that support disadvantaged families across the country.

We think this strengthens the case for greater devolution of powers over the welfare system. This would enable the welfare provision in Scotland to be aligned our progressive attitude to social policy. In order for vulnerable families and children in Scotland to be enabled to achieve their full potential welfare policy must complement existing policies which seek to create a fairer, more equal and inclusive society.

Helen Hunter is head of service, change, innovation & service development, at Quarriers, one of Scotland’s largest social care charities