Lesley Riddoch: Poor excuse for a poverty plan

Picture: Getty
Picture: Getty
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The SNP needs a proper strategy to even out the inequalities that make people poor and ill, writes Lesley Riddoch

DOEs the Scottish Government have an effective poverty strategy? Not according to Professor Arthur Midwinter, who told Scotland On Sunday that a billion pounds of anti-poverty spending has been diverted to subsidise hand-outs for the wealthiest Scots, patching over local authority cuts fuelled by the SNP’s council tax freeze.

In the febrile pre-referendum ferment, such claims from a Labour Party-commissioned academic were bound to be greeted with some scepticism. In the wake of the Dunfermline by-election – when Labour’s candidate controversially backed all the universal benefits her leader had previously condemned – it’s been instantly dismissed by the Scottish Government and its supporters.

Scottish Labour now apparently won’t axe free personal nursing care, university education, bus travel for the elderly, prescriptions or eye tests. Such a public and nakedly expedient volte face has naturally weakened Midwinter’s case.

And that’s a shame. Because the professor is basically right. There’s no evidence the Scottish Government does have an effective poverty strategy.

Of course there are policy documents. Of course many “anti-poverty” professionals are employed. But is there a convincing strategy to eradicate poverty or just a plethora of occasionally-funded projects to help the worst casualties of a deeply unequal society with no serious plans for change?

All sides can argue until Doomsday over the specific claim that funds for anti-poverty projects have “disappeared” into other spending. The projects handed to local councils without ring-fencing include the Community Regeneration Fund (£113 million), Supporting People Fund (£384m) and Fairer Scotland Fund (£145m). A £307m cut in the housing and regeneration budget, and £15m cut in Education Maintenance Allowance, produces Midwinter’s billion pound total.

Doubtless such sleights of hand have been performed by other governing parties. Doubtless coalition welfare benefit “reforms” knock any Scottish changes into a cocked hat. And doubtless Labour administrations have failed to transform Scotland’s record of inequality and poverty despite decades holding all the economic and welfare levers at Holyrood and Westminster.

And yet the facts remain. Child poverty in Scotland is rife and old people die of hypothermia in an energy-rich nation while the SNP has handed perks to the middle classes. That’s true. Salmond may or may not be a rich man’s friend, but his policies are unashamedly populist, not progressively redistributive, and he looks happier rubbing shoulders with the great and good than the underclass of council estates.

But even if it’s ignored, poverty is the elephant in the room. How can an independent Scotland achieve lift-off when it must “carry” such a large number of unaccountably sick and economically unproductive people?

Evidence compiled by the Centre for Population Health shows the poorest 10 per cent of Glaswegians die younger than counterparts in equally deprived areas of Liverpool and Manchester because of much higher rates of suicide, violence and alcohol and drug misuse. This is the self-harming behaviour of despairing, desperate people – and yet the Centre’s shocking revelations prompted no great response by political parties or wider society.

The poor in Scotland – like a mad aunt in the attic – are apparently always with us. Locked away, not spoken about and feared – but not heard. A shameful indictment of our communitarian aspirations, evidence of a deep-seated national malaise and a dead weight on economic performance and public health. Not much of a platform for an aspiring new nation.

Of course, as the SNP say, mitigating the impact of the bedroom tax has been an anti-poverty focus. But two-thirds of claimants affected are disabled – the modern “deserving poor” – and the policy emanates from Westminster.

When challenging poverty matches political strategy, Alex Salmond sounds radical. But when has the SNP leader used a keynote speech to acknowledge the large hopeless housing estates of Scotland or their sub-East European health outcomes? When has he discussed the fact an independent Scotland would probably become the eighth most unequal society in the world? Where is the proposed solution for gross income inequality?

Nicola Sturgeon’s expert group on welfare may provide the answer when it reports in spring 2014. One member is Professor Jon Kvist who outlined the Danes’ very different conception of welfare at a Nordic Horizons event last year. Nordic welfare systems redistribute wealth between rich and poor but also across the entire lifetime of each individual – contributing in times of work, withdrawing in times of illness, old age or child-rearing. So services are generally universal (though sometimes also contributory with a maximum contributions cap) to remain “attractive for the affluent and affordable for everyone else”.

The Nordic “everyone” system maintains social solidarity and benefit for all taxpayers. Crucially the Danish welfare system is not just a safety net for the poor. It’s a set of subsidised high quality services for everyone (like affordable childcare) not a complex set of transfers and tax credits as the British prefer.

Which system would an independent Scotland opt for? The bewildering assortment of funding pots highlighted by Prof Midwinter don’t resemble the comprehensive strategy of Denmark. Of course with benefits run and financed by Westminster that’s not surprising.

But are there signs of radical change ahead? Adorning the current British welfare system with a few low-hanging Nordic fruit will not transform life for the poorest – unless the SNP aims to create a Tartan England where social indicators are only marginally better than our market-ravaged southern neighbours. Almost all the considerable achievements of our Nordic neighbours flow from their longstanding embrace of central principles. Income equality improves life for everyone. High quality public services maintain social cohesion. Investment in human capital is more important than shovel-ready projects. And the state presumes capacity amongst its citizens and works to empower them – not itself.

This last point is crucial, but little discussed in top-down, centralised Scotland. The average tax-raising Norwegian council is truly local with just 11,500 residents (162,000 in Scotland) – that’s why one in 80 Norwegians stands for election (one in 2,071 in Scotland). Nordic city dwellers are flat owners within small housing co-operatives, not tenants of councils or housing associations.

Communities in the Nordic nations are funded and empowered to fix themselves – a solution that’s hardly been tried among Scotland’s poorest communities, even though trailblazing housing co-operatives like West Whitlawburn showed the way, back in 1989.

So arguments over “missing” cash for sticking-plaster projects is actually beside the point.

Where is the strategy to transform unequal Scotland?