Tackling Poverty in Scotland

by Ken Gibb

Sometimes events unexpectedly coincide. Yesterday I was one of four colleagues from Urban Studies giving evidence to the Local Government and Regeneration Committee at Holyrood. At the same time, elsewhere, the independent advisor on poverty and inequality, Naomi Eisenstadt, was launching her poverty report – Shifting the Curve. Earlier in 2015, I was one of a number of academics who had an interesting seminar with Naomi to discuss key issues, evidence and the things most needing to be done to combat poverty in Scotland.

After a shaky start in the evidence session (we thought we were there to talk more about our written evidence; the committee wanted to talk about its legacy and its forward agenda), it turned out to be quite an interesting hour. We discussed a range of topics including community empowerment, the place standard, community planning partnerships, how the committee system in Parliament can integrate and operate more cohesively, as well as participative budgeting and the impact of austerity on local services and deprived areas. My colleague, Annette Hastings, also raised the launch of the aforementioned poverty report.

While the advisor’s work focused on delivering serious proposals that could in conjunction and over the long term move large numbers of people out of poverty, the headline that grabbed the papers’ attention was the recommendation to end the council tax freeze and reinvest the resources currently tied up in maintaining the freeze (£630 million this year). The poverty advisor did not however reach a view on what form of local tax arrangements should replace the council tax, other than ‘be bold’. When we met the advisor, Mark Stephens and I suggested that a phasing out of the freeze might free funds in part to augment the affordable housing supply programme – this may be what she has in mind. I have put the 15 recommendations from the report in an annex at the end of the blog.

To be fair, the advisor praises the work that the Scottish Government has done in a difficult funding context, and notes the relatively better position of Scotland if we compare poverty measures across the UK. She is a strong advocate of inclusive growth and the effect the jobs and wages can have on poverty. She also recognised the positive interventions that have mitigated and reduced various forms of material poverty. But she is clear that more can be done and by all parties to reduce poverty’s pernicious impacts across Scotland.

The advisor’s report focuses on three areas of challenge. First, in work poverty (half of working age households in poverty – and 56% of those with children – had someone in work ). Second, young people and hence focusing on the life chances of those aged 16-24. Third, the report also focused on affordable housing because of the critical role played by housing costs in terms of the incidence of  after housing cost poverty levels in Scotland.

The poverty & inequality advisor concludesd that tackling inequality is particularly difficult but, to paraphrase, the combination of income redistribution of progressive taxes and a principled balance between universal and targeted or selective public services – might offer a way forward. Area-based targeting, for instance, supporting schools in deprived areas, may be a further important and complementary option. She recognises, of course, the contested nature of such conclusions:

These are contentious issues, but there may be ways through the log-jam. It would be very useful to have a clear and shared understanding of what a progressive, or as Michael Marmot would have it a “proportionate‟, universal system would look like in practical terms. I would be interested in engaging in further debate about this in Scotland, as it seems to me to be key to developing anti-poverty policies.’ (p.25).

These are critical rubbing points for the Scottish Government and other proponents of universalism – but I for one would be in support of such a debate being advanced by the Scottish Government when it responds to Naomi Eisenstadt’s excellent report.

Annex: the report’s main recommendations are:

In-work poverty

  1. Build on Living Wage Accreditation – a focus on larger employers, and on incentives, would be useful.
  2. Encourage pay ratio disclosure as a way of tackling pay inequality.
  3. Ensure childcare commitments focus on quality to improve outcomes, and consider providing a limited number of free hours of childcare for primary school aged children.
  4. Make family flexible working more explicit within the Business Pledge, and consider whether approaches such as the Timewise programme could promote flexible working in Scotland.
  5. Do more to ensure that people claim the benefits they are entitled to.
  6. Make effective use of new social security powers but proceed with caution.

Housing affordability

  1. Build more social housing.
  2. Ensure fuel poverty programmes are focused to support those on low incomes, and do more to tackle the poverty premium in home energy costs.
  3. Be bold on local tax reform.

Life chances of young people, aged 16-24

  1. Carry out a comprehensive review of the policies and services relevant to the life chances of older children and young adults, with particular emphasis on young people from poorer backgrounds.
  2. Reduce the number of government-supported employment programmes targeting this group of young people and simplify the landscape, to provide a clearer, sharper focus.
  3. Ensure that the new approach to employer engagement in education is having an impact on improving skills for work of young people.
  4. Do more to tackle occupational segregation.

Cross-cutting

  1. Ensure that public service delivery is respectful, person-centred and preserves the dignity of people in poverty: pre-employment and in-service training should include the importance of avoiding stigma and developing understanding of the challenges of living on a very low income.
  2. Commence the socio-economic duty in the Equality Act 2010, when powers are available to do so.
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