End Poverty for the Common Weal: The Common Weal – A New Hope?

 

 SCOTTISH LEFT REVIEW

 

‘End Poverty for the Common Weal’ by Morag Gillespie 

Scottish Left Review Current Issue 77 : Common Weal – A New Hope? 

The debate on independence is a unique opportunity to decide how Scotland can be rid of the scourge of poverty. Poverty has been a political football in the UK for decades: what it is, how to measure it, who is to blame for it and what we should do about it are all strongly debated. Recently, however, mainstream UK politics are showing a growing consensus along neoliberal lines, with debate much more about the detail of managing poverty than principles around reducing or eradicating poverty.

Compared with more equal societies, the high levels of inequality found in countries such as the UK are associated with poorer health and reduced well-being for those affected and high costs to society (as Wilkinson and Picket showed in The Spirit Level). Yet inequality has been much less of a concern than poverty in the UK. Perhaps this is because most of the growth in income, particularly in the last decade, has gone to a few people at the top of the income ladder while, at the same time, poverty has been individualised and stigmatised by the press and politicians. People relying on social security benefits have been cast as ‘skivers’ and ‘scroungers’, responsible themselves for the situations they find themselves in. The fact that the majority of people defined as poor live in households where someone works belies the rhetoric used to justify ever harsher sanctions that are more aligned with a US-style residual welfare regime.

What we need is the collective will to be rid of poverty and, most crucially, recognise the need to build a shared vision that puts people first, agrees to share social risks and denies the acceptability of poverty at any level in a wealthy society.

The UK government’s austerity measures diminish the welfare state, particularly social security which was already inadequate and ineffective. At the same time, those on high incomes have benefited from tax cuts and multinational giants can avoid paying millions of pounds of taxes through apparently legal processes. Inadequate accounting for this, just one element of the ‘corporate welfare’ state, means the relevance, need and appropriateness of such public support through tax reliefs is poorly scrutinised, possibly only rewarding “politically well-connected corporate elites” (as Kevin Farnsworth described it in a paper to the Social Policy Association).

The Scottish Government has expressed opposition to the welfare reforms and tasked an Expert Working Group on Welfare to advise on the transition of social security should Scotland vote for independence. This was not so much a visioning exercise as mapping the detail of a lengthy transition that could, effectively, sustain the status quo, regardless of the growing evidence that it isn’t working.

Many people and organisations share the Scottish Government’s opposition to the welfare reforms, but opposition is not enough. A short consultation period enabled several voluntary and community based organisations to express their views on an alternative vision for a more equal Scotland and reminded us of the possible futures other than a neoliberal vision. In the event of independence or extended powers in Scotland, it will be important that civil servants manage a smooth transition for social security. However, what is crucial is that we take this opportunity to develop a vision for a poverty-free Scotland. As Lynn Williams (a member of the Expert Group) highlighted, now is the time to decide who we are and what we want to be and make a strong and positive case for a more equal and enabling society.

Social security will be a cornerstone in the vision for a poverty-free and more equal Scotland. If that sounds too fanciful, remember that eradicating child poverty is enshrined in legislation in the UK. Yet current social security cuts will ensure that child poverty is more likely to increase to the levels of the 1990s than be eradicated by 2020. More than legislation on poverty, what we need is the collective will to be rid of poverty and, most crucially, recognise the need to build a shared vision that puts people first, agrees to share social risks and denies the acceptability of poverty at any level in a wealthy society.

Then the steps and stages towards the common goal need to be put in place – wishful thinking is not enough. Preventing poverty and tackling its causes mean that, in addition to social security, many areas of public policy need to work together effectively towards the common goal of a poverty-free Scotland, including: the economy, the labour market, taxation and the wider Welfare State, particularly in key areas such as childcare, education and training. There is no shortage of good ideas to fuel the debate – what follows touches on just some of them.

Economy and labour market: Economic policy, training and labour market policy are central to promoting prosperity for people and preventing poverty. Rather than a low corporation tax approach that risks maximising profits for some, but perpetuating the creation of low-paid jobs, Scotland should focus on the quality of work; for example, encouraging industries that generate higher skilled and higher paid jobs, investing in training, ensuring a diverse economy and supporting a more diverse ownership profile.

Pay Policy: More jobs need to pay a living wage. The national minimum wage is set so low that the Scottish Government has joined with others to promote the Scottish Living Wage – the legal minimum needs to move towards this higher level of pay, a task that will be supported by an economic strategy that seeks to generate high quality jobs rather than more low paid work.

Welfare State: A strong welfare state providing universal services is crucial to a strategy to reduce inequality and eradicate poverty. Universal services are generally highly effective at reaching the poorest groups. A wider range of key public services are important, including education, housing and social care. Just a couple of examples of approaches needed to reduce barriers to employment and wider civic participation for groups at particular risk of poverty are:

  • A comprehensive strategy on care to tackle barriers, mainly for women, and make progress on flexible working and occupational segregation. The Equal Opportunities Committee of the Scottish Parliament has called for transformation of the childcare infrastructure and a statutory right to childcare for children up to age 15 and disabled children
  • Services and support that contribute to ensuring disabled people are treated with dignity and are supported to achieve and maintain independent living, including through paid or voluntary work where relevant

Taxation: Taxation has a crucial role in reducing inequality through redistribution and funding a universal welfare state. At present, tax in the UK relies heavily on regressive forms of indirect taxation such as VAT and an income tax structure that is minimally progressive. This means people on the lower incomes contribute a bigger share of their income in taxes overall. National insurance contributions add substantially to national income, yet contributory benefits other than retirement pension have withered, undermining the contributory principle of protection when people need it.

Nordic countries show that a broad tax base is important – not only can higher wages make higher taxes more achievable, but the balance of taxation can change. A strong welfare state does mean higher taxes but they need not all come from personal taxation; for example, a wealth tax could target only substantial accumulated wealth. Direct taxes need to be more progressive – the highest earners should pay more of their income in tax than low earners and the balance with indirect taxes and their burden on the lowest income groups should be kept under review to reduce their regressive impact. If Scotland has control over taxation it has to be better than the UK at managing issues such as corporate welfare, tax fraud, tax evasion and tax reliefs, including those that support the privatisation of benefits (for example occupational pensions).

Social Security: Whilst there seems to be a growing consensus in mainstream UK politics around neoliberal reform of social security, the silver lining on the dark cloud of UK ‘welfare reforms’ is the wealth of thinking already happening on the principles of an alternative social security system that protects people ‘from the cradle to the grave’, extends universal benefits and reduces means-testing. Such a system should aspire to:

  • Provide dignity and respect for human rights, a simplified system that makes it easier for people to get what they are entitled to and benefits rates that leave no one in poverty
  • Reinforce the importance of universal benefits and protect and build on contributory benefits whilst reducing reliance on inefficient means-testing
  • Promote independent living for disabled people and support them to reach their full potential and play a full, active and equal role in Scottish community and economic life

Others argue for a constitutional right to a guaranteed minimum income or a citizens’ basic income. All are in no doubt of the need for simplification and fairness in both taxes and benefits and most argue that any system developed in Scotland needs to be built on a shared vision that includes the views of those groups in or at risk of poverty.

Eradicating poverty in Scotland is a big task and it will take time – it stands a much better chance of success if we can draw on the approach of ‘Folkshemmet’ – the Welfare State in Nordic countries – to have a contract between people, through the state, first and foremost for the common good. For me this has to include principles of universal and comprehensive public provision and an appreciation of the different contributions people make through unpaid and voluntary work, care and community roles as well as paid work.

Scottish Left Review

 

Comments
  • Trevor July 10, 2013 at 10:27 am

    Poverty is inevitable within a capitalist system. Even those Nordic states, Sweden, Norway, Finland et al, which are continually being held up as exemplars of more egalitarian societies are showing marked increases in poverty and inequality (the recent Swedish riots being a clear example of this trend).

    If Scots think that by declaring “independence” they will somehow opt out of, and no longer be bound by the iron economic laws that govern market economies which dictate that maximising profits must be put before everything else – people, the environment, etc., they are living in a fools’ paradise.

    Alex Salmond and his tartan Tories will soon put a swift end to such infantile delusions. Anyone doubting this need only refer to the Republic of Ireland where the Irish were brainwashed into believing that all their social ills were entirely the fault of Perfidious Albion, and upon gaining independence these problems, poverty, unemployment, homelessness, inequality, etc., would magically vanish. Such claims have proved to be utterly erroneous, as they will be when (if?) Scotland achieves self-rule and is forced to comply with the dictats of international capitalism.

  • PAULA July 10, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    IT IS A WASTE OF TIME EVEN TALKING ABOUT IT, MONEY TALKS AND BULLSHIT WALKS, TO MUCH DAMAGE BEEN DONE! TONY BLAIR IS THE BLAIR WITCH AND HIS DEVOTION TO ATOS, LOVELY PEOPLE AND STILL DON’T GIVE A SHIT AFTER 13,000 DEATHS, AND THE HUMAN RIGHTS SAY THEY HAVE DONE NOTHING WRONG? GOD I ENVY THE DEPARTED FROM THIS SICK FTUP WORLD!

  • jed goodright July 10, 2013 at 1:56 pm

    this is just more political claptrap

  • Annos July 11, 2013 at 5:49 pm

    “People living in caves as UK homelessness reaches five-year high”

    http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2013/07/11/home-j11.html

  • Annos July 13, 2013 at 11:49 pm

    I took this from another forum post.

    “This one won’t go away for Cameron.

    PM pressed on election guru Lynton Crosby tobacco links

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-23301478#

    On Any Questions Grant Shapps, Tory chairman, said that neither Cameron or he had spoken to Crosby. In which case why are they employing him.

    This contradicts what Shapps said. Crosby was with the Tories last week.

    http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/2013/07/exclusive-how-the-tories-plan-to-attack-ukip/

    Crosby runs his lobbying agency for commercial clients alongside his advisory work for Cameron. It all sounds rather murky and will blow up in Cameron’s face like the Coulson tie up.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/jun/08/lynton-crosby-tory-strategy-lobbying-firm

  • PAULA July 19, 2013 at 5:38 am

    THEY ARE LAUGHING THEIR HEAD’S OFF AT US, WAS TALKING TO AN AMERICAN GIRL YESTERDAY AND SHE SAID YOU MUST LOVE BEING PUNISHED, SHE SAID THEY WILL SHIT ON YOU EVEN HARDER AS LONG AS YOU CONTINUE TO DO NOTHING, AND LAUGH EVEN HARDER AT YOU, EVEN THE QUEEN LAUGHS HER HEAD OFF AT YOU, SHE SAID IF THE BASTARDS CAUSED MY MOTHERS DEATH I WOULD STOP AT NOTHING UNTIL I GOT ONE OF THEM FOR IT, SHE IS RIGHT WE ARE SOFT!

  • bobchewie July 25, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    THIS MADE ME LAUGH… i found this on a site giving you help with regard to help using universal job match..

    Responsibilities of DWP

    1. Understanding and dealing with the major causes of poverty unlike its symptoms
    2. Encouraging citizens to work so as to make work pay
    3. Supporting sick people or physically affected people depending on their working areas
    4. Offering honest income for pension age people to promote saving for retirement
    *****5. Minimising work-related problems such as death, and severe injuries in workplaces via Health and Safety Executive***

    MINIMISING WORK -RELATED PROBLEMS SUCH AS DEATH…

    http://citrans.org.uk/how-to-find-a-job-with-dwps-universal-job-match/

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