Q&A with Dr Gerry Mooney of The Open University in Scotland on welfare and social justice
Holyrood asks Dr Gerry Mooney of The Open University in Scotland how the next Scottish government should use its welfare powers
Q&A with Dr Gerry Mooney, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Criminology, The Open University in Scotland
How should parties use the new powers of the Scotland Act to improve social justice?
Gerry Mooney: There is of course ambiguity in the term ‘social justice’: each and every political party in Scotland could make claims that they are pursuing social justice in some shape or form. Arguably, it is more a favoured term in political rhetoric than a key set of principles and goals which could inform policymaking.
With the new powers available to the Scottish Parliament, a commitment to far-reaching redistributive taxation policies are a must if Scotland is to start becoming a more equal society. Alongside a renewed and strengthened commitment to universalism, the devolution of powers in relation to housing benefits and increased borrowing capacity could be deployed to address the long-standing crisis of the lack of affordable and good quality housing to rent. Measures to mitigate the impacts of UK Government ‘austerity’ policies could be extended.
Finally, there is scope for the Scottish Government to work alongside local authorities and trade unions to tackle social injustices at work and in relation to paid employment more generally.
Is the UK welfare system out of date and what should it be replaced with?
GM: It is less an issue of it being out of date and more that the effectiveness of the UK welfare system has been eroded and diluted by successive UK governments since the mid to late 1970s. The UK welfare state has been rendered almost impotent in challenging rising inequalities and policy commitment to a wide-ranging system of social security has been replaced by a neoliberal vision of a society in which social insecurities are reworked as personal and familial hardships, risks and uncertainties. In turn, these come to be seen as primarily the responsibility of those who are impacted by growing inequalities, risks and precariousness.
There is no inevitability about this. The UK welfare state is failing to meet what were once taken-for-granted socially necessary goals and aspirations. But it need not have happened – the question of political will and challenging vested interests are vital tools necessary to renew that welfare state.
However, because there appears to be little appetite for this among some of the main political parties, and current UK Government, it has resulted in many in Scotland seeing independence for Scotland as the means by which a new Scottish welfare system is developed, one that is truly universal and underpinned by social justice goals .
What should the next government’s welfare, social justice and housing priorities be?
GM: There is a need for a renewed commitment to welfare as a means of social security, social equality and of creating a more socially just society. In turn, this necessitates challenging the dominant view of welfare that has so undermined the idea of it as a socially valuable good.
Alongside this, there must be growing recognition that work as paid employment is more and more not a route out of poverty and that a work-first approach to welfare has failed. Any commitment to social justice must also focus attention on the many injustices that characterise working life for many today. The establishment of a proper and meaningful living wage and minimum income standard that allows everyone in Scotland to participate fully in Scottish society is a must.
In relation to housing, tackling homelessness and the shortage of sufficient adequate, good quality and affordable housing to rent is an absolute must. Alongside this, new legislation should be brought in to reduce or cap rents in the private sector while imposing a new set of regulations on landlords that will remove the scourge of expensive, poor quality and hard-to-live-in housing.
If Scotland was to have a bill of rights, what would you put in it?
GM: The first element in this would be freedom from oppression, freedom from poverty and disadvantage and a freedom to mobilise and to resist oppressions and disadvantages in all their forms. In particular, a recognition that workers’ organisations such as trade unions have a vital role to play in society should be enshrined in rights to the freedom of organisation, assembly and protest. Human rights legislation – and animal rights too – should be enshrined as founding principles of a Scottish bill of rights.
How can we reform public services so that community participation and inclusion are at their heart?
GM: Community participation and inclusion are ideas and phrases that have been around for some considerable time. This does not mean, however, that there is a shared understanding of what these actually mean, beyond political and policy rhetoric. Trade unions, service user organisations, among others, must have a part to play both in developing policies and strategies, as well as in the delivery of such policies. Care work should be valorised as socially necessary labour and those delivering care outside of paid employment remunerated for their contributions to the social good.
Social justice will not be attained unless all public services are publicly provided, are underpinned by a commitment to meeting social needs and social goals, and that these are provided by a well-paid, well-trained and well-respected workforce. Private companies in the pursuit of profit have no role to play in this not-for-profit vision of public services.
Will today’s children be better or worse off than today’s adults when they grow up?
GM: While it is difficult to answer this with any degree of absolute certainty, nonetheless it is already clear that without a radical change in politics and policy, future generations of Scottish children and young people will not benefit from the social wage and social goods that many of the older generations in Scotland can look back on in ways that are almost entirely favourable.
There are already signs that a social crisis is developing in relation to the difficulty that many younger people in Scotland today have in terms of planning for their futures: good quality housing is more and more out of the reach of those on average or below average incomes; the fear of accumulated debt is a daily issue for many students, despite the availability of ‘free’ tuition: even students have to live. However, there is also a dumbing down of expectations: that is a declining hope that there will be a future in which sufficient income, good housing, fulfilling work, good health, high quality education and indeed good pensions are secure and certain.
What more needs to be done to bring about equality in Scotland?
GM: There has to be a political commitment to equality – but a commitment that goes well beyond policy and political rhetoric. What does equality mean in a future Scotland? A national conversation around equality and around how best to tackle social and economic inequalities and injustices is badly needed.
It means also that there should be no shirking from challenging and questioning those things that are often hidden, or at least obscured in some ways, by a language that marginalises important aspects of Scottish life that many would prefer were kept out of sight. Here the questions of class inequalities, of the ways in which policies have benefited the wealthy for too long and which continue to impact in hugely negative ways on those towards the bottom of society, those who are disadvantaged and impoverished, must be brought to the fore.
Likewise, challenges to the claims that in some ways racism is less an issue in Scotland have to be voiced and the scars of racism and gender, age and other forms of discrimination made explicit for a wide-ranging discussion of what it means to be a citizen in Scotland today, that is for all those living in Scotland.
However, there must also be a political will to challenge the vested interests, the interests of the rich and powerful who enjoy a life that is far removed from the life experiences of the vast majority of people in Scotland today. This means progressive taxation, far-reaching land reform, new regulations on the operations of banks and financial institutions, controls on the food industry to enable higher quality provision, on the social harms that are caused by pollution, poor and expensive public transport, poor quality and costly housing provision, and by the costs of utilities.
Inequalities, not least those of class, continue to be the key factor shaping daily life, life chances and life expectancy. Without recognising this, the goal of meaningful social justice will remain only a rhetorical phrase.
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