Q&A with Emeritus Professor Gill Scott of Glasgow Caledonian University on welfare and social justice
Q&A with Emeritus Professor Gill Scott, Glasgow School for Business and Society, Glasgow Caledonian University
How should parties use the new powers of the Scotland Act to improve social justice?
Gill Scott: The policymaking landscape in Scotland has changed considerably since devolution and there is little doubt that some key policy levers have been used to address the causes and impact of poverty in Scotland. It is imperative that the new powers that now exist in Scotland are used fully to address social inequality and the growth in severe poverty.
The time to redress the gap between the rhetoric and reality of political decisions is overdue. The addition of partial control over income tax means that a more progressive rate structure could be developed in Scotland and if the existing powers over areas such as education, health and environment were more focused on developing a more socially just society much could be achieved.
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What should the next government’s welfare, social justice and housing priorities be?
GS: The increasingly punitive nature of welfare cuts is too often presented as ‘improving routes out of poverty through better access to employment’. Unfortunately, this has seldom recognised the growing lack of ‘fair work’ or ‘fair wages’ or the decline in protection for those who cannot work. To achieve greater fairness, there is a need to engage or regulate employers, provide greater access to in-work training, support for low-wage workers and recognise it as an issue that government can affect.
The OECD recently urged rich countries to ease up on austerity and deliver public investment instead. Nowhere is this clearer than in housing. Housing and poverty are inextricably linked. When housing costs are factored into estimates of the extent of poverty, there are over 940,000 people judged to be in poverty compared to 730,000 when housing costs are not included. The lack of reinvestment in housing when social housing is sold off has produced a shortage of good quality housing. Shelter Scotland estimates that at least 12,000 affordable homes need to be built each year. In 2013/14 the number built was only 4,956. When this is combined with a lack of protection from private landlords, the effect is to subject growing numbers of vulnerable households to the health and personal risks that poor housing brings.
Will today’s children be better or worse off than today’s adults when they grow up?
GS: Another big question but I’m going to focus on one issue here: childcare. We know that access to high-quality childcare is vital to ensuring children have the best start in life, particularly if they are from disadvantaged backgrounds. Childcare has now appeared on all parties’ agendas and it provides an opportunity to fix our broken childcare system once and for all. The Fawcett Society recently highlighted how a system of universal, free childcare with well-paid staff could deliver better outcomes for young children and yield significant benefits for parents and the economy.
Their modelling shows that while a system of universal, free childcare of high quality requires significant investment, around 71 per cent of this investment would be recouped through increased employment and reduced social security spending. Quebec’s experience over the last decade and a half shows that this can be done. It seems like a win-win situation: improved experiences in childhood and better access to income for households now and in the future.
What more needs to be done to bring about equality in Scotland?
GS: Always a difficult question as the focus of ‘equality’ issues will vary. Income inequality, for example, in Scotland is stark. The most recent edition of ‘Poverty in Scotland’ points out that the poorest third of Scotland’s households share only 14.4 per cent of Scotland’s income.
But even within this stark figure there are further inequalities. Among the most significant of the income inequalities is the gender pay gap. Women working in full-time paid employment in Scotland earn just over £4 for every £5 that men earn. Furthermore, the Women’s Budget Group has shown that planned austerity policies will hit women harder than men. Households headed by women such as lone parents and single female pensioners are hit hardest, both being about 20 per cent worse off on average in 2020, with all the long-term damage that implies.
Analysis from Women in Scotland’s Economy (WISE) consistently highlights the same imbalance in Scotland – affecting women’s income and employment throughout the recession, recovery and reform of public services. More could be done to assess the real problem and the impact of government policy if a cumulative gender and distributional impact analysis were to be carried out, and even more importantly, acted on. Otherwise, lower income households and women will continue to bear the brunt of austerity policies, with long-term damage to their life chances.
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