Soapbox: Poverty - prevention is better than cure
Headlines generated by the publication of the First Minister’s independent poverty adviser’s report unsurprisingly focused on recommendations to end the council tax freeze and the questioning of universal benefits.
Such challenges to policies central to Scottish Government thinking reflect a genuine independence in Naomi Eisenstadt’s approach and open an important space for the debate needed on how Holyrood uses its powers to fund the policies needed to eradicate poverty.
However, it’s important that debate is not constrained by a focus on council tax alone, or a false sense of only a ‘fixed budget’ being available to fund opportunities to invest in using proposed Scotland Bill powers enabling ‘new benefits’ and ‘top-up’ of reserved benefits.
Scottish Government’s poverty adviser on the political will needed to break down inequality
Treat Scots in poverty with more respect and involve them in their support, says Nicola Sturgeon’s poverty adviser Naomi Eisenstadt
Naomi Eisenstadt, Scotland's independent adviser on poverty and inequality, reveals her 15 recommendations to the Scottish Government
Whilst Eisenstadt is right to urge ‘caution’ in terms of developing devolved social security so that it interacts effectively with UK benefits, it is important that the Scottish Government – and politicians of all parties – are ambitious in making full use of new and existing tax and benefit powers.
They need to challenge voters to support the progressive tax policies needed to fund improvements in both social security and public services. Report recommendations – including to tackle in-work poverty, improve the quality of early years provision, build upon existing benefits advice, and remove the barriers that undermine the life chances of young people – are all hugely welcome and it is vital that ministers act on them.
Nevertheless, universal services and benefits must remain a vital part of the mix. It’s better to prevent poverty than to wait for it to surface and then respond with complicated, inefficient means testing. At the same time, it is crucial that services reach those in most need.
Rather than focusing only on how we target existing resources within a diminishing budget, the challenge must now be to persuade public and politicians alike of the value of investing more in our social infrastructure.
That will mean building support for local and national tax systems that both tackle inequality and secure the revenue needed for the policies, including universal services and benefits, that prevent poverty – and don’t just alleviate its impact.
John Dickie is director of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in Scotland