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Scottish Government’s poverty adviser on the political will needed to break down inequality

Scottish Government’s poverty adviser on the political will needed to break down inequality

After the appointment of former UK Labour government adviser, Naomi Eisenstadt as Nicola Sturgeon’s independent poverty adviser in the summer, the First Minister said she was prepared to be challenged.

In her first public appearance, the straight-talking American said: “I am here to give my honest views about whether the policies in place will help to reduce poverty and inequality in Scotland.

“I plan to hold ministers to account and challenge everyone to come up with new and innovative ways to tackle deep-seated poverty.”

The task is not an easy one, however, with one in six Scots living in poverty and the amount of public money available to tackle it shrinking. Six months into the job, Eisenstadt remains optimistic.

Drawing on her experience as the first director of the UK Labour government’s Sure Start unit and then as director of its social exclusion task force, she says the secret to success lies in the nature of the relationship built with the politician in question.

“Well, in both cases I’ve been very lucky, working for governments where basically I agreed with what they wanted to do. The question was about how to get there, and what were the big issues. It’s a tactical issue.

"If you’re wholly negative it’s unlikely anyone’s going to listen to you anyway, and if you have to be wholly negative then it’s really not a job worth doing. I think it’s about having confidence in the basic goals – which I do in Scotland, I really do – then saying, ‘if you think about it, you might want to do it this way rather than that way’,” she tells Holyrood.

Influence comes from striking a balance when you can challenge without “upsetting people too much”.

“My line is it’s alright to reinvent wheels as long as they got you somewhere in the first place.”

Sure Start, announced by the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, in 1998, was an area-based initiative to improve life chances for early years in areas of deprivation. In 2005 it was brought under the control of local government. Tony Blair described it as “one of New Labour’s biggest achievements”, but funding for the centres has not been protected since the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in 2010.

Eisenstadt says she remains committed to area-based solutions. “You put your intensive services in poor areas where most people who need them are, but you have some of them open access and some of them targeted. The Scottish Government is very keen on universal rather than targeted, but I think it’s about getting the balance right.”

A balance between a universal and targeted approach is the mantra of health inequalities expert Sir Michael Marmot, whose ‘proportionate universalism’ suggests actions to tackle inequality must be universal, but with a scale and intensity proportionate to the level of disadvantage. Eisenstadt has worked with Marmot, and it shows.

“The big issue you learn from Michael is if you’re interested in inequality, it’s about flattening the gradient so that the difference between richest and poorest isn’t so great. It’s that if you only work with the very poorest you miss a lot of the need… but services for everybody often miss the poorest, and services for the poor often aren’t good services.”

In a Scottish Parliament committee appearance last year, Marmot said governments get the amount of child poverty they want. Eisenstadt says he was “challenging”, but the solutions are not so simple. They rely, she says, on the political will of the government in question.

“The things I’ve done in my life that have been really successful have been successful because of political will. If politicians don’t want it to happen, it’s highly unlikely it will happen but just because they want it to happen doesn’t mean it will. It is difficult.”

Where Marmot is correct, she says, is about how the growing levels of child poverty are linked to actions by the government at Westminster. This has been reflected in the willingness to cut benefits, in particular, the now abandoned plan to cut tax credits, and the focus on behaviours rather than circumstances.

“I think a lot of what the current UK government concentrates on is people’s behaviours and skills, without the notion of how you create the conditions where that’s going to happen.” 

A lack of understanding about what informs the decisions of people in poverty underlines the policy choices, argues Eisenstadt. She gives the example of someone who she met at the Poverty Truth Commission in Glasgow who told her she was worried about using appliances because of the electricity bills. The position of the UK Government, she argues, would not give the woman credit for understanding her circumstances and planning accordingly.

“It’s not that she doesn’t know, or that she’s feckless, it’s not that she’s not adjusting her behaviour to her means, but adjusting her behaviour to her means makes her life very difficult.”

The stark choice between eating and heating has fed into the cultural narrative in recent years, and Eisenstadt says it’s accurate. “While money doesn’t solve problems on its own, it’s very hard to solve problems without money. That goes at family level and at government level.”

But solving problems without money is exactly where local and national governments now find themselves. This context makes the nature of the relationship with government even more important. Holyrood asks how the relationship with Nicola Sturgeon has panned out.

“What’s helpful is knowing where the door is slightly ajar, and that’s where she’s been very helpful, you know, ‘I want some ideas on this, I want some ideas on that’ and that’s been very positive, and she said to me very clearly she does want challenge.”

Where is the door ajar? Eisenstadt has said her priorities are about in-work poverty and young people’s career options. “The Scottish Government invests a huge amount in free tuition fees, and where is the comparable effort and thinking on the non-university bound?”

She adds cultural change to the list. The question, she says, is about how to get public services delivered with respect and dignity. 

“The saddest thing is when you hear people describe a great service and they’re surprised and grateful. They don’t expect a great service. Their usual experience is not to be treated with respect and dignity, so when it does happen to them they’re incredibly grateful. I just think that’s really sad.”

The relationship between service and service user has to fundamentally change, then? “There’s something about a transaction that gives the purchaser power. What I used to say to health visitors is when people are using this service they should feel like I do when I go into John Lewis. Somebody’s job is dependent on me being happy. The fact the service is free should not be relevant to whether I’m being treated in the way I’d be treated in a shop.”

The Scottish Government is keen on nationally-set targets, Holyrood points out, particularly when it comes to health delivery. “One of the fundamental tensions in public service delivery is that the more policy demands delivery is in a certain way - so you specify what happens - the more you disempower people at the front line to use their own judgement. And if they’re not using their own judgement then it’s more difficult for them to feel empowered to deliver a positive service.”

Checklists can be useful, she argues, but not at the expense of a culture which allows flexibility. The problem, especially in health, is in demand.

“The reason I’m treated so well when I go into a shop is because they want more customers. Does the NHS really want more customers? The NHS should love me because I’m never ill.”

Budgetary concerns have also moved prevention up the political agenda, but Eisenstadt isn’t convinced politicians will embrace it. “Everyone believes in it, but no one can afford the upfront investment,” she says.

The only example of “cash savings” made from the prevention agenda she can identify is “unsexy and unexciting” action on falls prevention for the elderly. “Things like chiropody, keeping old people walking and their feet looked after save you huge amounts of money. But these are things that aren’t exciting and, you know, people don’t vote for chiropody.”

This is perhaps surprising from someone with a background in early years. Much of Scotland’s academic focus has been on giving people the best start in life, both in health and education. The SNP’s flagship childcare policy has been under scrutiny recently, after Nicola Sturgeon pledged to double the childcare provision to 30 hours a week for all 3 and 4-year-olds and vulnerable 2-year-olds by 2020. Campaigners say the current provision actually worsens inequalities because it is not flexible, forcing parents to choose between work and an early years education for their child.

Eisenstadt concedes it’s a tough choice for government, but says the Scottish Government is committed to quality. “In fairness to Nicola Sturgeon, she announced at SNP conference [she was] putting teachers who are graduates into more nurseries in poor areas. That was directly in response to a comment I was making to her about the importance of quality.”

All the evidence shows five half days of nursery school is the best in terms of education outcomes for pre-school children, she says, but admits five half days “is terrible” for work.

“What bothers me is when there is a pretence you can have everything and you’re not making choices,” she says, adding: “Poverty is bad for kids and poor quality childcare is bad for kids. We need some way to square the circle.”

Much of the focus since Eisenstadt was appointed, at least in public, has been on what Scotland can do with its new powers in the Scotland Bill to mitigate the worst of Westminster’s cuts. How can Scotland be ambitious at tackling poverty if it spends all its energy maintaining the status quo?

“In fairness to the Government, things not getting worse is an amazing achievement. I wouldn’t be too harsh about that. And some of the things they’ve already put in train are really good. Not selling council housing is really good. A commitment to building more council houses is really good. The work they’re doing on the private rented sector is really good, so I do give them some credit for that. I agree, though, the default position is always to blame Westminster. I was up in Shetland the other week and the people of Unst were blaming Lerwick. No matter where you are, you blame the next level up. That’s life. That’s how it always is.”

The dilemma on welfare powers, she says, is genuine. Although the most recent cut to tax credits was abandoned by Chancellor George Osborne in his Autumn Statement, Eisenstadt points out the system has “serious flaws” anyway, propping up a low wage economy which didn’t encourage people into work.

“Where I think the Conservatives were right about the critique of tax credits is that they let bad employers off the hook for too long. That’s a genuine critique, but I don’t think you respond to that critique by making people more poor and taking away their work incentives. Why would I want to work more hours if I don’t get any more money?” 

If bigger ambition and ideas are needed, what is the Scottish Government to do? “They haven’t said what they’re going to do yet, and I haven’t decided what I’m going to advise them to do yet. Quite frankly, I’m terrified of giving bad advice. It’s one thing to give bad advice and appear stupid, it’s another thing to give bad advice that’s taken!”

There is no simple answer to be found, she suggests. “There are lots of things you can do round the edges, but the fundamental answer is about the nature of the economy and having enough well paid jobs so that, whether people go to university or not, they have decent career prospects.”

In terms of prospects, Eisenstadt believes the fact the new higher minimum wage won’t apply to people under 25 is “one of the worst” of Osborne’s announcements. She warns it will lead to more firms employing young people in jobs with no prospects.

“So the very low wage jobs will stay, but they’ll stay for young people who, if you leave school and you get a low wage job and you’re still living with your parents, it feels like you’re making lots of money. You feel really good, but it doesn’t get you anywhere. It’s about how to think about progression, about in-work career, about training, about a whole range of things, which are in train with the Scottish Government but, in my view, not with enough urgency.”

Eisenstadt’s contract is until March, before purdah kicks in for the Holyrood elections. Urgency, then, is in her interest. By then she says she wants to see more work on post-16 options for young people. “I’d like to see more work done on alternate career routes that aren’t about free university and free tuition but about the other young people.”

Also on her wishlist is progress on a number of pilots planned for testing different models of delivering childcare. “These would be early-day pilots, really to test the feasibility of different ways of delivering childcare which I’ve been thinking about for a while, and it would be great if it was tested out.”

As well as being “an amazing privilege to be able to do this work”, Eisenstadt has enjoyed returning to Edinburgh, the first place she lived in the UK. In the 1970s she came over from the USA with her then husband, who was doing a postdoc at Edinburgh University.

“I worked in a social services day nursery in Edinburgh. My first job in Britain, and it was in Edinburgh. I love Edinburgh. It has changed, particularly Leith. When I was young I did a lot of photography and I remember walking round Leith with my camera, and being thrown out of the pubs as a woman on my own… It was very different from the States. And it’s different now from how it was, but it is the most wonderful city.”

Edinburgh’s change has been marked by the polarisation of wealth, with property prices excluding many families from parts of the city, while the council estates on the periphery remain poor. It’s a pattern familiar to Eisenstadt, who is a trustee of Trust for London, the biggest charitable foundation looking at inequality in London.

“I do think it’s better for communities to be mixed. It’s better for schools, it’s better for kids, I just think there’s something about growing up with diversity. Not just in terms of race and ethnicity but also in terms of income. It’s a good thing.”

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