Is piecemeal mitigation of Westminster policies enough for Scotland’s people?
The annual review of the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) has just been published (20 July). The Commission is an ‘independent advisory non-departmental public body’: its remit is to monitor progress in social mobility across all four UK nations but only to advise on policy for England.
The report examines how governments across the UK are tackling poverty, addressing inequality and improving social mobility. It identifies these as the critical measures of low social mobility: child poverty; income inequality; access to stable housing; unemployment for young people; gaps in school attainment.
These are important matters for socially progressive voters in Scotland. Therefore the report’s findings are worthy of close attention.
Source: Social Mobility Commission (2021) State of the nation 2021:- Social mobility and the pandemic. (Presented to Parliament pursuant to section 8B(6) of the Life Chances Act 2010)
Whilst the SMC provides a mixed ‘report card’ for all parts of the UK and their governments on these matters (unsurprising given what follows), it does make a very significant point that is relevant to any assessment of policy and progress in NI, Scotland and Wales:
“Most power is centrally held by the UK Government, and legislation and government policy set here affects all four countries in the United Kingdom.”
“When it comes to social mobility policy, the UK Government holds the key levers to impact change, with the biggest exception being education policy (which is devolved).”
The purpose of this post is not to review the SMC’s findings on Scotland. Rather it is to review what the UK government – the one that holds the ‘key levers to impact change’ – has contributed to date that has UK-wide impact.
I intentionally reproduce extracts from this report so that the serious and damning points attributed here to the SMC can be verified directly by the TuS reader.
The SMC states: ‘On the eve of the pandemic, the UK’s record on social mobility was poor. It ranked 21st for social mobility in the World Economic Forum’s index – better only than the USA and Italy among G7 nations. Driving this outcome was, in part, the country’s poor scores on measures of educational quality and equity (44th) as well as on fair wages (36th). But the picture wasn’t entirely bleak. Compared to other nations, the UK has greater access to work opportunities (9th), which can drive upwards mobility.’
The Tory government’s record: ‘Staggeringly, around 4.3 million children, almost one third, were living in poverty as of March 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic. Since 2011-12, child poverty has risen by 3.7 percentage points, the most sustained rise since the 1990s, and well above 1960s era levels which hovered around 10% …’
And on what caused this: ’Over the last decade, these increases (in poverty) have been largely driven by cuts to the welfare system, where working-age benefits were frozen and slow pay growth has left families – many of whom are employed – worse off.’
And what we in Scotland have known for some time: ‘The two-child limit on social security benefits leaves children in larger families particularly vulnerable: the Children’s Commissioners for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have argued this is a breach of children’s rights to an adequate standard of living.’
The Tory government’s response: ‘Despite how dire this situation is, government continues to argue over the definition of poverty. Additionally, it has avoided setting a meaningful strategy to address these damaging rates.’
And in agreement with the Scottish Government and others: ‘There are signs of the strain COVID-19 has put on an already fragile situation. .. The £20 weekly uplift to Universal Credit .. is a big step in the right direction, but government announced plans to end it in September. Some groups have estimated that 6.2 million families could face an overnight loss if, as planned, this uplift expires in September.’
(This previous TuS post is relevant here: https://talkingupscotlandtwo.com/2021/07/19/scottish-child-payment-is-a-beacon-of-progressive-policy-for-the-rest-of-the-uk/ )
The SMC’s summary of culpability
The report recognises that a basket of policy changes across the UK have contributed to rising rates of child poverty and in-work poverty. These changes across the UK have been implemented from Westminster:
- 4-year freeze on working-age benefits (2016-2020)
- Introduction and implementation of Universal Credit
- reductions of benefits within the Universal Credit system
- two-child limit on Child Tax Credit, Universal Credit
- the benefit cap, introduced in 2013 (£500 per week) and lowered in 2016 (£350 per week) limiting the amount of state benefits an individual household can claim
- the move to Consumer Price Index method to uprate benefits due to inflation (a change from using the Retail Price Index, which was more generous).
On the issue of inflation and uprating the SMC notes: ‘The economy had barely recovered from the 2008 financial crisis when inflation hit in 2016. Following the Brexit referendum, sterling depreciated, driving up inflation rates. Put together, incomes have stalled for those at the bottom and in the middle in an unprecedented way, with average income growing less than any other 10-year period since records began in the 1960s. These trends have been compounded with significant cuts to the welfare system …’
The inadequacy of piecemeal mitigation
Finally, it seems appropriate to close by juxtaposing two statements from the SMC:
The first, to repeat: ‘Most power is centrally held by the UK Government, and legislation and government policy set here affects all four countries in the United Kingdom.’
And the second: ‘Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have had the ability to introduce policies to mitigate the impact of UK Government cuts, for example the introduction of the Scottish Child Payment which gets around the benefit cap and the two-child limit rules.’
The SMC omits to mention (of course!) that ‘mitigation’ comes at an actual cost to the Scottish Government and to taxpayers in Scotland, It omits to mention that it also incurs an ‘opportunity cost’.
And the SMC omits to acknowledge (of course!) that the UK governing party which ‘holds the key levers to impact change’ is one that Scotland did not vote for – indeed a party whose values and policies we have rejected by a majority since the 1950s!