Social Justice in 2014 and Beyond

In her second contribution to the series on twenty years of devolution, Professor Kirstein Rummery addresses the issue of social justice in the run-up and aftermath of the 2014 referendum on independence. She explores the framing of social justice in 2014 and the potential for improvements in the aftermath of the referendum.

The White Paper ‘Scotland’s Future’ which set out a vision for an independent Scotland authored, which was essentially the SNP’s vision for an independent Scotland, stated that:

‘With independence we can make Scotland the fairer and more successful country we know it can be’; ‘Independence will provide the opportunity to create a fairer, more equal society built around the needs of citizens’ ‘Social rights embedded in a constitution will put questions of social justice at the forefront of the work of Scotland’s Parliament’.

There was a recognition that women were bearing the brunt of public sector budget cuts and of welfare reform, the Scottish government’s recent analysis concludes that women will also lose out because of how the universal credit system in particular is structured’.

Women were key ‘swing’ votes in the 2014 referendum: whilst men are more likely to exhibit party and issue loyalty in voting behaviour, women are more likely to change party allegiance based on policies (Campbell and Childs, 2015). It became apparent that women may be a key ‘undecided’ group of voters and thus worth targeting in the vision of an independent Scotland.

The famous ‘bairns not bombs’ approach (the proposal to discard nuclear weapons and invest in childcare instead) was a tactic based on the uniting universalistic approach to fairness and social justice, recognizing that independence ....will...substantially bolster the financial case for a transformational change in childcare provision, creating 35,000 new jobs (primarily for women) and enable more women to enter, or return to, the labour market. 27% of the average income of Scottish working parents went on childcare, one of the highest in Europe and over twice the OECD average. The commitment was further framed as a social justice one: investment in childcare leads to better outcomes for children and working parents, creates jobs, creates wealth that is spent in the local economy, addresses child poverty and leads to improved educational attainment. However, the model of provision was predicated on the caring parent (usually the mother) working part-time or being able to supplement childcare costs out of wages – it did not provide fully wrap-around childcare. This meant that the proposal were most likely to benefit middle class, middle income parents, as poorer parents would either be unable to afford to work part-time, or be unlikely to command enough in wages to make subsidizing childcare affordable.

The White Paper also recognized that some welfare reforms were unpopular and considered to be unfair and against the principles of social justice. The rollout of Universal Credit, criticized for leaving families on benefits worse off and waiting too long for benefits to be paid, was to be halted. The Spare Room Subsidy, whereby low income families were penalized for having a spare bedroom, was to be quashed. Benefits and tax credits for low income families were to be increased in line with inflation, changes to disability benefits were to be reviewed, and the option to use a variable rate of taxation for higher earners was to be used. All of these were targeted benefits designed to ameliorate poverty, and to mitigate against the stigma of receiving welfare benefits.

Scotland at the time of the referendum was the location of significant social divisions. The income ratio between the top and bottom decile was 13.8 (as compared to 6.1 in Norway. Moreover, whilst some progress had been made on health inequalities – the gap between mortality in the richest and poorest areas has fallen by 16% since 2002, and the gap in infant low birthweight has narrowed by 31% since its peak in 2004 – in other areas such limiting long term conditions the gap has increased by 39% since 2008, and in self-assessed health it has increased by 47% over the same period.

When independence was rejected in 2014, it was the task of the Smith Commission to reach a consensus on which further powers should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. It took recommendations from over 14,000 organisations and individuals, and worked with representation from the five main political parties in Scotland. The two pro-independence parties, the SNP and the Greens, were hopeful for the devolution of full taxation and welfare powers, to be able to control the economic and political levers for growth and the power to develop a fairer welfare system.

Most organizational submissions, particularly from the third sector working on social justice issues for specific groups, wanted further powers devolved. The Scottish Government had developed a much more co-operative and open style of governance since its inception. This left opportunities open to develop consensus around approaches to social justice that was problem focused rather than ideological <Cairney and Rummery, 2017>.

The Smith Commission’s proposal fell far short of full devolution, mainly in the face of opposition from the three main pro-Unionist parties. Instead, Scotland was granted the ability to vary income tax rates, control over disability and carers’ benefits, and the ability to vary the housing component of Universal Credit. The majority of powers -  pensions, child benefit, equalities, economic – remain reserved to Westminster.

Some policy deviation and experimentation has emerged from the post-2014 settlement. The Scottish Welfare Fund, begun in 2013, made nearly 300,000 payments totaling £164 million: crucially these are crisis grants, not loans and thus do not trap low income families in crisis in debt.  The new social security system started by a wide ranging consultation and the establishment of User Panels, as well as the establishment of a cross party ministerial committee which took evidence from experts. One of the first decisions was not to use the private sector to run welfare assessments. This was following research evidence that targets for reducing the costs of benefits had added significantly to the cost of running the system, and sanctions had taken claimants further away from being able to engage in paid work. It was also in response to concerns about the excess rate of deaths amongst the ‘fit for work’ group, implying that many were wrongly placed. Evidence suggests that the process of applying, and reapplying, for benefits is tremendously stressful and harms mental and physical health. The values of dignity, fairness and respect that are the foundations of the Social Security Scotland (and the decision to revert to the terminology of social security, rather than a neo-liberal welfare-to-work approach) send a message of universalism, social rights and social justice.

It is clear that the post 2014 Scottish Parliament intends to continue with a mix of universal and targeted benefits to address social justice. However, its ability to take a radically different approach to social justice is constrained, partly by Westminster, but also by its own natural conservatism and path dependency. There was scope for considerable policy divergence prior to 2014 that was not enacted. Having control over social care and health funding did not lead to policy innovations to address the poverty responsible for much of the health inequalities facing Scotland; nor has it led to significant investment in preventative services. Scotland has an ageing population with higher rates of poor health than the rest of the UK, but no effort has been made to address local taxation or new ways of funding and providing social care (such as social care insurance) to address the crisis in social care.

The elephant in the room of Brexit is likely to inhibit policy innovation, for the simple reason of reduced policy capacity, forthcoming economic challenges and ongoing tensions between Holyrood and Westminster. The willingness to address social justice is undoubtedly there: but the pragmatic political reality and resources to do so may be in short supply.

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Kirstein Rummery's picture
University of Stirling
24th July 2019
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