First Minister Alex Salmond has been accused of lying in a TV interview, when he said that yes, the government had sought the advice of legal officers about Scotland’s position in the EU in relation to debates and documents. In the Parliament, Salmond defended himself with chapter and verse about which documents he meant. I have just checked them out for myself, and I think Salmond has the right of it. Two of the three papers he cites, Choosing Scotland’s Future (2007, p 24) and Your Scotland your referendum (2012, p4) do make statements about Scotland’s position in Europe and will have passed the law officers, even if they are somewhat thinner than a proper legal consideration might offer. The main problem the Scottish government might have in giving a fuller account would not, I suspect, be the question of the confidentiality of advice; it would be that obtaining such advice would be a breach of the Scotland Act, which deliberately and explicitly prevents the government from contemplating the breakup of the United Kingdom. Following that line of enquiry has only been made legally possible following the Edinburgh agreement.
The more important question is where an independent Scotland would stand in relation to the EU. A helpful article last month by Alan Trench in the Guardian explains that while Scotland’s position is uncertain, it is debatable whether the EU could deny a Scottish application without breaking its own rules. Europe has a federal structure, in which every citizen is a citizen of Europe as well as of the member state; denying access to Scotland would deny citizenship to EU citizens.
Further note, 1st November: The press have caught up with this argument this morning, with an honorary member of the Commission confirming that EU citizenship cannot be withdrawn and that terms of entry would be negoatiated on that basis between a referendum result and independence.
The Think Tank Demos has published a report about multiply disadvantaged families in Scotland. Families are described as “multiply disadvantaged” if they meet four or more of seven criteria:
- low income
- no educational qualifications
- ill health
- mental health problems
- poor neighbourhood.
There are 131,000 households who are multiply disadvantaged by this definition. Of those, 52,000 are pensioners, and 55,000 are households without children; 24,000 are households with children. The category of pensioners is based on 3 criteria of 6, because it excludes worklessness; overcrowding is not really a useful indicator either.
This is not the same test as the Westminster government uses for its definition of “troubled families”. That test is based on them meeting five of the following seven criteria:
- having a low income,
- no one in the family who is working
- poor housing,
- parents who have no qualifications,
- where the mother has a mental health problem
- one parent has a long-standing illness or disability, and
- where the family is unable to afford basics, including food and clothes.
The overlap between the criteria does make it plausible to suggest, though, that someone who is “multiply disadvantaged” in the Demos report will probably also score four or more on the “troubled families” score. As the Demos authors note, there is no implication that families who are disadvantaged in these terms present problems for other people – but there is no reason to suppose that from the criteria for “troubled families” either. And there has to be some suspicion about the tenor of a report which goes on to tie the characteristics of poverty to alcohol, drug use and child neglect – none of which applies to most, or even to many, of the families identified through these statistics.
The finding that there are only 24,000 families with children in Scotland who are multiply disadvantaged even on as few as four indicators does raise some questions about the direction of policy, which has tended to focus on the characteristics and culture of poor people as something set apart. There are some points to draw from the figures:
- Scotland is a society where more than one person in six of working age receives an ‘out of work’ benefit, and a quarter of Scotland’s children are in low income households – but the vast majority of people in this position are not ‘multiply disadvantaged’ by the definitions in this report
- showing that social problems are more prevalent than elsewhere does not mean that they are actually likely – most people who are ‘multiply disadvantaged’ do not have them
- if the number of families who might be said to be multiply disadvantaged by these criteria is small, the numbers who might after that be said to suffer ‘intergenerational deprivation’ in these terms is, necessarily, smaller still
- while multiple disadvantage is a legitimate cause of concern in itself, it is neither typical of poor families or commonplace.
It makes sense to design policies that can effectively reach people who are most disadvantaged. Poverty in Scotland is much more widespread, however, and it makes no sense to make such policies the basis for anti-poverty strategy more generally.
With thanks to the BBC, I have permission to post a copy of my interview about universal benefits, broadcast on 29th September. It is obtainable as an MP3 file here.
Robert Black, who recently retired as Auditor General in Scotland, argues in today’s Scotsman in favour of reviewing the cost of universal services – particularly free personal care and free transport. He acknowledges that the cost of free prescriptions and eye tests is less and that they have a preventive function. His position has been consistent; it was formerly argued in an Audit Scotland report, Scotland’s public finances.
Part of Bob’s case is unarguable – that public expenditure has an opportunity cost, and we should always be prepared to consider what the implications are of one decision relative to another. Some of the figures he uses, however, are contentious. The increase in prescription costs to £1 billion is a general cost of the NHS, not a specific cost of ‘free prescriptions’. They cost nearer to £80m, though I’ve been struggling to find an accurate figure – the rest of the £150m cited in costs is down to eye tests, which have been separately justified in terms of savings elsewhere. We’re told that the cost of the National Concessionary Travel Scheme (bus and travel passes) ‘could rise’ to £500m. Well, it could do anything in theory; much depends on inflation, much on future policy; but the budget for 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2014-15 has been set at a constant £194m. There are certainly pressures on the public finances, but it’s not clear that it’s the universal benefits currently in dispute that are driving them.
Hard on the heels of the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Labour Party has announced its opposition to services which are free at the point of delivery, including free prescriptions and personal care. Part of this is in a speech by Johann Lamont, part in comments by Arthur Midwinter.
There are many arguments in favour of universal services – services that are available to all, and free at the point of delivery. Here are some of the main ones.
- People have, or should have, a right to welfare. They do not lose that right if they earn more.
- Societies which offer equal rights are better to live in for everyone; societies that are less equal are worse to live in for everyone. (See The Spirit Level.)
- Richer people will not be content to pay for services they cannot benefit from.
- Separating out services for the better-off means there must be at least a two-tier service. “Services for the poor will always be poor services.” See e.g. T Horton, J Gregory, The Solidarity Society.
- If entitlement has to be policed, there has to be a mechanism for doing it. Means tests are intrusive, burdensome and expensive.
- The administration of testing inevitably includes some people who should not be included, and excludes others who should be.
- Multiple means tests are wasteful and unnecessary; there are better ways of controlling the finance.
It’s difficult to know at what point a shower becomes a rainstorm, but the Labour Party’s shift may indicate the emergence of a new consensus, where the three main parties are all opposed to the principles of the welfare state.
Gypsy/travellers are the minority group most discriminated against in Scotland. In a report published today by the Scottish Parliament, the Equalities Committee describes the findings as ‘deeply shocking’ and describes its reaction as ‘horrified’ and ‘appalled’. The work I do doesn’t often bring me into direct contact with travellers, but I did do some work in Aberdeenshire in 2004 which gave me the opportunity to talk directly with travellers about their situation. One of the women said what it’s like: “you’re a floor they can dance on.” The travellers talked about rampant racism, discrimination in services, harassment and lack of protection by the police – “we’re just a puckle of tinkers to them”. It’s good to see some public attention, but depressing to see so little progress.
Iain Duncan Smith argued yesterday that an independent Scotland would not be able to afford benefits because of the high dependency of its population. This was dismissed by Alex Salmond on the basis that Scotland generates a higher proportion of revenue, and takes a lower proportion of benefits, than the rest of the UK. Salmond is right, because Scotland pays less to pensioners and Housing Benefit, but it’s still only part of the response. The more fundamental question is whether an independent Scotland would want the same benefit rates and tax rates as the UK; and while there may be pressures to conform to the pre-existing norms, there would be good reasons to do something different. If benefits are capped at existing levels, it will not be possible to make anyone better off without making someone else worse off. Reforming benefits without undermining existing protection is, inevitably, an expensive business; but it could be worth the expense.
Joan McAlpine writes in today’s Daily Record that the Scottish Government’s actions to remove fees from Scottish students has been “well and truly vindicated” by improved recruitment. However, the story is not yet complete. Undergraduate fees have not been abolished; they are charged and reimbursed by the Students Awards Agency to Scotland, which makes a payment direct to the university. The fees which are being charged and reimbursed to Scottish students by this process are different from, and signficantly lower than, the fees charged to students from the rest of the UK. Expect the court cases to blossom. There is probably a very simple solution, which is to charge all students the same nominal fee and then reimburse it to Scottish-based students. It’s been done in Further Education for years.
The Scottish Government has just been renamed … to become the Scottish Government. It seems that its official name was still the “Scottish Executive”, and that the legislation has just caught up with the practice.
The term “Scottish Government” is currently used without distinction to refer to the Scottish Government, the group of ministers in Parliament, and the Scottish Government, the executive civil service. These are different bodies, with different personnel, locations, roles and mandates; when I tell people that I have been in contact with the “Scottish Government”, I usually have to add several words of explanation to clarify what I am talking about. (I have just used the term “Scottish Government” here seven times. It begins to remind me of the Monty Python sketch where all the members of the Faculty of Philosophy are called Bruce, to avoid confusion.) As we now have a free label available, the “Scottish Executive”, is there any prospect that we could use it instead when we refer to the executive civil service?
I’m not a constitutional specialist, but I think I can see how enhanced devolution, or “devo-max”, might work for Scotland. Currently there are about 240,000 people who are not governed from Westminster or the devolved governments; they live in the Channel Islands and Isle of Man. The governments of these islands are responsible for its own economic, social and domestic policies; treaties are made by the UK in its behalf, but it is not part of the European Union. I served as a consultant for the States of Guernsey for four years; my work was based on corporate planning for health, housing, education, social work, social security and policing. Effectively, each government has its own negotiated status. In some cases, the policies are very similar to those of the UK (I am not sure why Guernsey residents should want to pay a TV Licence to support the BBC, but that’s up to them), in others they are distinctively different. Devo-max is neither unfeasible nor untried.
There is however a potential problem with the two-question referendum. People would vote yes or no for independence, and yes or no for devo-max. Imagine that 22% vote “yes-yes”, 22% vote “yes-no”, 22% vote “no-yes” and 33% vote “no-no”. The result would be that both questions would be defeated, 55-44 – despite 66% of voters voting for increased powers. It’s critically important what the questions are and how they’re put.