The title of the new report from Scotland’s Social Renewal Advisory Board is, ‘If not now, when?’ It’s a great title, but not a great report. There are some areas about which I’d have minor reservations, and others where I’d have major ones. The minor reservations are, for example, the recommendations that:
- “It is time to trust (third sector and community) organisations to do good work without onerous requirements.” Have we forgotten the abuse of charitable status that led to the reform of charity regulation? Look up ‘Moonbeams‘ on Wikipedia.
- “There are several themes that run throughout the report, again with links to Christie. We need to make sure we embed the best partnership and practice.” Partnership is already embedded. On the positive side, it can focus attention on issues that get overlooked, such as poverty or learning disability, and it puts agencies into contact (such as the NHS and the police) where there didn’t used to be much. On the negative side, it eats time and resources, and it can be as much an obstacle to delivery as a help. The Christie Commission took the misconceived position that every organisation should have a ‘common set of duties and powers’, including a general power to ‘advance well-being’ (pp 46-7). That would make every agency responsible for the work of every other agency. Do we really want the health service to share the responsibility for developing railways? If we want agencies to work together, we need an appropriate functional division of responsibilities, effective liaison at the sharp end, and budgeting practices that don’t set up walls between agencies.
- “Hate crime must be addressed for all affected groups. We want to see significant investment in preventative approaches to hate crime, based on evidence of what works. … we want to see a significant improvement in the accessibility of reporting a hate crime or hate incident over the next five years so that hate crime reporting is more closely aligning with actual incidents. We also want to see an increase in people reporting street harassment to Police Scotland whenever they experience it.” This is saying nothing that isn’t already happening. Yes, as someone who’s been responsible for maintaining a synagogue, I’ve been on the receiving end of hate crime; no, sharpening the criminal law is not going to stop it.
All right, these points are not really that ‘minor’. But the ones that got my goat are in a different class. On universal basic services, the Board has this to say:
“calls on the next Scottish Government to adopt the principles of ‘Universal Basic Services’ … In particular, the Scottish Government should undertake pilots into specific actions that could deliver reductions in energy, travel, housing, childcare and digital costs … These could include: … Social tariffs for broadband and other essential digital services – providing free and discounted digital access to low-income families across Scotland. …”
This misses the point of universal basic services completely. They’re not meant to be targeted on people on low incomes; they’re supposed to be there for everyone. I carried on to specific example of broadband, because it shows the point clearly – they’re talking about means-tested or passported services, not universal ones. We should be looking at open-access, community-based broadband.
And then there is anti-poverty policy, where they recommend that the Scottish Government should “develop an approach to anti-poverty work,
including personal debt, that is designed around the needs of the individual”. Of course I want to see well-funded advice and support for individuals, but it’s not an anti-poverty strategy. It’s not even an anti-debt strategy. People are in debt because (a) their incomes are inadequate and (b) the legal terms on which debt is enforced are pernicious. The Scottish Parliament has the power to do something about both of those.