New fairness commission highlights the need for evidenced solutions to poverty

What has the latest local fairness commission found and what can we learn from it? Jim McCormick takes a closer look.

On St Andrew’s Day, the latest plan in a series of local fairness and anti-poverty inquiries across Britain was published. The Fairer Fife Commission has explored “the scale, scope and nature of poverty in Fife” and made 40 recommendations on extending fairness to public service partners, grouped into eight themes. Crucially, it notes that well-evidenced solutions are needed, not just better descriptions of the problem.

What did the Commission find and what can JRF learn ahead of publishing our anti-poverty strategy in 2016?

The Fife report defines the ‘mega-community’ that will be needed in Fife if a real and sustained impact is to be made, where the public sector, citizens and communities, business and the voluntary sector all need to contribute. Against the strain on public budgets and family finances compared with the Minimum Income Standard, the Commission notes the very considerable budgets, staffing and wider assets likely to be available to Fife in the coming years to pursue the goals of fairness.

Most of the proposals are specific and measurable, avoiding the risk of broad, declaratory statements. There’s a welcome ambition in the Commission’s plan, expressed as being in the five best authorities in Scotland on a range of measures. Achieving this would mean Fife becoming a fully Living Wage region, maximising the roles of procurement, employment and high-quality service provision. Compared with today, 1,400 fewer people would be in long-term unemployment, almost 6,000 fewer children living in poverty, 15,000 more adults with qualifications and around 30,000 more voters and volunteers. On some indicators – young people from deprived areas gaining 5+ awards, fuel poverty, and deaths before age 75 – being among the best in Scotland wouldn’t be good enough. And additional measures of how low-income households across different parts of Fife are faring will be needed. But the clarity of purpose can only help accountability.

On specific themes, extending fairness includes becoming poverty-free “where the public, private and voluntary sectors are eradicating deep and persistent poverty for individuals and families”. That doesn’t deal with the wider problem of people cycling in and out of low-paid work but never quite escaping poverty, but it does draw a very clear line: less than 10 per cent of children living in poverty, where no-one is there for long.

The intended drivers of this are:

  • closer working with the Department for Work and Pensions to address low levels of trust in Job Centres and achieve ‘a good match’ between jobseekers and employers;
  • rebalancing employability programmes towards those with physical and mental health challenges, ahead of a future replacement for the Work Programme being commissioned locally;
  • parent-led solutions to childcare; and
  • an eye-catching call to pilot Basic Income, learning from the approach in Utrecht in the Netherlands.  

The Fife report addresses a mix of familiar and future challenges. It recognises the strong pull upon budgets to mitigate risks arising from trends in public spending, insecure work and housing, and in the cost of essential service services – for example, broadband providers have a role to extend low-cost services to housing association tenants. And, well beyond mitigation, it maps out ways to become more connected, skilled and empowered.

In doing so, this Commission and its peers will help JRF and others to gauge the contribution to tackling poverty that’s needed locally.   

  • Jim McCormick is Associate Director Scotland.