Reducing poverty must be central to the debate about Scottish independence

21st Jan 2013

Shocking inequalities in health and wealth have been revealed by the sixth Monitoring Poverty in Scotland report from JRF.

Our latest assessment of the trends in poverty and social exclusion in Scotland reveals progress on reducing child and pensioner poverty, which is good news. But what has developed is a stark and worrying picture of poor health and no wealth among people in Scotland.

This has manifested itself in two main ways in the jobs market, ignited by the effects of the financial crash and the recession that followed.

1. Young people have been hit particularly hard: unemployment among the under-25s stood at 90,000 in 2012, a near doubling since 2008. Unemployment among young adults is still rising, while it has levelled off for older age groups since 2010.

2. Our report highlights not just unemployment but also underemployment.
Full time jobs have been disappearing in the wake of a relentless rise in part time positions. That leaves a workforce of 120,000 who want, but cannot find, full time jobs - up from 70,000 just over four years' ago.

On the 'poor health' findings we see shocking inequalities:

  • Life expectancy is 14 years lower among boys in the poorest areas compared with the least deprived areas. 
  • The gap in cancer mortalities has widened in the last ten years. Nationwide, the rate of cancer deaths fell from 150 per 100,000 people aged under 75 to 130. In the poorest 15% of areas, there has been practically no change. The rate remains around 200 per 100,000.

So what happens next? Cuts to benefits are on the horizon and we should be under no illusion the outlook is ominous. We report estimates that some 20,000 people will lose their disability living allowance, and 65,000 people claiming employment support allowance will move off benefits altogether. The effects of these cuts will make some already poor people even poorer, while plunging others into poverty and hardship.

But there are opportunities to make life better for people. The political discourse is understandably dominated by next year’s referendum on independence, but there is a lot to be said for using this political landscape to improve matters. A discussion on poverty and how to reduce it must be central to independence: the referendum is, after all, about the kind of country Scotland wants to be. And while many of the levers to tackle poverty are currently controlled by Westminster, others are held in Scotland. Here we mean not just the Scottish government but also employers and service providers in both the public and private sectors. As well as seeking more powers from London, Holyrood needs to use the tools and influence already at its disposal, whether independence is forthcoming or not.

Independence must not be a distraction. However the Scottish people vote next year, there will still be high levels of unemployment among young adults, rising underemployment and health inequalities among the highest in Europe. This is a too larger price to be ignored, no matter what the prize is from next year's vote.