On 11 June the Scottish Government will host an international conference - it will renew tackling poverty as a clear aim. But why has it not made the progress it wanted over the last decade? What needs to be done differently?
Almost one in five people – more than 1 million - are in poverty in Scotland. It’s unacceptable that so many people in our country are still unable to build the foundations for a decent and secure life. This is after a decade in which Scotland set ambitious targets to improve the living standards of people on the lowest incomes.
In 2007, Scotland became one of the first countries to commit to long-term goals through the National Performance Framework (NPF) around which the whole of the public sector was to align. It was a commitment to transparency and accountability with the aim of promoting a Scotland where all can ‘flourish through sustainable economic growth’.
On 11 June, the Scottish Government will host an international conference bringing together global leaders to explore how outcome frameworks, such as the NPF, can help to improve national wellbeing. We will also see a new NPF launched, setting the stage for the third decade of devolution. There is much to welcome in this refresh. Tackling poverty is now, unambiguously, a clear outcome. Key consequences and drivers of poverty – like the attainment gap in schools – have much greater prominence.
While the conference is about looking to the future it also offers a chance to learn lessons, because despite 10 years of intended alignment to clear outcomes, Scotland has not made the progress it wanted. It is important to reflect why as we consider what needs to be done differently.
The original NPF set seven top-line ‘purpose targets’ to be achieved by 2017. Two of them are explored here. The first is Solidarity - to reduce income inequality and see overall incomes rise. The inequality part of the measure compares the top 10% with the lowest-income 40% of the population - the latter covering both those in poverty and those most at risk of poverty.
A lot has happened since 2007, not least a global recession and many years of austerity. While overall income has risen in that time, income inequality has not narrowed. It fell during the recession due to a fall in income for the top 10%. Since then, no further progress has occurred and inequality has begun to creep back up, leaving us with a similar gulf in income as a decade ago. And as our state of the nation report warned last year, Scotland’s progress in reducing poverty has gone into reverse.
Employment rates have risen but so too has in-work poverty, now the most common experience of poverty. With paid work unable to guarantee financial security, the soul-destroying reality for many is that they are locked into poverty with no realistic means to fight their way out.
The risks are highly uneven across Scotland as shown by the Cohesion target, which aimed to narrow the employment gap between the best and worst performing areas. The chart below shows that whilst some progress was made pre-recession, progress overall has been close to zero. And the places with the highest and lowest employment rates have been consistent for a decade: Dundee, Glasgow and North Ayrshire have lagged furthest behind Orkney, Shetland and Aberdeenshire which have fared best.
What needs to change?
To their credit, the Scottish Government understands that more needs to be done. Part of the rationale of the new NPF is to shine a light on the role that devolution plays in ensuring Scotland reaches its potential for all. But it does not follow that we simply need new outcomes, frameworks or action plans. As a recent report from the Fraser of Allander Institute says, fine sentiments are no substitute for good policy enacted on the basis of good data, research and impact evidence. And at JRF we would add the need to hear compelling stories about how people’s lives actually are, something we will draw out in Challenge Poverty Week in October.
NPF reporting has, until now, been mostly a statement of fact. It has lacked a narrative on why the ‘vital signs’ are moving (or stuck) and there is not enough evidence of routine alignment to outcomes via policy making across the public sector.
Another decade without sustained progress on poverty would be profoundly damaging. To make progress we need a much stronger grasp of what is and isn’t working for whom, and why, and what more can be done at local and national levels. We will need both a better account of trends in the new NPF and consistently better use of evaluation evidence to inform concerted action on fair work, inclusive growth, affordable housing and social security.
The Scottish Government, along with its partners, has powers to help anchor people on low incomes against the powerful currents flowing their way. It is time to demonstrate what can be done in practice, and to truly lead the world in solving poverty.