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10 September 2021

Is the SNP bold enough to tackle the scourge of Scottish poverty?

The death rate in Scotland’s most deprived areas in 2020 was almost double that in the least deprived areas. What is Nicola Sturgeon going to do about it?

By Dani Garavelli

If you stand in front of the cast-iron drinking fountain at Govan Cross and spin 360 degrees, the history of the former burgh unfolds before you. First you see the Clyde, on which the area’s reputation as the centre of Glasgow’s shipbuilding industry was forged; then the imposing Pearce Institute, gifted by the owner of the Fairfield shipyard to the community whose workers cut the steel plates and peened the rivets. Turn a few degrees more, though, and you find yourself staring at off-licences, a credit union, a Jobcentre: all those temples to post-industrial decline.

Govan’s glory days are gone. Its contemporary claim to fame is less enviable. Today, the area has the lowest life expectancy in Glasgow. Residents will survive to an average of 65.4 years, compared with 83 in nearby Pollokshields. Given Glasgow as a whole has the lowest life expectancy in the UK, this is a grimly impressive feat.

The residents, most of whom are wearing masks, seem hyper-aware of the precarity of their health. “I’m petrified of catching Covid,” says Shannon*, who takes a step back as I approach. “My dad suffers from COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease]. I don’t know if he’d survive.”

The city’s health record is poor even when compared with other post-industrial centres – a phenomenon dubbed “the Glasgow effect”. Some researchers suggest it is rooted in the 1960s decanting of skilled workers to the New Towns, leaving a more vulnerable population behind.

What is irrefutable is that premature death is most prevalent in the poorest parts of the city and beyond. Despite the Scottish government’s vision of a more equitable nation, the divide between the richest and poorest is widening.

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Statistics released in the past few weeks stand as a reproach to failed social policy. According to the National Records of Scotland, the overall death rate in the country’s most deprived areas in 2020 was almost double that in the least deprived areas. The divide was even greater for deaths from suicide (three times higher), deaths from alcohol (4.3 times higher) and deaths from drugs (18.4 times higher).

Given the increased incidence of underlying health conditions, it is unsurprising that deaths from Covid-19 were also 2.4 times higher in the most deprived areas than in the least deprived.

A decade of austerity politics has taken its toll. David Cameron’s welfare reforms pushed some families into destitution while low wages and zero-hours contracts created a new class of working poor. The situation is likely to worsen in October, when the extra Universal Credit payments introduced during the pandemic are halted.

[see also: Why the government’s argument for cutting Universal Credit isn’t credible]

“I’m going to lose £86 a month,” Shannon says. “Even with the extra money I was still having to go to the Govan Pantry [a food surplus charity]. I don’t know how I’ll cope.”

Shannon is 38, but looks 50. She suffers from depression and has mould in her bathroom. “When I moved into my house, they said I’d be able to go to a community centre across the road, but that closed because of Covid,” she says. “Yet all Nicola Sturgeon is interested in is another referendum.”

Of course, Sturgeon would say independence is the only way for Scotland to properly address these problems. Her government wants greater borrowing powers and has previously expressed an interest in universal basic income (UBI), something it could not introduce without the UK government’s cooperation.

The Scottish government acknowledges poverty in a way the UK government does not. It has used its devolved powers to make income tax more progressive and to introduce a Scottish Child Payment of £10 a week for every child under six in families who qualify for particular benefits. But it, too, has made choices that have fuelled this crisis.

Throughout its 14 years in power, it has favoured universalism. It believes policies such as free prescriptions for all create a more inclusive society. But these policies are costly and sometimes benefit the middle classes at the expense of the poor.

“The childcare expansion is a good example,” says Chris Birt, associate director for Scotland at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. “Provision for three- and four-year-olds is now almost at the same level as school. That suits people like me who work 9am-6pm Monday to Friday. I get it for free. But if you are in a low-income family and you work shifts and you are expected in at 7am, you often can’t get that free provision. The Scottish government could decide to funnel money into more flexible provision for those who cannot afford it themselves against this big universal investment.”

At the same time, with its block grant from Westminster shrinking, the Scottish government has had to make savings. It chose to protect the NHS but cut the money given to local authorities. This, in turn, has led to cuts in council and third-sector services delivering family, addiction and mental health support.

“Local government has borne the brunt,” says Birt. “Social workers are now stretched so thinly they are often providing little more than an emergency service, trying desperately to hold the lives together of people in crisis.

“It’s about lack of wealth, but also of power, because people in crisis are not going to have the resources to lobby politicians.”

The Scottish government prevented local authorities generating extra revenue. Not only did it renege on its pledge to replace the regressive council tax, but it froze the rates, again to the benefit of the middle classes. So, while it is true the UK government has fuelled poverty in Scotland’s most deprived communities, the SNP is also guilty of failing to walk the walk.

Recently it has switched its focus from UBI to a minimum income guarantee. Though less expensive than UBI (because it is targeted, not universal), this policy would still cost an estimated £7bn a year. Yet there has been little debate about how this would be funded.

If it is serious about tackling poverty, the Scottish government will have to be firm with voters about what the redistribution of wealth entails. With or without independence, it is going to have to raise the taxes of Scotland’s most affluent to support its least affluent. This week, Boris Johnson announced plans to increase National Insurance to fund the NHS and social care – a move that would hit the young and the low-paid hardest. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), on the other hand, has proposed the Scottish government overhaul local taxation and impose a “social renewal supplement” on higher earners. Those are bold, potentially unpopular policies. But until the SNP is willing to be braver, the lives of Shannon and others like her will continue to be curtailed.

* Shannon’s name has been changed.

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