Is Magnus Gardham really serious – I mean REALLY serious – when he seems to suggest in his most recent opinion piece (http://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/14225376.Poverty_tsar_s_report__there_is_sting_in_the_tale_that_could_reopen_the_debate_on_universal_benefits/?action=success#comment_15263316) that doing away with universal bus passes and the winter fuel payment will make a significant impact on poverty in Scotland – one in five living in poverty?
The latter of course will not be in the gift of the SG till the Scotland Bill passes into law and becomes operational though in fairness he does himself make this point later on. I wonder why not further up the page?
Bus passes account for about 3% of the SG’s budget at just over a billion. It is though estimated to have a cost:benefit ratio of 1:2.8, so by returning more than it costs, seems not a bad investment (http://www.greenerjourneys.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Concessionary-travel-costs-and-benefits-September-2014.pdf). Moreover, the bus passes themselves don’t cost all that much – it’s when they are used that they create an expense, and I wonder just who it is that uses them most often? Is it the retired company executive who will not have seen the inside of a bus for a good many years, or is it the widow of the Clydeside engineer who, never having learned to drive would be somewhat inconvenienced without her bus pass? There is lazy thinking that because a universal benefit will be available to the wealthiest that they will use it, that the Daimler will be left in the garage to queue up at the bus stop in the rain, to go to the shops. An admittedly quick search on google throws up any number of sites with information on who is eligible, but nothing on what kind of person actually makes the most use. So Gardham’s assertion is clear. It’s just never proven.
Universal and targeted benefits is a highly contested area, and Gardham’s conclusion that “The SNP seems determined to avoid the kind of debate Ms Eisenstadt says is key to tackling poverty” is never justified at any point in his piece. It is true by assertion and because it suits his consistently anti SNP narrative. Even his preceding paragraph on Johann Lamont’s argument in the Daily Record about targeting expenditure more precisely on poverty really only says that the SNP disagreed with her, and that Alex Neill moved against doing away with a universal benefit that the SG doesn’t yet control.
Moreover, he considers Ms Eisenstadt’s last recommendation, that the SG adopt Harriet Harmann’s “socio-economic duty” which “could be used to oblige ministers to assess policies in terms of their impact on the poor and the contribution they make to tackling inequality.”. It is important to bear in mind two things.
First, that the same Harmann was happy to vote for large parts of the Tories Welfare Bill last year, so either she wasn’t pursuing her own thinking at that time, or we shouldnt put as much store by that duty as Magnus seems to think.
Secondly, and rather more importantly, to be practical, any duty must be benchmarked against what is practically possible. Even when the current Scotland Bill is operational the SG will still control only 20% of the welfare budget. It’s a big ask to address poverty with much effect when the other 80% is in the hands of the most reactionary government for very many years.
Lastly, I disagree with Gardham that that final recommendation is the most important. It seems to me that the “proportionate universalism” that Eisenstadt recommends is a much more interesting way forward, but in particular more likely to be effective. For instance, in deprived communities there is more ill health – should these communities not have access to GPs at a level that means these particular problems are addressed? We know that children in deprived areas perform less well in school, so might there not a be a scheme to encourage the best teachers to remain in (or even come to) schools in such areas, rather than gravitating off to the leafy suburbs as too many of them do now? In other words, everyone gets the benefits, but at a level appropriate to their needs, since, as we know, that it is not always true that “one size fits all” – there needs to be proportionality.
Unfortunately, while Gardham deserves credit for mentioning this, it is disposed of in a single sentence and not really pursued. Had he done so, he would have been aware that the NHS in Scotland has been considering proportionate universality for at least two years now. In “Proportionate Universalism and Health Inequalities” (http://www.healthscotland.com/uploads/documents/24296-ProportionateUniversalismBriefing.pdf) it is shown that the mortality rate among the least deprived is less than 1/3 of the mortality rate among the most deprived. Guided by proportionate universalism – “To reduce the steepness of the social gradient in health, actions must be universal, but with a scale and intensity that is proportionate to the level of disadvantage” (the Marmot Review g http://www.healthscotland.com/uploads/documents/24296-ProportionateUniversalismBriefing.pdf) the inequality in mortality rates can be reduced by implementing policies specifically to improve the health of the most disadvantaged, so reducing the gradient in their favour, without disadvantaging others – i.e. levelling up.
Far too often Gardham’s reports begin from the proposition of how best to criticise the Scottish Government. Of course he is hardly unique as he is followed in this practice regularly by David Torrance, Euan McColm and David Clegg, but does Scotland deserve such a poor standard of journalistic thinking? Gardham is after all the political editor of the Herald, a role Clegg fulfils at the Record. They are hardly junior, experienced journalists. If they chose to criticise the Scottish Government, then fine. Governments should be criticised and one thing this Scottish Government could profit from is a critical friend (a role I suspect was in mind when they secured the services of Naomi Eisenstadt), but, starting from a conclusion and working backwards to the argument, selecting and distorting the evidence to suit (Gardham’s omission of the fact that the Winter Fuel payment is in the control of the Scottish Government is too typical) is not acceptable. Yet this is what Torrance does almost on a weekly basis,
Ipsos Mori has recently published figures on perceived trust in different professions. Not only are journalists the third least trusted professional group, they are less trusted than estate agents and bankers. Taking Gardham’s contribution to our social dialogue as an instance, one can see why. Scotland needs a media which provides a robust level of analysis that begins from the evidence and comes to an evidence led conclusion. Too often, as in Gardham’s column today, what we are getting is little better than political propaganda.
As one final point, much of the above – with some of the less mild comments removed – was included in a comment on the Herald about Gardham’s piece. It has been removed. One wonders why.