Scotland is setting forth on a progressive course to tackle the big issues …
The National, by Lesley Riddoch
It's a tale of two governments. In Scotland, the Scottish Government’s rolling out a programme that tackles all the biggies – climate change, poverty and economic stagnation.
In London, Theresa May has begun a new parliamentary term offering absolutely nothing new – except excluding more EU nationals post Brexit and ditching the promise of a “frigate factory” on the Clyde.
During the indyref, Clyde shipyard workers were promised naval construction work aplenty, but now the UK Government wants them to bid for bits of contracts instead. That’s daft when all the investment and expertise sits here in Scotland. But hey. All’s fair in love, war and Westminster power games.
Bizarrely, no-one north of the Border – including Union supporters – seems to expect anything different from Westminster. But expectations of Holyrood are higher, and this week’s Programme for Government shows the Scottish Government is absolutely ready to meet them.
North of the Border there will be an end to the one per cent pay cap that’s partly to blame for staffing shortages in education and the NHS. True, there’ll have to be a big catch-up before wages get anywhere close to world-beating. But acknowledging the problem means Scotland has broken with the bad British habit of turning a blind eye to the plight of key workers.
But isn’t Theresa May talking about ending the pay freeze? Yip – but that’s as far as she’s gone. Warm words – no action.
Scotland will also lead the way in getting rid of petrol and diesel cars almost a decade before the rest of the UK. That means harnessing Scotland’s big brains to tackle the problems that arises from quitting the oil era first. How can tens of thousand of flat dwellers charge cars overnight on the street? How can we get more charge points across the whole country and how do we tackle affordability. Anyone can buy an old banger as long as it passes its MOT – but there are very few cheap, second-hand electric cars around. Of course, these problems can be overcome once a deadline is in place and minds are focused on the problems -- and the rewards. Fewer fumes, less asthma, fewer climate-change-creating emissions, more jobs in the new fossil-fuel free economy and Scotland heading for a no-looking-back date with destiny.
With big infrastructure changes like these, it’s easy to see where the new Scottish National Investment Bank fits in. Championed by Common Weal, the New Economic Foundation and The National, it can back the projects Westminster leaves behind. The move to axe prison for sentences of 12 months or less has taken the predicted brickbats from Ruth Davidson – and I know from my time as a member of the Scottish Prisons Commission 10 years ago, deprived communities blighted by crime will also take persuading that this isn’t a “thug’s charter”. But that work of persuasion has to begin – and it can best start with the provision of community facilities to tackle drug and alcohol addiction, since they are drivers of the short sentences that lead to the pointless, alienating and expensive “warehousing” of offenders. But most resources are currently tied up in the bricks and mortar of jails even though most need is in the community and on the streets. Are Scotland’s justice workers confident they can handle the shift? This proposal suggests they are.
It’s also a huge relief to see that Scotland will soon lose the shameful distinction of having the youngest age of criminal responsibility in Europe (just eight years old) – the Scottish Government wants it to be raised to 12. The bottle return scheme is practical and could have a dramatic physical and psychological impact in the country voted the most beautiful in the world, by Rough Guide readers, which is often awash with confidence-eroding mountains of litter.
But perhaps the most significant of Nicola Sturgeon’s announcements is financial backing for basic income pilot schemes, which could make Scotland the first nation in the world to pilot and adopt a citizen’s income.
And it’s the result of some hard work and collaboration between normally hostile political parties and governments. This summer – while Ruth Davidson was ducking calls over councillors involved in a bigotry row and Kezia Dugdale was pondering plans to resign – folk from the Scottish Government, Fife, Glasgow and North Ayrshire councils, the UK Department of Work and Pensions, Royal Society of Arts and Science, Carnegie UK Trust and Citizen’s Basic Income Network Scotland were all pretty busy.
The three councils -- run by a mixture of Labour and the SNP – have all agreed to work together on pilots developing a common framework that might work for the whole of Scotland. And the latest news is that Edinburgh is interested in joining the basic income pilot group.
Fine -- but what the heck is it?
A basic or citizen’s income replaces welfare benefits like child and tax credits, housing benefit and state pensions with an unconditional flat-rate payment -- paid out whether the recipient is in work or not. Holyrood’s new welfare powers give Scotland the chance of trying it out – though of course not having control of all the benefit levers does pose problems. That’s why the involvement of the DWP is vital – and (pleasantly) surprising.
The idea is to see whether the Universal Basic Income (UBI) meets the combined challenge of automation, mechanisation and digitalisation, which together mean lots of folk will find themselves jobless in the very near future.
Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Finland are already running pilot schemes to see if a guaranteed minimum income gives security to casualised, low-paid workers, offers an incentive to unemployed workers to take up paid employment without fear of the benefits trap, gives other folk the financial back-up to become full-time carers and thus reduces stress, anxiety, poverty and dependency.
The Finnish pilot, just introduced by a Conservative Government there, will give 2,000 unemployed Finns £475 a month for two years, guaranteed regardless of income, wealth or employment status, which will be paid even if they find work. Finland’s social security body says the trial aims to cut red tape, poverty and above all unemployment, which now stands at 8.1 per cent.
But finding a way for the state to save money is just one motivation. As a basic income supporter and Glasgow Labour councillor Matt Kerr explained on the BBC’s Big Debate programme earlier this year, a basic income also empowers people after decades being battered by a menacing and apparently uncaring state machine: “Right now the citizen is the servant and the state is the master. The basic income can reverse those roles so citizens are free to choose whether to be a worker, student or carer. It’s time the left took back the idea of freedom from the populist right.”
That’s true. A citizen’s basic income is a transformational idea with an equal and opposite force to protectionism, stranger-blaming and Trumpism, because it offers some security and dignity to those out of work and a higher income to those who choose to have an additional paid job. Such a scheme – redistributing cash between those with and without jobs – may be the only way to counter Scotland’s ever-increasing income gap. At a practical level it means unemployed people can afford to do vital caring jobs without losing their benefits. At a societal level it provides an answer to the impending chaos that will ensue when automation reduces the need for human labour in all sorts of professions.
That’s the ambition behind the pilot schemes tentatively moving forward in Scotland – and the beauty of this organising group is that party political wrangling is almost completely absent.
At a sell-out conference organised by the Citizen’s Basic Income Group Scotland in January, Dave Dempsey, Tory group leader in Fife, described the Citizen’s Basic income as “an elegant solution that replaces the dog’s breakfast of benefits”.
Now of course there are always shortcomings in pilot projects. The biggest stumbling block is co-operation between the Westminster and Scottish Governments and that may be tested to the limit by Brexit in the months and years ahead.
But this week, the Scottish Government put itself unequivocally on a progressive course, with targets and milestones that will be both tested and testing. A difficult journey with the capacity to that rarest of things; create unity of purpose amongst Scotland’s progressives.
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