When Nicola Sturgeon took on the mantle of First Minister, she quickly made it clear that equity and social justice would be among the Scottish Government’s key priorities. It came as no real surprise – Sturgeon has always been left-leaning and social justice was a significant issue during the independence referendum debate. Nine months on and the Scottish Government has just announced its consultation process on social justice, so what should we expect and where are things heading?
Social justice indicators
Social justice is a very broad catch-all term, but commonly refers to the redistribution of wealth within society. Scotland’s current social indicators are not exactly looking cheery – relative poverty increased in 2012/13; according to Child Poverty Action Group, one in five of Scotland’s children live below the poverty line; income inequality is only slightly lower than the rest of the UK; and in 2012 the top 2 per cent alone owned 20 per cent of all personal wealth in Scotland. The overall gender pay gap in Scotland is lower than in the UK but remains high and has increased since 2011.
The Common Weal is part of the Jimmy Reid Foundation and seems to be acting as a bit of well-spring for many of the concepts coming forward. Of course, tackling social justice is nothing new – it was a key plank of the former Lib Dem/Labour administration. What is new is the breadth of ambition. The mechanisms that the Scottish Government is using to tackle this issue are wide, ranging from the Business Pledge, land reform, transferral of assets to communities through to restricting the sale of social housing and mitigating against the so-called bedroom tax. In many ways the recent consultation announcement starts to draw these strands together.
Discussion and Scrutiny
Alex Neil, the Minister charged with tackling this issue, has launched a national conversation on social justice. A series of events through the summer and autumn are promised, with an action plan towards the end of the year – nicely just in time for the next Scottish Parliament elections. Also as part of the process, the Scottish Government has announced the appointment of a new poverty adviser, Naomi Eisenstadt. It is claimed that she will act as independent adviser on poverty and inequality, recommending actions needed to tackle poverty and holding the government’s performance to account. Quite how this will be achieved remains unclear. Moreover, the Scottish Government has claimed it will be the world’s first ever Living Wage government. These initiatives will certainly keep social justice at the heart of government but it remains to be seen how transformative they will be.
The Scottish Government has a difficult juggling act – how to maintain staffing levels and increase wages at a time when austerity measures continue to bite. Scotland is facing a range of difficult industrial relations issues. Many in the public sector are complaining about increasing workloads as former workers are not replaced, which could start to affect productivity. Local authorities are looking at mass redundancies. Just as the immediate threat of strikes on our railways subsides, we have the prospect of industrial action by the EIS – certainly for schools and scope for disruption at colleges. Industrial relations are therefore not all sweetness and light in the public sector.
Social justice is now well and truly near the top of the political agenda, but the Scottish Government has not had access to taxation powers. The real test of the Government’s mettle will be to see how far they are prepared to take powers to redistribute wealth and whether Scotland’s middle classes will be prepared to support more radical reform. Scotland’s businesses will be concerned if measures are introduced that start to affect their competitiveness. Meanwhile, the positioning of the SNP leaves a conundrum for the Scottish Labour Party – this should be their territory and they find themselves on the margins of the debate.