September 18th 2014 | Scotland

The referendum provides Scotland with a once in a generation opportunity to tackle poverty

Written by Julia Unwin on 16 September 2014
Julia Unwin

Whatever the outcome of Thursday’s independence referendum vote, Scotland must get to grips with high levels of poverty in the country, says Julia Unwin.

As campaigners from both sides have reminded us, this Thursday’s independence vote is one of historic importance. The campaign has energised political debate and the outcome must be grasped as a moment to bring about positive change for people and places in poverty. Almost a fifth of people live in poverty in Scotland, a level unacceptably high for a country of such wealth. Whether Scotland has full independence resulting from a ‘yes’ vote or new powers devolved from Westminster in the event of a no vote, it is clear there will be a new opportunity to tackle poverty.

It is one that is urgently needed and one policy makers and politicians on both sides of the debate must grasp. As JRF’s A UK without poverty outlined this week, if we don’t start doing something differently, one in three children and one in four working age adults are forecast to be living below the poverty line by 2020. This is a waste of human potential, a strain on the public purse, and it means the economy does not function as well as it could – child poverty alone costs the country £29 billion a year.

JRF’s state of the nation report in January 2013 outlined the immense challenges facing Scotland in its battle with poverty: shocking health inequalities, youth unemployment and rising in-work poverty. The referendum debate has put a spotlight on the question of what kind of country Scotland wants to be. It has focussed on issues like child poverty, welfare reform and the spare room subsidy, or so-called ‘bedroom tax’ to critics. But we need a much richer and deeper debate about how to tackle poverty.

Whichever way it goes on Thursday, there will be a great deal of discussion around what sort of tax and benefits system Scotland should have in future, but this alone cannot reduce poverty - though it does play a vital part. Poverty reduction is not a job for government alone and centres around the kind of economy Scotland nurtures. Our businesses therefore have a vital role to play in providing well-paying, secure jobs, which offer genuine chances to progress and a lasting route of poverty.

While Scotland has seen lower levels of poverty over the last decade, its record is under threat because of the rising cost of housing, particularly in the private rented sector. A failure to build enough homes at affordable prices has costs for us all: in the last five years alone, the number of private rented households needing housing benefit to help with their rent rose by 62 per cent.

Whatever happens on Thursday, these are the issues that must remain at the forefront of discussions about Scotland’s future.  The realisation that change must happen has provoked a much-needed and long overdue debate about how this is achieved. But to think the outcome only has implications north of the border would be a mistake. Scotland should act as an example for what can be achieved with will and momentum – the rest of the UK must seize the initiative to tackle one of the biggest challenges facing the country.

There are real risks, as well as opportunities, for the North of England from further devolution. Northern cities can be the engine of growth that reduce poverty but regions need the tools to regenerate their communities and tackle poverty.

After Thursday, there is a golden opportunity to for a more socially just settlement in Scotland and refocus the prospects for people and places in poverty. Any devolution – to cities, regions and countries - will be judged by the impact it has on poverty. Everyone has their part to play. This opportunity must not go to waste.

Julia Unwin is Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Julia Unwin