Looking forward with the Poverty and Inequality Commission

A photograph of the head and shoulders of Poverty and Inequality Commission Chair Professor Stephen Sinclair.A blog from the Poverty and Inequality Commission’s new Chair Professor Stephen Sinclair.

It is a great honour to have the opportunity to contribute to the work of the Poverty and Inequality Commission as Chair. Until June 2024, I and the other short-term appointment Commissioners are joining excellent and experienced colleagues with outstanding support provided by a dedicated Secretariat and Scottish Government Sponsor team.

The Commission is a unique institution in the UK policy environment. Under the previous Chair, Bill Scott, working with his fellow Commissioners, it became an invaluable critical friend to government and established a reputation as a trusted and authoritative voice providing evidence, insight and ideas to tackle poverty and inequality in Scotland. The Commission’s Vision is inspiring. Working towards a ‘Scotland where no-one lives in poverty, or is diminished by inequality, and everyone is able to live with dignity and thrive’ is a remarkable ideal. And its Mission – to ‘work to strengthen policy, legislation, and practice to reduce poverty and inequality in Scotland, by engaging with experts by experience, advising Scottish Ministers, scrutinising progress, and advocating for action’ – is equally admirable.

This is a critical time to be joining the Commission. The Scottish Government has declared that tackling poverty and protecting people from harm is one of its defining missions, and the First Minister committed to ‘substantially shift the dial on child poverty’. However, a recurring message in successive Commission reports has been the need for urgent action at scale to meet Scotland’s statutory child poverty targets. Although the full benefits of the Scottish Child Payment have yet to be shown in the statistical measures of child poverty used for the targets, the Commission’s reports make it clear that it is unlikely that next year’s interim child poverty targets will be met, and there is a ‘very high likelihood that the Scottish Government will miss the final 2030 targets as things stand’.

In addition, as one of my fellow Commissioners, Professor Suzanne Fitzpatrick, has documented, poverty is deepening for many and destitution is growing in the UK. The Equality & Human Rights Commission has said that welfare reforms introduced by successive UK Governments since 2010 ‘have had a disproportionately negative impact on certain ethnic minorities, disabled people and women, and contributed to child poverty’. However, even if the causes lie in a punitive and dysfunctional welfare system outside of the control of Scotland, the casualties are evident here, and we all have a responsibility to do everything possible to reduce these harms.

The Commission’s immediate work plans reflect this imperative. A first priority is to build upon what we have learned from our Experts by Experience Panel as we recruit a new Panel in the new year. The Panel was an innovative initiative which amplified the voices of people with direct experience of poverty and inequality and informed the Commission’s work. The Commission is committed to moving towards greater co-production with citizen experts in all aspects of our work. Building on learning from the first iteration of the Panel, the next iteration will involve more direct engagement with Commissioners and policy makers.

A second action to which the Commission has committed is making sure our work understands and reflects the multiple inequalities that people can face. We will draw upon the insights of our Experts by Experience Panel and our previous work on intersectionality to ensure that intersectionality is embedded across all aspects of our work. By trying to understand and respond to the experiences and needs of those who experience intersecting inequalities and are most marginalised, we are more likely to be able to propose solutions that meet the needs of everyone who experiences poverty.

It is essential to see what is working, what needs to change, and hear about new ideas and projects from those with direct experience and working in communities across Scotland. Therefore, as interim Chair, I intend to build upon the visits which Commissioners made during the cost of living crisis to learn from those coping with its most severe consequences and engage with community groups and campaigning organisations so that their experiences inform the Commission’s daily operations and strategic priorities.

Living in an age of permacrisis can be exhausting and dispiriting: coping with successive emergencies and incessant demands drains the resources and strains the capacity of even the most resilient community and innovative organisation. These relentless pressures can lead to fatalism and resignation. To generate a sense of hope for the future we need to move beyond emergency repairs towards strategic responses, and shift from just coping with events to changing conditions.

The Commission’s recent report on taxation demonstrates that tinkering with existing systems is not enough. To deal with current challenges and meet the statutory 2030 poverty targets requires ambitious, transformative actions. The next phase of Scotland’s mission to tackle poverty must involve significant advances on selected strategic fronts rather than many small skirmishes. It is worth remembering that the 2017 Child Poverty (Scotland) Act was passed unanimously by all parties in the Scottish Parliament. Similarly, the development of a rights-based approach to social security attracted strong cross party support, as has the agreement to explore a Minimum Income Guarantee.

This is a remarkable and promising foundation on which to build. Richard Titmuss, one of the key thinkers in Social Policy, argued that social problems are addressed effectively not by a welfare state alone but built upon a welfare society. Poverty will not be solved only by actions taken within the poverty sector. It is everyone’s duty to contribute what they can. The principal responsibility lies with political leaders – most obviously, but not exclusively, with the Scottish Government. To future-proof and accelerate the progress already made in tackling poverty requires building upon the consensus within Scotland and securing commitment from all parties to a truly national anti-poverty strategy. The fundamental strategic shifts required in employment, childcare, taxation and public service provision will only be developed and sustained by a cross-party consensus which is supported by a civil society coalition. Others are working in this area, and the First Minister’s anti-poverty summit in May was an important step in this direction. The Poverty and Inequality Commission will do everything it can to encourage and nurture these promising developments.

Politics is about making choices, and as the First Minister has said, there are some tough choices to be made in relation to tackling poverty in Scotland. However, as another political leader once remarked about another inspiring mission ‘we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard’, and also worthwhile. And however hard those choices are, they are not as difficult and painful as those faced every day by people struggling on low incomes. Things needn’t be this way. Scotland faces economic challenges but is not poor in resources, capacity nor ideas. The country has a vibrant civil society, dedicated public servants and a political culture less divided and toxic than many other societies. Conditions are uniquely favourable for a dedicated collective effort to prevent and reduce poverty and, if not now, when? As Chair of the Poverty and Inequality Commission I have inherited a fantastic legacy on which to build, one which I hope to consolidate and grow. I will do everything I can to help create a Scotland which can be as proud of the future it is working towards as it is of its past.

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