Joe writes for the Irvine Herald on what should be post referendum Scotland's priorities.
The real winner on the 18th September was democracy. Never before in this country have we seen such high levels of political engagement and it all culminated in a record turnout.
Post referendum the challenge now is to harness that political engagement and ensure that we deliver the change that the people of Scotland so clearly want. This will start with the debate on further devolution but must also include a reasoned debate on policy.
So let me try and kick-start that debate locally.
Poverty campaign group End Child Poverty last week published a map of child poverty throughout the UK. It showed that, after housing costs, 27% of children in North Ayrshire live in poverty. This was the third highest rate in Scotland after Glasgow and Dundee but it was much higher in London local authorities such as Tower Hamlets with 49% and even Westminster with 39% showing that this is a UK wide problem.
You can also see the inequality that exists within our own local communities by looking at life expectancy. In my own ward of Kilwinning you can take Stevenston Road as a dividing line between Whitehirst Park and Pennyburn. The last life expectancy figures published by NHS Ayrshire and Arran showed an 8 year difference in life expectancy between the two areas.
We should all be appalled by figures like these. I got involved in politics and joined the Labour Party because of a desire to deliver a fairer society. After three years focused almost purely on the constitutional debate I believe it is now time that we gave the same attention to tackling poverty and inequality.
Tackling these issues must be our priority. Everything we do should be focused on making our society and economy more equal and fair. In order to do that it’s important to understand the reasons why poverty has increased in recent years.
Undoubtedly the Tories Welfare Reforms have had a negative impact. End Child Poverty highlight this in their report. However, it is only part of the problem. The figures they published showed that nearly twice as many people living in poverty are in work. End Child Poverty are therefore clear that some of the main drivers in increasing poverty have been low pay, rising housing costs and the cost of living. This means that there is much work to be done by both the UK and Scottish Government’s.
So the question is what can we do now?
We could start by recognising that low pay is a real scourge on our society and economy. I have passionately campaigned against low pay for many years. At my first Council meeting I moved a motion on this very issue and I have continued that by proposing a North Ayrshire Living Wage campaign. And that’s the key to this problem – the Living Wage.
I am pleased that Labour has committed to increasing the Minimum Wage in power, our policy is similar to that laid out in the SNP’s White Paper. However, we can, and should, go further by committing to a full Living Wage.
On Childcare, which played a big part in the referendum debate, we can do a lot more to help working parents now. The key is to make our childcare not only affordable but also flexible. Scottish Labour recently set out radical proposals to tackle the cost by capping it at 10% of median income. This is what they do in Finland who have an excellent childcare system. We would also provide free childcare for any mother wishing to attend College. These are positive steps which would make a difference.
Arguably on housing we face our biggest challenge. We must face up to the fact that we have a housing crisis in this country. For too many people, particularly young people, their house choices are limited. They can’t get on the housing ladder whilst a shortage of social housing means that they are forced into the private rented sector.
So let’s be radical on housing.
Let’s set a national plan for housing. There are over 150,000 families on council waiting lists In Scotland. 4,000 children are living in temporary accommodation and 64,000 families are living in overcrowded conditions.
Housing charity Shelter state we need to build 10,000 social houses each year for the next five years. So let’s be ambitious and set that as our target.
To finance it we can start by giving housing more priority within existing budgets and use new borrowing powers for the Scottish Parliament to increase it but let’s be inventive. UNISON have proposed that we use the £24billion currently in Local Government pension funds to invest in social housing. This would provide a good investment for the pension fund and provide a social investment in delivering real change on housing.
We should also reform the Private Rented Sector. Whilst poverty in the sector continues to grow we must look to make it fairer. Let’s start by capping rent increases to inflation as proposed by Labour in the Scottish Parliament and also make tenancies more secure.
These are largely things that can be done now but once further devolution is delivered we must also have a commitment to use these new powers in a progressive manner.
No longer should we allow Scottish Government’s, like the current SNP one, to talk a good game but fail to deliver whilst blaming others for their own failure.
We must demand that they use the powers they have to deliver real change.
To use them to redistribute wealth from those with the broadest shoulders to those most in need.
To use them to deliver progressive taxation not Corporation Tax cuts as was in the White Paper.
To use them to tackle the scourge of poverty and inequality that I and so many others are passionate about tackling.
The referendum is over. Now is the time to start the debate on Scotland’s progressive future.