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A fairer society?
The Government in Scotland has embarked on an ambitious (and welcome) program, asking the country how it can become a fairer and more equal place to live.
Increasing improvements in people's lives in terms of employment rates, health outcomes and better educational outcomes are pointed to as welcome achievements. However, the Government now wants the people to help in tackling 'the scourge of intergenerational poverty, and create fairer opportunities for all.'
This is an ideal opportunity for services providing advocacy, support or direct care to disadvantaged groups to have their service users’ voices and issues heard in promoting and attaining equality. The lack of equal opportunities is a burning issue for many services and progress has often been slow, particularly in opportunities for people with disability, mental health , excluded young people, older people and others.
Involvement and participation
The Government wants to see practical solutions to remedy the imbalances in our society and it emphasises the need to capture the voices of people with a direct experience of poverty and exclusion. The Social Justice Secretary, Alex Neil when launching the program in June of this year, stated the wish to listen to 'conversations many people and communities are already having throughout Scotland, rather than consult on whether or not people agree with a range of ready-made proposals.'
Sir Harry Burns, Professor of Global Public Health at Strathclyde University, said 'The Government has recognised that the days of doing things to communities are past. By meeting and listening to marginalised and excluded people of Scotland, they will hear in raw detail what it’s like to live with fear of violence, hunger, cold and addiction. If communities are genuinely involved in shaping solutions to their own problems, those solutions will be enduring and effective.'
The initiative has also been welcomed by advocacy organisations, including the Poverty Alliance and the Glasgow Disability Alliance. They welcome the chance to have better dialogue and to work together, rather than passing judgement on a selected blueprint after it has been developed.
Public reaction then looks promising for a genuine discussion, as well as firm intentions to improve the age-old issues of inequality in Scotland's communities.
The right time
The time seems right to focus on inequalities and fairness. We don't have far to look across the UK to see the increase in food banks, reduced benefits for the disadvantaged, and promises and assurance that more austerity is on the way.
While the economy of the country is on the up, and employment and social stability seem to have improved, the shadow of poverty still affects many communities and families. The need for voluntary action in partnerships with other sectors, new thinking on how to provide better services at lower cost, and involving communities in their own solutions, are action areas often spoken about.
Some of these are already happening, and it is encouraging that the Government in Scotland is taking note of these innovations in looking to increase fairness in our society. While austerity may be unavoidable in the short term, any increased efficiencies and an innovative use of existing resources are obviously welcome.
The Government stated at the outset that community empowerment and decentralisation may be one way to tackle inequalities and to create a fairer Scotland. In keeping with that, the Community Empowerment Minister (it is promising to have a minister for this!) is considering Participatory Budgeting schemes (PBs). These involve local people in deciding how budgets are allocated to local services, and which get the greater priority. He has visited and observed two PBS in England, in Greater Manchester and Durham.
These are operated by Mutual Gain, and have involved Police services and neighbourhood police services in consulting people about which programmes would benefit their area. The schemes have been highly successful, according got Mutual Gain. They point to the setting up of common budgets with local authorities, hearing the voices of those who are not heard at other consultations, and setting up social and community helping networks. The schemes appear to have had a kick-start effect at making resources and funding available which might otherwise be tied up in individual services. Best of all is the fact that communities have been able to transparently decide for themselves which services are most needed.
By supporting proactive and efficient schemes like this in Scotland, the Government may be on the right track to counteract the worst effects of reducing public funding and the effects of austerity.
How to contribute
A program of public meetings is scheduled across Scotland for the summer and into the autumn. The public can attend and express their views on housing, social justice, welfare and other subjects. A leaflet is downloadable, outlining the Government's vision for a fairer Scotland by 2030, and showing the range of ways that people can contribute to the discussions. Facebook and Twitter have areas where discussion is ongoing, a Freepost address can be used, online blogs or emails are other ways to contribute.
Will it work?
The signs are promising that this is a genuine consultation aimed at involving people in bringing about a fairer country by 2030. Participation by the ordinary people has already begun.
The task is clearly major, and advances in many areas will provide challenges for all involved. For example, energy suppliers will have to avoid the policies of unequal charging in poorer or more isolated areas. Gender inequalities in employment have persisted despite many legal and policy efforts, perhaps with a female First Minister and many female MPs we may make progress here!
And there are more subtle inequalities: how to involve European workers settled here in full community and electoral participation? Legal representation and involving transitory populations such as migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees? The treatment and deportation of failed asylum seekers is, like elsewhere in the UK, seen as deplorable and certainly unfair and unequal treatment.
But ‘Bravo!’ to the Scottish Government for making this practical start on realising the values they have espoused from the beginning. We hope that it can achieve success, and are cheered that each of us have a role in deciding how much success and social change is brought about.
Tony Clarke – QCS Expert Scottish Care Contributor