Ex-Scottish Government ministers open up on barriers to tackling inequality 


Labour, Liberal, and SNP MSPs say structures and lack of political will leaves inequality entrenched

THREE MINISTERS from previous Scottish Governments have provided their opinions for why inequality remains so high despite 16 years of devolution at a political conference in Edinburgh yesterday (Tuesday 6 September).

MSPs Richard Lochhead, Tavish Scott and Johann Lamont all served in government positions at Holyrood across different administrations, and explained that there were various political and economic pressures that presented barriers to radical action on tackling inequality. 

The income of Scotland's richest 30 per cent, middle 40 per cent & poorest 30 per cent is unchanged after four Scottish Parliaments, while overall social mobility has stagnated.

Johann Lamont, former Scottish Labour leader and government minister 2004-2007

“We were in power when there was significant monies coming into the budgets, and I think we made huge efforts round social inclusion partnerships, round investing in childcare, SureStart, and all of these things drove the agenda.

“Of course what you need is a cross-government understanding, and I think that is a real challenge. I think if you’re talking about ‘silo mentalities’, certainly that was my experience that that was something that had to be opened up more.

“The other thing that we did do was very early on we produced an annual social justice report, which reported on government action and outcomes against strategy. One of the first things the SNP did when they came is was get rid of it. 

“What it became was something that revealed on an annual basis what your successes were. I can think of any number of examples…it must have been about the ‘early days’ [of devolution]. The Scottish Executive of that time actively found things to beat your own back with.

“Now governments don’t want to do those things. I think it’s a matter of regret that we don’t keep measuring and then use that as a challenge in terms of action. I understand the constitutional debate has created a different dynamic in terms of what people are arguing about: ‘Well we can achieve equality once we’ve done that.’

“But in terms of the day-to-day working of government, if we were serious about inequality…if you did an equality impact assessment on what we spend our money on currently you would fail, if we had an honest one.

“I’m told, for example, that it’s harder for a young person in Scotland to get into university than it was five years ago. It’s counter-intuitive that it’s a consequence of funding higher education, capping the places, but reducing the amount year on year of money that goes in.

“So in terms of the function of government, it’s about getting good people in who understand the areas. Then take it step by step. All governments are guilty of the rhetoric on inequality. You’ll have heard the saying before: ‘Don’t tell me what you care about. Show us your budgets.’

“I think we need to go back to more rigorous connections between what we spend our money on, how we’re spending it, and what outcomes are generally in terms of equality.”

Tavish Scott, former Scottish Liberal Democrat leader and government minister 2005-2007 

“My recollection of one related issue to Johann’s illustration is on health, when a very learned health expert called Sir John Arbuthnott came in to try and produce a formula to screw health funding to the area that needed it more. 

“So the debate that inevitably came was: ‘We should be inevitably spending more in the deprived areas of Glasgow, Dundee and some other parts of Scotland – and less in, for example, the north east of Scotland. Cue political row.

“Cue political row in ‘stakeholders’ like the BMA (British Medical Association) and others, giving health ministers and the rest of the government a hard time. That’s when you need real, strong, ministerial leadership.

“It’s that balance between being very clear about trying to make a change of which there is a genuinely big picture, a solid, intellectually evidence based argument for it, and overcoming the politics of it when you have backbenchers inevitably arguing for their patches [constituencies], you have BMA or someone else arguing for defending the budget of all primary care etc.

“My lesson of government on that – and that was a tough one, I’m not sure we ever made the degree of change that we should have done, in the way that Sir John Arbuthnott recommended – my reflection on that is the small ‘p’ politics both of ‘stakeholders’ and backbenchers on all sides – course the opposition were doing their job of saying ‘This is all wrong’ – made making the degree of change much more difficult than it should.”

Richard Lochhead, government minister 2007-2016

“A lot of measures are being taken to tackle inequalities in Scotland. Whether it’s gender inequality, introducing the living wage, the tax powers will lead to more debate as years go by…

“Looking to what more has to be done, the challenges and learning from the past, two things come to my mind. Firstly, the need for strong political leadership because of the vested interests we have in society. 

“That is going to be a big battle in terms of delivering equality in Scotland with some of the powerful vested interests we have in this country.

“Secondly, budgets clearly is a big feature. If you look at the Scottish budget, and by the time you take off all the commitments for salaries, health, teaching, and local government, by the time you take off the capital commitments for the next few years, the amount of room you have to manoeuvre in Scotland’s budget is actually quite small.

“So governments in future with declining budgets either have to take really, really brave decisions to shift significant budgets to different places, otherwise they’re going to be left with very small room for manoeuvre in trying to tackle inequalities in Scotland.”

Scotland’s index of multiple deprivation (SIMD) was published last week and identified the entrenched inequalities across Scotland.

Picture: CommonSpace

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