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What do we do about forgotten Scotland?

We need an honest public debate about welfare that moves beyond the comforting certainties of "Tory cuts" versus "welfare scroungers" - people's lives depend on it.
Gerry Hassan
26 October 2010

Most politics is not about the art of lying or spinning. It is about telling partial truths or half-truths which often conceal the wider reality.

Examples include the idea that the 1960s are the source of most of our problems, the start of the decline of authority and the left’s undermining of moral values. The alternative view is that the 1980s were where it all went wrong, the age of selfishness and Thatcherism.

Then there is the account of Scotland as a rich, prosperous country with near-limitless potential, or a poor, wee, divided, windswept place which can barely stand on its own two feet.

One of the contemporary partial truths is about who is responsible for the current economic mess. To some it is Labour’s deficit and debacle, to others it is all down to the bankers and the global crisis.

What is the victim in these accounts is any real search for the answer or acknowledgement of complexity, and nowhere is this more evident than in the present welfare debate.

‘The Guardian’ middle class left mindset states that welfare is mostly about structural issues, people excluded from labour markets and society through no fault of their own.

The centre-right ‘Spectator’/’Daily Telegraph’ world stresses that many if not most on welfare are there because of individual weakness and demotivation, and in the extreme ‘Daily Mail’ case, living the life of reilly at the taxpayer’s expense.

These two tribal, instinctual responses only explain part of the picture. Leave aside the wider issue for the moment of the wisdom of the government’s deficit reduction plan and public spending cuts, the regressive attack on the poorest households, and the coalition’s rather transparent attempt to conceal this.

Let's examine the welfare issue in the UK and Scotland. We have a growing, profound problem with welfare, with blighted lives, people trapped and opportunities lost, all at a huge cost to us in public spending and as a society.

Iain Duncan Smith, Work and Pensions Minister, has to be applauded for his road to Damascus conversion after his visit to Easterhouse. This has been a genuine, eye-opening journey in which IDS was shocked by the scale of apathy and disconnection in Glasgow’s north-east estate. He vowed to do something about it, and true to his word he set up the influential Centre for Social Justice which produced the ‘Broken Britain’ analysis which has informed much of the coalition’s thinking.

The problem with welfare is a complex one involving labour markets, society, changing expectations and families, and a revolution in the roles of men and women.

There are currently 2.5 million people in Britain on incapacity benefit, with huge numbers of men and women in places such as Glasgow, South Wales and Liverpool.

Incapacity benefit is a one-way ticket to never working again; it involves stigmatising people in the eyes of employers, and an element of income maximalisation by GPs with clients.

Incapacity benefit levels vary greatly across Scotland, ranging from a high of 13.6% of the working age population of Glasgow (down from a high of 18.8% in 2000), to a low of 5.9% in East Renfrewshire.

Within Glasgow itself there are huge differences which have been mapped in detailed analysis by the Scottish Observatory for Work and Health. A staggering 29.6% of Parkhead and Dalmarnock’s working age population is on incapacity (down from a high of 38.9% in 2000), compared to 4.7% in leafy Pollokshields West and 3.8% in Kelvindale and Kelvinside.

An astonishing 30.4% of 55-59 year olds in Glasgow are on incapacity, compared to 16.6% in Scotland. 52% of Glasgow people on incapacity are there because of mental health problems, a figure which has been rising in recent years, while 61% of claimants in the city have been on incapacity for over five years.

The coalition proposals to tackle incapacity are born of a need to do something about this. Radical reform is required, but reform has to help people as well as saving money and not be Treasury-led. In some areas, the coalition seem motivated by an attack on those whom they judge ‘the undeserving poor’, reducing already parsimonious benefit levels, and not offering more resources to those who need them such as the recently made unemployed.

Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) is a mere £65.45 per week if you are over 25 years age  (and £51.85 if under 25), and the coalition are counting on a general ignorance on the part of the public about the poor level of most benefits, and the power of scare stories of families claiming hundreds of thousands in benefits.

Addressing the issue of the 2.5 million people on incapacity benefit in the UK is an absolute necessity. This has to occur in the context of intensive, extensive one-to-one support which costs a lot and at the moment does not look likely in the near-future.

Something has to change and a mature debate has to begin which moves away from slogans and embraces complexity, acknowledging the role of individual motivation and labour markets, psychology and economics.

Pivotal to this is the issue of the changing roles of men and women, the decline of a whole tranche of ‘male jobs’, the demise of ‘the breadwinner’, and the way women more than men have been able to navigate the new world of more flexible, often part-time work. More men than women are on incapacity benefit, reflecting the changing economy and gender roles these last few decades.

The ‘walking wounded’ who stagger up and down the streets of Glasgow and its surrounding areas are made up mostly of a certain type of ‘the West of Scotland man’ who have lost many of the totems which gave meaning and definition to their lives and place in the community, and urgently needs help, support and advice.

That does not mean leaving people stuck on incapacity benefit, but it does mean giving consideration to rolling out pathbreaking projects which have worked individually, street by street, word of mouth, building up trust and stories of success. And that, for all Iain Duncan Smith’s genuine commitment, takes money.

We cannot go on the way we have done. What kind of egalitarian Scotland which prides itself on looking after its most vulnerable and poorest leaves up to one-third of parts of its biggest city on the scrapheap? And why do we as a society dare to feel good and smug about ourselves, while turning our back on this forgotten Scotland?

We cannot go back to a Groundhog Day non-debate of ‘Tory cuts’ versus ‘welfare scroungers’. Some may want to take to the mental barricades, but we have such a serious challenge with welfare that we have to resist those who for their own political reasons pose the politics of partial truths. We are literally playing with people’s lives.

Cross-posted from Gerry Hassan's column in Saturday's Scotsman.

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