Are the SNP planning to restrict universal access to public services?
Last summer the Scottish Government commissioned Naomi Eisenstadt as an independent poverty advisor. In January this year she completed a report in which she suggested that the Scottish Government should reign back on universal free access to services and concentrate resources on those most in need. What is interesting about this recommendation is that it is exactly what you would expect Eisenstadt to say given her previous experience. Which begs the question: in an age of austerity did the SNP commission her as they realise that they may have to cut back on universal public services? Was she employed to help justify a decision that they have already made? Events this week have heightened my suspicion that they just might make some changes to their current policies in the next term.
Eisenstadt worked with New Labour to roll out the Sure Start Scheme in England and Wales in the late 1990s. In the beginning this scheme was targeted in poor areas but over the years the service has become popular with the middle classes and has grown to become universal. Eisenstadt is on record blaming a decline on the effectiveness of the scheme on the fact it became less targeted. She has said that the scheme worked better when there was a basic level of service for all alongside a more robust service for those who needed it most.
Eisenstadt is a long-term proponent of what has been called proportionate universalism:
A balance between a universal and targeted approach is the mantra of health inequalities expert Sir Michael Marmot, whose ‘proportionate universalism’ suggests actions to tackle inequality must be universal, but with a scale and intensity proportionate to the level of disadvantage. Eisenstadt has worked with Marmot, and it shows.
“The big issue you learn from Michael is if you’re interested in inequality, it’s about flattening the gradient so that the difference between richest and poorest isn’t so great. It’s that if you only work with the very poorest you miss a lot of the need… but services for everybody often miss the poorest, and services for the poor often aren’t good services.”
Her argument is reasonable and may well be the sensible way to proceed. In her report she is suggesting that maybe the Scottish Government’s much heralded stance on things like free prescriptions and free tuition is the wrong one. That maybe there should be some form of means testing with regard to public provisions and that those who can afford to pay do so while those who can’t get all the help they need.
The SNP, on the other-hand, have always proudly supported and made a big deal about universalism. They subscribe to the view that certain key things should be free at the point of access. The main argument for universalism is that by having a service free to all then that service will be valued and protected by those with political power. Whereas if you make it just for the less well off then several things happen.
First, it’s incredibly inefficient because immediately a chunk of the money that would be spent on the service is instead spent on assessment and other bureaucracy.
Second, because these services then become services only for the poor (who have a low propensity to vote), politicians have little incentive to support them properly, particularly when budgets are being cut (you only need to look at the assault on social services taking place in England just now to see this).
And third, because these are then seen as ’emergency’ services, we are as a society much less invested in whether they are actually any good or not – the middle classes whom politicians shape policy to woo not longer have any vested interest and so bare-bones services are what result.
At the time of the original report I did find it suspicious that the SNP had appointed Eisenstedt in the first place. If they had done any research, they must have known the type of policies she was going to suggest. They are a well oiled political machine so why would they want someone who would criticise one of their key selling points, when other experts could have provided a more favourable viewpoint.
And this week my suspicions have been heightened as it was announced that the SNP response to her report has been delayed till after the May elections. The official reason given is one of time constraints which seems odd given they have had over 2 months to produce an official response. Maybe they are delaying as they are going to completely ignore the advice in the report and don’t want to be accused of wasting money producing it. Maybe it was all an oversight to hire her in the first place.
I hope I am wrong but I think the SNP are too good at politics to hire Eisenstedt without vetting her first. It will be interesting to see if there are any changes to how public services are provided after the election.
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