Speech: Oxfam’s Lift Lives for Good campaign

Photo of luxury yacht, captioned "The 85 richest people own the same wealth as the 3.5 billion poorest people. -- Oxfam"

Jean spoke in the debate on Oxfam‘s Lift Lives for Good campaign on Tuesday 21st January, brought by her fellow Highlands and Islands independent MSP, John Finnie. You can watch the debate on the BBC site (Jean’s speech starts at just over 16 minutes in), read the transcript in the Parliament’s Official Report. Read Oxfam’s full Lift Lives For Good report on tackling inequality and climate change, and please donate to the campaign if you can.

I, too, thank John Finnie for securing the debate. Oxfam’s record in fighting poverty is quite exceptional. As an organisation it has, more than any other, highlighted the work that has yet to be done.

We should celebrate Oxfam’s work in showing that deprivation is not just about money. It is also about mental and physical health, feeling safe and secure, and connectedness to family and community. Oxfam’s work on the Humankind Index, which released its second annual results for Scotland in June last year, gives us a vital way of understanding this complexity. Gross domestic product growth is no good if all the growth goes to the rich, or if wealth is being created only by breaking the backs and spirits of working people.

This week, Oxfam revealed that the 85 richest people in the world own as much as the poorest half of the human race, which is 3.5 billion people put together. The Scottish Government’s stated priority is sustainable economic growth; I hope that, one day, we will see that being extended to include sustainable human wellbeing.

One idea that was raised in a meeting in Parliament last week is worth serious consideration: a universal basic income, or citizen’s income. The amount would be enough to cover basic needs and it would be paid to every citizen without means testing. It would recognise unpaid work such as raising children and looking after relatives, and it would support lifelong learning, reduce inequality and give us a real chance to abolish poverty altogether — a mission that less radical ideas have repeatedly failed to achieve.

Oxfam’s Lift Lives for Good campaign recognises the importance of building skills and community links as well as providing aid. Here in Scotland, two of Oxfam’s partners recognise the importance of wellbeing beyond money. Tea in the Pot, in Govan, helps women who have mental health problems to share their experiences and ideas. Not only does that element of the project help people to fight loneliness and improve wellbeing, but the project also means that people who are normally excluded from decision-making and ignored by officials can work together to make their voices heard and challenge the policies and conditions that damage their wellbeing.

Let us celebrate Oxfam often, but let us work harder on our National Performance Framework and on introducing some of the key elements that people have declared are a priority for them, which are not about getting more money but involve other areas and issues around wellbeing that Oxfam has highlighted.

After Thatcherism: Let’s put quality of life first

After the Independent/Green group debate on the legacy of Margaret Thatcher, Jean called for a more equal society that values quality of life:

“I’m pleased that MSPs approached the debate as it was intended; not for personal attacks on Margaret Thatcher but an as an opportunity to critique and to think beyond the ideology of Thatcherism. For me, it was an opportunity to consider how to reverse the terrible inequality Thatcherism wrought.

“Under Thatcherite governments of both Westminster parties, the UK has become the fourth most unequal country in the developed world. Politics has become fixated on international corporate profit above all else, when really all most of us want is a society that provides a safe, happy environment for ourselves, our children and our neighbours.

“The debate raised the importance of goals other than crude GDP. As Scotland looks to create a new vision of society in a post-Thatcherite and possibly post-UK age, we should consider tools like Oxfam’s Humankind Index, which encourage us to pursue real progress in areas like health, education and family life.”

Speech: Oxfam’s Humankind Index

I congratulate Ken Macintosh on bringing this debate to the chamber. I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in favour of the motion and in favour of Oxfam’s vital work in the area. As members know, it is common for us to receive briefings or points of view from interested parties on the debates that we have in the chamber, but it is uncommon for those contributions to be unanimous in their tone. The overwhelming and sincere support for the humankind index from groups across Scottish civic society is welcome and telling.

For too long, Scotland and the developed world as a whole have relied on GDP figures to paint a picture of a prosperous society. However, as Oxfam has succinctly remarked, GDP is a

“consumption-oriented and distribution-blind measure”.

Sadly, a high GDP and endemic and crippling poverty are not mutually exclusive but in fact often go hand in hand, as the growing inequality of the past 30 years in the United Kingdom has shown. A reliance on GDP figures and purely economic statistics by policy makers can harm the common weal, rather than helping to ameliorate society’s scars.

The Oxfam humankind index is specifically designed to avoid those statistical pitfalls in measuring the health of our society. To Oxfam’s credit, it has gone the extra mile in reaching out to as many parts of the community as possible. It has involved those on lower incomes who, unfortunately, feel disengaged with the political process and asked them what really matters in their life. We can learn a lot from that method of consultation and participation, particularly from the efforts that Oxfam has made to accommodate participants through provision of childcare and expenses.

It should come as no surprise that the index has shown that, for most people, good health, strong communities and a healthy local environment are the priorities. Perhaps the lasting contribution of the index will be that policy makers such as us will reach decisions on the basis of how policies will help to achieve those laudable aims, rather than purely on the basis of the effect on the nation’s finances. In our future policy deliberations, it is vital that we use the humankind index. We have been provided with a tool to help deliver social justice for Scotland, so I hope that we can use it. I support the motion.