In the Scotsman today Jane Bradley quite convincingly questions whether the money used by the SNP Government to fund its “Baby Box” scheme could not be better used to target support at those parents who need it most.
Of course, the debate surrounding universalism versus targeted benefits is age old and extends far beyond Scotland. There are overwhelming arguments for the universal delivery of benefits such as health and education, but it’s important that some others are evaluated to ensure they offer a net benefit to society.
The SNP’s “Poverty Tsar” Naomi Eisenstadt CB considered universalism in her report for the Scottish Government. She concluded that universalism can “mean spreading a limited budget too thinly” and that “money should be spent on trying to level the playing field, not, as is sometimes the case, reinforcing ongoing disadvantage”. With the subtlety of a brick, she said “it would be very useful to have a clear and shared understanding of what a progressive universal system would look like”. She went on to say that the SNP could learn a lot from how Labour had delivered Sure Start by targeting it at disadvantaged families.
Of course, what Eisenstadt is getting at is the chaotic delivery of universal benefits in Scotland. University education is not means tested, but this is funded by means testing and cutting the student grant for the poorest students. We have families using foodbanks, but the SNP extended Labour’s targeted free school meals policy to include the very wealthiest families.
It took Nicola Sturgeon almost 4 months to respond to Eisenstadt’s report, and on the same day she promised the Baby Box as a universal benefit. Labour has already noted it contains no support for those needing help with breast feeding, an unacceptable oversight when we know breastfeeding uptake is lower in more deprived areas.
Perhaps Professor Graham Watt, an expert in community healthcare and deprivation at Glasgow University, was right when he said it was “an expensive, unhelpful stunt”? I guess we may find out if the SNP actually say how this fits into the “progressive universal system” strategy Eisenstadt asked for.