June 29, 2016 : Ruth Boyle

What exactly do we mean by fairness?

We must work together to make sure that the word ‘fair’ has a strong, practical definition

In a recent Scottish Parliament debate  Graham Simpson, Conservative MSP for Central Scotland, said:

‘The question, “How do you create a fairer Scotland?” is one of those nightmare questions that might be asked at a job interview. It is a trap for the unwary, designed to snare them as they head down a blind alley, only to find that the turn they have taken is not the one the interviewer wanted.’

But what if you knew that was going to be the interview question? You’d think about it beforehand. You might even practice talking about your vision for a fairer Scotland in the shower. That way, when the question came, you would have a clear, concise answer for a far-reaching vision.

I think it’s time to come together as a sector to claim the word fair with a strategic, practical definition based on a small number of key priorities. That way, when the question is inevitably asked over the lifetime of the current parliament, we will answer with a strong, unified vision and voice.

Fair is teetering of the edge of being a catchall term which simultaneously means everything to everyone and absolutely nothing in practical terms

With the Scottish Government having put ‘fairness’ and social justice at the heart of its agenda, there is a great opportunity for the third sector. So much of what we do is centred on equality and promoting the needs of vulnerable people. It’s encouraging that the Government is talking in these terms.

Actually, when you look around, it seems everyone is talking about ‘fairness’

Even the Conservatives at Westminster have adopted the term to some degree. A quick search of their 2015 manifesto produces multiple results for the word ‘fair’, with talk of fair deals for farmers, fairer welfare systems, fair funding for schools and unfair parliamentary boundaries.

We need to be careful that all this rhetoric doesn’t reduce fairness to a buzzword, one without meaning that political parties can add to briefings and policies in a bid to make themselves look focused on inequality.

Many can talk the fairness talk, but can they walk the fairness walk?

I recently attended my first Third Sector Forum since joining SCVO. It was inspiring to hear strong voices from across our diverse sector, all with a positive, far-reaching vision for a better Scotland. We’re united as a sector behind broad-ranging ambitions, although the priorities and definitions of ‘fair’ may vary around the table.

The aforementioned parliamentary debate highlighted the many ways in which our elected representatives, and their parties, interpret ‘fairness’. MSPs speeches focused on many issues, from cancer treatment and fiscal fairness, to education and housing. The risk is that fair is teetering of the edge of being a catchall term which simultaneously means everything to everyone and absolutely nothing in practical terms.

The SNP Government has opened the door for social justice. It’s up to us to seize the opportunity to highlight the important work we do in this area. We need to make sure the ‘fairness’ agenda leads to greater equality, a focus on human rights and tackling the causes of poverty.

It would be great if we, as the third sector, could pull together to create a ‘fair manifesto’. What is our single priority for each of the ten domains, as defined in Is Scotland Fairer?, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s report? Is there a way of measuring success against these priorities?

SCVO has started some of this thinking by producing a briefing for the Government debate. It touches on key areas of the social justice agenda and highlights some of the solutions put forward by our members.

It would be great to continue this conversation with you. Let’s make sure that the third sector has clear answer, a defined set of priorities and a unified voice when we face the pivotal question: how do you create a fairer Scotland?

Important: Opinions expressed by bloggers are their own and don't represent those of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

by Ruth Boyle