Monday, 19 November 2018

In Case You Missed It - launch of Report into effects of two child policy and benefit assessments on 13 November
click on link here for Stories From The Benefits Front Line Report

Battling for Fairness and Dignity

A common theme of the stories that the Poverty Truth Commission, in Scotland, hears from individuals and families who have a lived experience of poverty is that of having to fight for fairness in a welfare benefits system that often deprives them of dignity and treats them with disbelief. Children inevitably suffer and as one of our testifiers put it “… the poor and innocents should not be the first people penalised with these immoral cuts.”

 The Poverty Truth Commissioners believe that what is needed instead is a benefits system that starts from the premise that all of us may need support from benefits at some point (s) in our lives and that therefore we have a shared interest in ensuring that benefit applicants are treated with dignity and respect. Thus, our Commissioners seek an approach that fully and meaningfully recognises people as individuals who are in possession of rights as well as responsibilities. Indeed, rights and responsibilities are critical to creating a dignified system of social security as opposed to a demeaning system of 'welfare.'

Today the Poverty Truth Commission’s Cuts and Assessments working group publish their Report titled 'Stories from The Benefits Front Line - Battling for Fairness and Dignity'. It makes several recommendations arising from research that includes stories/testimonies gathered by members of the group.  The focus of its research was two-fold, namely the two-child policy and the long assessment process for disability benefits for young people transitioning to adult benefits. One PTC Commissioner summarized this traumatic process by saying “I have never come up against anything as complicated, frustrating and stressful as I have with the whole Employment and Support Allowance process. My mental health suffered. I really didn’t need this on top of caring for my son.”  To seriously begin addressing these issues, the Report recommends:

  • Unfreezing benefits and uprating them annually, at least in line with inflation as measured by the Consumer Prices Index (CPI).
  • The immediate abolition of the entire Two Child Policy for Child Tax Credits and Universal Credit.
  • A more holistic understanding within government of disability and its impact on the financial, social and health needs of benefit claimants applying for Personal Independence Payments (PIP) and/or Employment Support Allowance (ESA).
  • A major reduction in the current minimum benefits assessment period of 13 weeks for ESA.
  • The back payment of eligible benefits to the date of first application. 

Alongside this call for action we have written  to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to invite her to meet us in order to discuss our Report and the recommendations that flow from it. We know that this is a challenge to current thinking and policy on Benefits for the Secretary of State. Nevertheless, we hope that many people and organisations will want to support us as we invite Ms Rudd and the DWP to a mutually respectful dialogue about our recommendations. We will let you know how the DWP responds to our request for a meeting.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018



 Stories From The Benefits Frontline


By Jane Fowler

When we first met as a group to work on the broad topic of cuts and assessments, we needed to find a focus for our research.

There were so many issues that provoked despair and bewilderment – and the anger that comes from being at the sharp end of a benefits system which many feel is uncaring.


I asked a question.

Which, of all the cuts, and the assessments that go with them, is the most iniquitous?

There was a short pause and then stories were shared from first-hand experience on one particular area: the impact of the various elements of Universal Credit on families, and thereby, on children.


It was from the personal experience of those within the group, and their knowledge of others who had encountered similar problems, that we decided to focus on disability benefit processes, as they affect children moving from one benefit to another as they enter adulthood at the age of 16, and the 2 child policy, which limits benefits to only two children, regardless of the circumstances of a mother or family. 


Statistics may be dismissed as ‘damned lies’ but when gathered with rigour, they can offer a stark truth. The Child Poverty Action Group estimate that 200 000 children will be pulled into poverty by the two-child limit in the next two or three years.

That is a horrendous figure.  And this, in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.


There have been ongoing cuts to Universal Credit since its introduction in 2013.  These may be invisible to those lucky enough not to claim benefit.

But the figures, again from Child Poverty Action, reveal that couples with children who need benefits will be £960 worse off in 2020 compared with the income they could have expected in the absence of cuts to universal credit.  Single parents will be £2380 worse off.


This is the crucial fact.  Families with children lose out more under Universal Credit than any other group.  Universal Credit was supposed to reduce poverty – and yet this is its consequence.


Personal stories based on experience are at the heart of the Poverty Truth Commission.

Statistics can offer context.  (They can, of course, be fashioned by some to bolster a political argument.)

Personal stories offer the truth of people’s lives.

They take us to the heart of the matter.




Our group sought the personal testimonies of those with children.


As Barbara describes, her disabled son has always needed, and will always need, 1 to 1 care.

She had to give up full time employment to care for him and left a high pressured, well paid job to do so.  When her son approached 16, she had to apply for the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) that marks the move from child to adult services. As soon as you apply, your Child Tax Credits and Child Benefit Stop.

The assessment period is 13 weeks, so you’re looking at a huge loss of money.


In her job, Barbara had managed stressful situations on a daily basis.  But her comment on the experience of trying to navigate the process on behalf of her son speaks for many.

‘I have never come up against anything as complicated, frustrating and stressful as I have with the whole ESA process.  My mental health suffered.  I didn’t really need this on top of caring for my son.’


Another story stays in my mind.  Amy has had ME for 7 years which causes her great pain and fatigue as well as cognitive impairment.  She came to speak to us and described how the questioning during her Appeal tribunal had been extremely leading and framed in terms of challenging her claim to be ill, asking her to prove that she was ill.  She was asked what grade she had gained in the Higher exam she took the previous year.  It was a good grade, and the reply was to the effect, ‘Well, there you are then’.

End of story.  Proof positive.  Guilty. Not ill.


Her mum thought to herself, ‘A person could do the West Highland Way on their hands and knees over the course of a year.  Just because they’ve done the West Highland Way doesn’t mean they aren’t disabled.’


Amy had a relapse after the tribunal and had to drop out of college.  She feels that the stress of the tribunal contributed to her relapse.


A culture of disbelief.  A system that is dehumanising.  And as Jackie says in her forward to our report, no sense that children have natural rights that do not depend on income.


Our recommendations are at the end of our report.  I hope you might find time to read them.  They matter.

link to Stories From The Benefits Front Line report









Friday, 2 February 2018

Book Review - 'Poverty Safari' by Darren McGarvey

Ex-PTC commissioner Darren McGarvey has found his voice. The book is a series of personal memoirs and reflections, often controversial, that sometimes link and often go off at tangents. His mother’s early death from alcohol and drug abuse is the framework on which he hangs a contrasting account of the changes he has made in his own life, overcoming addictions and an attitude of blaming everybody else. It’s a moving story and he tells with great honesty.

But what makes the book compelling is his often angry perspective on how the world looks from where he grew up in a troubled family in Pollok. He suggests that child abuse and domestic violence, even if they are not at the root of poverty, play a role in holding it in place. He describes the stress of living in poverty, naming it as “the connective tissue between social problems such as addiction, violence and chronic illness, as well as the multiple crises in our public services”. There’s plenty to take in from the perspective of the schemes.

So why Poverty Safari? I understand this to be Darren’s interpretation of what middle class people are doing when they are paid to “regenerate” working class areas. The well-meaning middle class folk are parachuted in with middle class values and alien agendas prepared by remote institutions. In a chapter called “The Outsiders” he illustrates the discrepancy between government rhetoric and what is delivered on the ground, and the consistent failure to meet local needs. PTC Commissioners should read this chapter, even if they skip the rest.

It’s lucid and articulate, and a great read. I recommend it.

Patrick Boase

Monday, 23 October 2017

Jane's Blog October 2017

The comments the Conservative MP Jacob Rees Mogg made on food banks hit the headlines immediately.
And little wonder.
According to this potential Tory leader, the voluntary support given to food banks is ‘rather uplifting’.
It shows ‘what a compassionate country we are’.

The only reason for the rise in the use of foodbanks is ‘that people know that they are there.’
His conclusion?
‘Inevitably, the state can’t do everything, so I think there is good within food banks.’

The welfare state created at the end of World War Two was designed to look after its citizens from cradle to grave, to protect their social and economic well-being.  Food, and having enough to eat every day of life, is clearly the most basic of needs.
Not some luxury extra.

Most people give money or volunteer their time to the Trust organising food banks not out of ‘compassion’ but out of shame and anger that food banks should be necessary in a country as wealthy as Britain.
Food banks are necessary.  They should not be necessary, certainly not on the current scale, and it is within our power to change that.

Citizens Advice Scotland have been monitoring the number of requests they have received from people who have reached  crisis point.  Between 2012/13 and 2014/15, the number of people seeking advice on Crisis Grants has increased
134 per cent  (compared to advice regarding the former scheme, Crisis Loans).
134 per cent.
More worryingly are the number of people who come to Citizens Advice bureaux having not eaten for a number of days.
Days.  Plural.

We know that already.  But the objective, official data makes it stark, in black and white.
Undeniable and unacceptable.

At our last meeting, the need to make allies was raised.  To work across political boundaries to fight poverty.

To join together to create a wave of opposition that cannot be ignored.
To fight against a system that no longer offers a safety net, especially  in crisis – and we can all fall into crisis.
To look at the bigger issues.  In work poverty.  Zero hour contracts.  The real cost of living compared to the benefits offered.
What it takes to lift individuals and families out of poverty.

Working together.

It is galvanising to be part of the Poverty Truth Commission as we endeavour to do this from our different walks of life, finding new allies.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Jane's Blog August 2017

Jane and Sadia, two of our Commissioners will be blogging each month, sharing their thoughts, experiences and what it means to be a Poverty Truth Commissioner.  

In the seventh of the series, Jane shares her thoughts on children, childhood and the Working Group on Cuts and Assessments.

It’s funny the things that stick from childhood.
My family moved around a lot when I was young, from Blantyre in Malawi to Carnoustie to Solihull to Aberdeen.
I remember one primary school very clearly.
Each morning we were given a text from the bible.  Just a few words.
And the one I remember most clearly is,
‘Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven’.
Or as it’s sometimes written now,
‘Let the little children come to me, and stop keeping them away, because the kingdom from heaven belongs to people like these’ 
It is the most magical text.
Children as the most important people, no matter what else is going on.
It’s been much in my mind as we have been working out what to focus on in our group looking at Cuts and Assessments.
Outside the commission, I have a  friend, who I’ve just got to know recently.
She has 4 children.  She was married but her husband left. 
The youngest two are twin boys, one fully healthy and enjoying every aspect of life as he reaches 16.
The other has serious learning difficulties with physical problems too.
My friend is full of fun with a great sparkle and an enthusiasm for every day of life.
A while back, she  mentioned that she tends to go to bed early.
Why, I asked?
Her son with learning difficulties never sleeps for more than an hour.  He never has.  
Only it’s better now that he isn’t crying when he wakes.
And that was the first of how I learnt quite how challenging her life is.
Our group has decided to focus on children and young people, in particular the impact of cuts on Child Tax Credits and on children with special needs as they move to adult services.
I am so glad to be part of this group.
The late MP Tam Dalyell was always forthright in his views.
When a journalist colleague turned up at Tam’s house to record an interview,
Tam walked straight over to my colleague’s car.  There was a baby seat in the back.
‘Ah! Said Tam.  ‘Children! Children! Children are the salt of the earth!’

Monday, 10 July 2017

Sadia's Blog July 2017

Jane and Sadia, two of our new Commissioners will be blogging each month, sharing their thoughts, experiences and what it means to be a Poverty Truth Commissioner.  

In the sixth of the series, Sadia shares her thoughts and the thoughts of others on the impact of poverty on families seeking asylum.

I have done so much thinking about poverty and how it’s affecting many families in my community of which most of them are single mothers. I had a chance to discuss my thoughts and also hear the women discussing how there is a lot of fear, worries and frustrations just to think of how to meet the demands of holidays. For instance, things like their peers getting a break and them not able to get away for even one night.

The women discussed how things like this affect the moods in the house, children demanding and mums not being able to give them what they want because they cannot afford the money and also that to most families on low income, events and activities doesn’t come as a priority to them. All the mums want is to make sure the little money they get is going to most basic needs of which is very hard for the children to understand. Why their families can’t afford and yet their friends can? It’s hard to explain to children the complications of benefits, Jobcentre and how hard it is to do the job you want with Jobcentre demands and sanctions.  My community group at Saheliya also expressed concerns over how expensive character clothing are priced. You cannot afford to spend £10-£15 on one-character clothing, and what if you have 3 young children?

There were a lot of questions and concerns discussed between us with no answers, what is the solution to end this poverty within our communities? How about the holidays coming? Children discuss holidays in schools and wish they could go to holidays local or abroad too. Some of us can’t even afford holiday even in the beautiful boarders of Scotland. Could they be considerable discount for holiday packages for some low income venerable families living in poverty?   Poverty is real and it is affecting most of families in our communities.

I want to continue to raise my voice and our voice with the Poverty Truth Commission. We need to continue meeting, discussing and looking to keep going, to take things forward.

The three working groups reflect how people are suffering: cuts, mental illness and asylum.  More cuts mean more suffering and more people in poverty and having mental illness. Poverty creates tension in families. This tension and poverty can lead to addiction, to homelessness, to poor prospects. The cuts are making people ill and sick. The fear the cuts bring is leading to mental illness. A lot of people are affected by this. The behaviour of young people is affected by growing up in poverty.

Yet still I live with hope that things can change.

Friday, 2 June 2017

Jane's Blog June 2017

Jane and Sadia, two of our new Commissioners will be blogging each month, sharing their thoughts, experiences and what it means to be a Poverty Truth Commissioner.  

In the fifth of the series, Jane talks about the 3 Working Groups looking at Mental Health, Asylum and Cuts and Assessments that have been set up.  

"Now we move into 3 groups, each of which focuses on a particular issue.
I have chosen the group that will look at cuts and assessments.

This is something that really matters to me.
I have seen friends and family fearful, anxious and extremely worried at the prospect not just of losing their benefits
but of the process of being ‘assessed’.  What a cold, frightening word.
And what exactly are the criteria for that assessment? 

As for the forms involved, I have never met a single person who understood how the form should be answered.
And all of us know the feeling of trying to complete a form you don’t understand.  You feel sick, stupid and very vulnerable.
If you try to explain how a condition can vary from day to day, and that’s the truth of many chronic conditions, you’re likely to lose in what seems like a game of snakes and ladders – except this particular board game has only snakes, spiralling down.

Our role in the new group is to gather evidence.  We, as the commissioners, are the evidence.  So personal stories are what we will gather.
I’m aware that what we pull together and how we focus this is of huge importance.  It feels exciting to be underway with this work but again, I need to keep listening to others.

Now that we can reveal our roles and jobs outside the commission, I can own up to being that thing called - a journalist!
I have worked for many years in broadcasting and as a freelance writer. 
So I will hope to find ways of drawing attention in the media to the work we do over the next months.

Outside the Commission, I am continuing to volunteer with the Welcoming Charity in Edinburgh.
It welcomes asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants to Scotland, offering classes in English, outings, musical events -  you name it, they try to arrange it. This month a beginner’s group for joggers began.

I volunteer at the weekly conversation cafĂ©, where anyone with a bit of English can come along.  Each time I go, I am overwhelmed by the enthusiasm and commitment of those who are learning English.
I watch them launching into sentences on all sorts of subjects as if they were leaping off the top diving board – plunging in, so keen to try.
I spoke to one young man from Cadiz who had trained as a social worker.  I said that I thought the unemployment rate in Madrid was around 25 per cent.  He replied, ‘In Madrid, yes.  But where I live, in the south, or in the rural areas, it’s nearer 65 per cent.  I will never work as a social worker where I am from.  I have to learn English and speak it fluently to find another job.  I want to become bilingual.’
He’s working as a kitchen porter and loves being in Scotland. 

It reminds me of a conversation I had with one of my fellow commissioners a while back, who arrived in Scotland as an asylum seeker from Somalia.  She was offered classes in English when she arrived but wants further classes to be offered for  those in her community.
To make real progress in the job market, you need to be fluent in English.

There is so much to be done and I am looking forward to the next meetings with the Commission."