Monday, 16 December 2013

Reflections from Lynn

Reflections from Lynn Hendry (Commissioner)
12th December 2013
Christmas is a time for community spirit and generosity.

This year that bond has been made even more acute with happenings in Glasgow at the Clutha Vaults and the loss of Nelson Mandela.

People young and old and from varying backgrounds have come together to express their support for those they see as less fortunate than themselves.  Their desire to do something good for their fellow man made so much more acute by the festive spirit that grows across the city.

But at this time a life in poverty becomes much more acute.

I’d like to share with you my personal reflections of a year working with the Poverty Truth Commission.

In my meetings with the other commissioners I’m always struck by their desire to improve the lives of others – really against the odds.

Since becoming involved I’ve begun to understand that not only can your life be turned around overnight, but that once you are living in poverty there are actually structural and institutional barriers that keep you there.

It’s astonishing that commissioners whose income is around a fifth of mine are paying twice as much for their electricity and gas because they are forced to use a card meter and can’t negotiate for a better tariff.

It’s heartbreaking that when my child is sick I don’t think twice about calling NHS 24, while others have to work out whether they can afford to make the call. Why? Well that free-call service comes with a cost when you have to use a mobile phone to make the call as you don’t have a bank account to secure a landline contract.

And I leave meetings with a heavy heart as I’m told of families who visit shopping malls not to shop, but for warmth as they can’t afford to heat their homes.

It is tough. But, as my fellow commissioners have made clear to me…change is possible

It is too easy to blame others, but that is pointless and counterproductive; we all share the responsibility of tackling child poverty and to do so effectively we need to work collaboratively – with a focus on the long-term.

We must tackle poverty and disadvantage at its roots with sustained action.

And we need to work together.

Child poverty is a bigger issue than any political party, any politician or indeed any one organisation. We need a poverty reduction strategy that we all buy into and commit to over the long-term.

The commitment to end child poverty by 2020 across all political parties is not enough - it needs to be a commitment by all local authorities but also all agencies of government. Health, education, enterprise, public, private and charities - it’s not someone else’s problem its everyone’s problem. 

Children are not a private problem. They are a public responsibility.

We need to ensure benefits are adequate not just as a safety net but so families can improve themselves, get healthy, get new skills. The benefits system should be a service which leaves you healthier, stronger and more confident, not the opposite…

I believe Mohammad Yunus when he said in his noble peace prize speech that poverty isn’t a natural consequence of the human condition and that if we expect nothing to change then nothing much will.

To me changing the face of poverty in Scotland is about galvanising a collective will for change and that journey begins with a lifting of the scales from the eyes of those who would blame families for living a life less well. There are no deserving and undeserving poor – just people who find themselves locked in a cycle of living day to day, hand to mouth.

But we can all be part of that change.

So let’s take the same generosity and hunger for change we see at Christmas and make it a lifelong gift, not one that is left unwrapped when the tinsel falls.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Commissioner Presentation to Church and Society Food Poverty Workshop

26 October 2013

Commissioner from the PTC – Presentation to C. of S. Church and Society Food Poverty workshop, St Matthews Church, Perth

Benefits are not adequate to meet basic needs. I am not living on benefits but struggling to survive on them, and with the introduction of the “bedroom tax”, I have less to spend on even the basics like milk and bread, let alone healthy fruit and vegetables.

I am in receipt of Employment Support Allowance (ESA) as I have a chronic illness. I receive a reduction of £6.00 a week on my bedroom tax, but in order to meet the shortfall I often only eat toast 2 days a week. Last week I felt I was being penalised for being poor + disabled when I had to pay £10 for a doctor’s letter. It was money I did not have, so it had to come out of my food budget. Foodbanks were not an option for me, as many can only be accessed through Social Work Services, and if I don’t have money to buy food how would I find the money to travel to them. There is also the stigma attached to them. I would be ashamed if my family found out I was using them. Foodbanks are “modern malnutrition.”

I want to feed my family a healthy diet, but rising food costs prevent me from doing so. I can buy 20 sausage rolls for the price of 1 melon, or 5 packets of biscuits for the price of a loaf of bread. The unseen costs of cooking meals are also a barrier I face. I have a prepayment meter. It costs me £4.00 to cook a chicken in the oven, so instead I opt for unhealthy ready meal chicken dinners, which only cost 12p to cook in a microwave.

Accessibility to food is also a barrier to those on benefits. Small local shops both urban and rural, sell poor quality expensive and short life foodstuffs, yet in order to access large supermarkets with high quality, cheaper products, it often costs 7% of your food budget, so it is not a viable option. What annoys me is politicians and the media saying “people are not managing their benefit payments properly if they have to resort to foodbanks,” when the reality is that the amount you receive in benefits is inadequate to sustain you.

Monday, 4 November 2013

"Statistics are people with the tears washed away"

One of our Commissioners, Jen Wallace, reflects on her involvement with the Poverty Truth Commission:

Blog for Poverty Truth Commission

Jen Wallace, October 2013

When I was approached to become involved in the on-going work of the Poverty Truth Commission earlier this year I confess to being slightly sceptical of the process.  Some of my reticence was due to being identified as a ‘civic leader’ who could help them to make change happen, but in all honesty more of my unease centred on whether direct conversations with people living in poverty would make a difference to my world view.  As a social researcher by trade, I’ve spent my professional life reading, writing and commenting on reports on social exclusion, with their associated quotes and statistics. 

The extent to which the Poverty Truth Conversations have impacted on me has therefore taken me by surprise.  The activities are best described as ‘semi-structured’ with regular meetings of the whole group, sub-groups covering a number of identified themes (stigma, in-work poverty, the costs of poverty and welfare reform) and occasional cups of coffee and cake with other members. 

Peppered throughout are testimonies from people living in poverty.  With great strength, they have spoken to the whole group about their experiences of domestic abuse, benefits sanctions and the powerful stigma associated with living in poverty.  There is contained anger at the rising need for food banks across Scotland in the 21st Century.  They remind us of the people behind the headlines. 

The impact is not just emotionally powerful, with years of careful policy development behind me I have become used to using the traditional tools of influence (reports, briefings, meetings with civil servants).  Our recent sub-group conversations about the use of zero-hours contracts ended with the decision just to write to Cabinet Secretary John Swinney and ask him directly about the government’s views on these contracts.  A simple letter, containing testimony from people directly affected, cutting through the usual time consuming and frustrating processes.  But why shouldn’t we ask directly, they are our elected representatives after all. 

Part of the difficulty in writing about the work of the Poverty Truth Commission and these subsequent conversations is that the outcome of the work is unclear.  Allowing the focus and activities to come from the conversations themselves instead of a pre-set agenda is brave and at times disconcerting.  At the end of the day, outcomes will rely on the relationship that have developed, the links that are made within and beyond the Commission, and a little bit of luck in terms of identifying where we can make most difference to people living in poverty. 

For those who attend the Poverty Truth conversations, they are by equal parts challenging and inspiring.  The other members will know I have a strong predilection to using quotes when my own words fail me.  At the end of the one of the meetings I reflected on the quote by Victor Sidel – ‘statistics are people with the tears washed away’.  The Poverty Truth Commission is an inspiring way of bringing those people, their tears but also their laughter, back to the heart of policy-making. 

Tuesday, 29 October 2013


Inspired by "A Selection of Especially Stupid Benefit Sanctions" our Commissioners have been collecting stories of their own.

Attended Job Centre to sign on. Had forgotten my job diary. Wasn't allowed to go home and retrieve it. Had been allocated a time to sign on and no one could see me later.
(First time sanctioned - 2 weeks disallowance; 2 week sanction)
Was 30 minutes late for signing on. Sat in office for 1 hour to be told that I was going to be sanctioned for anywhere up to 13 weeks. I hadn't been late before.
(First time sanctioned - 2 weeks disallowance; 6 week sanction)
To attend 6 weeks training on fibre optic cable installation. It was in Govan. I stay in the East End. No lunch provided. No certificate awarded. Needless hassle. Said to Job Centre advisor about my concerns several times. Just sanctioned me. I don't care!! 
(2 weeks disallowance; 2 week sanction)

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Benefit Cuts and the Gadarene Demoniac

One of our Commissioners, Alastair McIntosh, shares his experience of poverty in his local area...

Oh dear – when Siobhan and Martin at the Poverty Truth Commission asked me, as a former commissioner, to write something for the blog I said “no” because I was just so pressed with other matters. Then I recanted! I asked myself – Why is this? – and the answer was that my time this week had been eaten up – by dealing with local issues linked to poverty. 

So I thought – OK – I’ll blast something off, but it won’t be a polished or carefully worded piece of writing. It will just be hot and on the hoof, so here it is on that basis.

Already, even before I could set pen to paper this morning (or fingers to keyboard) I have had to deal with another unexpected issue in a local organisation with which I have a slight involvement (not the GalGael) – something involving mental ill health. That’s something that’s been really impacting on me recently. So many of the consequences of ingrained poverty result in people either becoming mentally ill, or mental illness breaking through and disrupting the organisations to which they belong.

I grew up in a middle class background (as a doctor’s son) and so I know enough about the middle class world to know that mental illness is not confined to economically poor people. However, when you’re poor it’s less easy to hide it. When you’re poor, so much of who you are is out there in the open, and sometimes as an open wound. As such, when you live in an area like Govan, and are involved with a range of local organisations, you have to accept that things will happen – like I was sitting in a meeting with somebody a while back beside somebody who was standing to be a director, and he turned to me and said, quite casually, that he was having problems with “the voices” coming back since reducing his medication.

At one level this can make it seem like working with mayhem. You just don’t know what’s going to blow up next, or from whom, and sometimes you even wonder about yourself! At another level, there is a profound truth and spiritual beauty in such directness; in working with people who don’t feel the need to hide their issues. It allows you to face the other person with a rare depth of honesty. And I’m very sceptical about the idea that mental ill health is caused by organic problems in the brain. Yes, organic problems may become the symptom, but it strikes me that most people with mental issues have lived lives, or are living lives, that put them under pressure until this cracked.

That is why a lot of us who live and work in places like Govan just now are worried about the effects of benefit cuts and the bedroom tax. There just aren’t the jobs available for most of our people and it is mental cruelty to suggest otherwise. Even the supermarket checkouts are going automated. We need to rethink the basis of society; rethink how wealth is created, and shared, and what a human life requires in order to let “Glasgow flourish” – and the nation as a whole.

There is a story in the Bible about a man called the Gadarene (or Gerasene) demoniac – that is to say, he was from the Gadarenes and he had mental health problems. Chapter 5 of Mark’s gospel tells us:

This man … lived among the graves. Nobody cold keep him tied with chains any more; many times his feet and hands had been tied, but every time he broke the chains, and smashed the irons on his feet. He was too strong for anyone to stop him! Day and night he wandered among the graves and through the hills, screaming and cutting himself with stones.

Now – sometimes I’ll use that story in Govan. I’ll say: “Does anybody recognise that man in our community?” and of course, they’ll all be laughing, because not a few of them have also been self-harming. I hear things said like, “I felt so dead inside, that cutting myself, and watching the blood flow, was the only way I could feel alive.” They understand the Gadarene demoniac, but my question is: do they understand the full story? And do the churches?

The Gospel of Mark was written around AD 60 and around that time, the Romans went through the Gadarenes and killed most of they young men and burnt the town in reprisals for a revolt against their imperial power. When Jesus asked the demoniac what his name was he said, “My name is Legion, because we are many.”

Think about it. Who had legions? And what exactly was a legion?

What happened then?

Jesus cast out the legion of “demons” into a herd of pigs, that ran down into to the sea and drowned.

Think about it. Who ate pigs in that society? Was it the Jews? No, they didn’t eat pork. But herds of pigs were reared to feed the Roman soldiers. And although the Sea of Galilee is an inland sea it can still symbolise ships and the ocean – from whence the colonising Roman legions came.

The story of the Gadarene demoniac, then, becomes much more than just the story of one man wrestling with his mental illness among the tombs – in a state where inwardly he already felt dead and was self-harming. The deeper part of the story is that it’s about what happens when one group of people – the powerful – dominate another, and push them into victim self-blaming behaviour.

When I see our government saying that we can afford to renew Trident, but we can’t afford more than one bedroom for the vulnerable people in our society and so they must be made more vulnerable by being forced to move out, losing their existing anchor points in community, then what I see is the Romans back again. What I see on the streets of a place like Govan are a legion of policy-made demoniacs.

But there are two other aspects to that story of which we must take heed, lest we be left wallowing in the pigshit of helplessness.

First, the demoniac was strong. For all his craziness, he cold still break the chains with which they’d tried to bind him. So we too need to find our strength.

And secondly, he himself was afraid of the healing power that the power of love (as embodied in Jesus) brought, and the people living all around were even more afraid. They were afraid, as my late friend the American theologian Walter Wink used to put it, to –

1.      Name the Powers that Be, by saying what they do that oppresses us.

2.      Unmask the Powers that Be, revealing the economics and psychology of why the domination system oppresses us.

3.      Enagage the Powers that Be, seeking not to destroy social structures in a knee-jerk reaction of vengeance, but to understand, and to call power back to its higher, God-given vocation, where all power should be held in the name of service.

The spiritual word is the inner world that lies behind outward people, things and institutions. We need to learn to see that world, to see the spirituality of what is all around us. We need to name, unmask and engage, not just with others, but also with the oppressor within ourselves. In these times we need to look especially at our political and social structures, and ask, how can we make a world of dignity in which the former need for physical labour has become so diminished? How can we construct a society in which the chief end is to see that every human being can live not just any old life, but life abundant?

Spirituality is ultimately about life as love made manifest. It means not asking if a policy or a way of life will make us richer, but will it give life. And we don’t just find life as individuals. We find life in community with one another. This is the work of love, often of tough love, and when I reflect back on the busyness that almost cause me not to write this article, and which causes me to blast it out without so much as reading it over before sending, I’m reminded of Kathy Galloway when she was the warden of Iona Abbey and she said one day, “The interruptions are the job.”

I hope I’ve made some sense. We need to break not just the inner chains that bind our demoniacs today, including the demoniac latently within each one of us. We also need to break, or rather, heal, the sicknesses in our wider society, that drives folks crazy, that keeps the poor colonised by the rich, that allows us to build a few warships on the Clyde and considers that “a good thing”, but stays blind to the roots of peace.

Monday, 29 April 2013

“I took the money out of my ‘food allowance’ budget”

One of our Commissioners shares their experience of the Bedroom Tax…

I am a disabled lady who suffers from chronic Crohn’s Disease, osteoarthritis ad depression. I currently live in a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom, flat with my partner and daughter.

Due to the nature of my illness, 2-4 nights a week I need to sleep in my spare room (my mattress and bedding needs to be stripped off and washed due to sickness and diarrhoea) as my bed’s mattress is wet. I also need to use the bathroom at least 4-6 times a day, sometimes up to an hour at a time, or as often as every fifteen minutes. With having two bathrooms it makes life easier (for my family members).

I contacted Money Maters in March this year and they filled in a DHP (Discretionary Housing Payments) form for me and also an “Additional Bedroom Allowance” form. I enclosed a letter from my doctor saying I needed a 2 bathroom house and my extra bedroom. I had previously told GHA I was willing to downsides to a 2 bed, 2 bathroom house (and I could put a spare bed in my daughters room) but they said they did not have any 2 bed, 2 bathroom homes.

I felt I was being penalised due to my illness, and the council having no alternative accommodation to suit my needs, by having to pay £40.16 monthly bedroom tax. That might not sound like a lot of money to most people, but when it has to be found out of an already stretched benefit income it is a lot. I paid my first £40.16 out of Aprils ESA payment. I took the money out of my “food allowance” budget, and for the 3 days before my next fortnightly payment of ESA was due, I lived on toast so the rest of my family could eat properly. If I don’t receive DHP, I will have to do this every month.

The worry, and stress of finding this extra money, has had a huge impact on my health condition and stress levels. I feel I am fighting a losing battle just to “survive on benefits”.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

You want a word for poverty – it’s relentless.

On Friday 22nd March 2013 the second in a series of six Poverty Truth Conversations took place at Gorbals Parish Church. The Conversations bring together key decision makers and public figures with those who have direct experience of social and economic deprivation, driven by belief “Nothing about Us without Us is for US”.

The event began with a welcome and continued with everyone invited to share their name, what they had for breakfast and where they would ideally spend the weekend. This allowed everyone to get to know a little more about one another in an informal manner where all could participate (in keeping with the goal of breaking down the formal character often prevalent in meetings).

After introductions, a selection of photographs was presented and everyone selected an image reminding them of part of their life story. Everyone mingled; explaining the significance of the photograph they had chosen.

Following sharing the photographs, everyone read a section from a harrowing life story telling of a mother struggling to make ends meet in the midst of relentless hardship. The story touched upon childhood abuse, violence, ill health, courage, determination and resilience; a very moving account where many shed a tear listening to the emotional life story. A prominent theme emerging from the story, and subsequent discussion, was the need to avoid categorising poverty under one or two headings. Instead, emphasising the real need that poverty be understood as a multi-dimensional reality.

Those at the Conversation reflected on the life story in small groups and discussed their own experiences of poverty. Several people talked of professional services, designed to help society, treating service users in a sub-human manner. People expressed feeling like a number, not an individual. The soul destroying nature of poverty and lack of understanding by the media was raised through discussion.

The Conversation was brought to a close by seeking responses to the life story and, more generally, of experiences living in poverty. Issues raised included politicians avoidance of discussing poverty with some positive suggestions being put forward including viewing poverty as an issue which all in society can play a part to resolve.

For further reflections on the second Conversation, please take a look at this Third Force News article by Martin Johnstone:

The Poverty Truth Commission would like to thank all who attended and contributed to the event. The PTC is very much looking forward to the next Conversation which will be held on Friday 31st May.

Monday, 11 February 2013

First Poverty Truth Conversation of 2013

On Friday 25 January 2013 people from all walks of life met in the Gorbals Parish Church for a conversation about life and poverty. The event, organised by the Poverty Truth Commission (PTC), is the first in a series of 6 ‘Poverty Truth Conversations’ seeking to bring together key decision makers and public figures with people who have experienced social and economic deprivation. The aim is to enlighten and allow those who have felt marginalised to tell their story about what life is like in poverty in 21st century Scotland. However, in addition to this, the conversations are about establishing relationships and building friendships which, due to artificial social and economic barriers, do not usually have the chance to develop.

Martin Johnstone, the Secretary of the Commission, introduced the event by reminding the audience that although Scotland in many ways has made large advances in the battle against poverty, there still remains many concentrated pockets of deprivation, particularly in Glasgow. Although some innovative strategies have been developed which have achieved partial success, we still overlook a key ingredient in our approach to tackling poverty. Those with the experience of the struggle, Martin highlighted, have rarely been at the table.

A key goal of the series of conversations is to break down the formal character usually prevalent in meetings and discussions about poverty. This was helped in no small measure by comedy from Blair Green, one of the PTC’s original commissioners. After just scraping past the PTC censor, Blair covered a range of topical issues from horsemeat to coverage of poverty in some newspapers. Intermingled in this, however, was the serious note that without comedy, Blair would have struggled to survive the despair of poverty.

Then followed a presentation from two long-standing PTC commissioners: Anne Marie Pfeffer (Buttle UK) and Donna Barrowcliffe. They talked of their positive experiences working with the Commission through developing positive human relationships between the marginalised and the powerful. Donna talked of the incredible reactions she has had from civil servants when telling them her story. She also talked of how, before participating in the PTC, she felt that her voice had never been heard. Anne Marie and Donna also showed how their speaking out had not only brought tangible success it had also brought the two of them closer and they have developed a strong and lasting friendship.

After that Elaine Downie of the PTC was in her element as the post-it notes were out and the audience were invited to become active participants, mingling with each other and telling their story of why they had come along. A variety of responses were produced, from specific policy issues such as kinship care and the living wage, to more general themes such as overcoming obstacles, establishing relationships and seeing how the work of the PTC will continue into the future. A similar exercise was then carried out asking what area of concern the audience would like the Commission to address. This generated interesting and diverse answers with many raising ideas such as child poverty, the vilification of those in poverty by the media, local empowerment and enabling the marginalised to have their voice rightly heard.

Then followed a film interview with Mari telling of her struggle to survive on the minimum wage whilst providing for her child. The film was introduced by Marie McCormack who talked of the difficulties in interacting with the job centre. In the film, Mari talked of her love for her job and her commitment to it but how she has received only the national minimum wage for 6 years and this has barely been enough to survive on. She has had to really on a caring network of family and friends in order to provide for her child. In a very matter of fact and modest manner she talked of the great personal sacrifices to ensure that her child did not go without.

A dynamic discussion then followed centred around the issues raised in the film. Fred, Mari’s brother in-law, spoke at length about how she was encouraged by the department of work and pensions to return to work but how she now feels trapped. Blair picked up on this point, saying he feels the Job Centre has lost its way and is now driven by statistics and not by treating the individuals they deal with as human beings. A good point was raised by Andrea Williamson, of GP’s at the Deep End, when she said the state is failing to realise the interconnectedness of the problem and how it seems to just shift the problem from one state department to another. The importance of early years development of a child was also addressed, with many crucial elements of this commented on, such as rising child care costs and poor provision for kinship carers. Welfare reform was also discussed with Jim McCormack from the JosephRowntree Foundation stating that we need a different way of looking at its role in society.

To round off the event was the first PTC film of 2013, a Dickenzian Tale of the two sides of Glasgow. This was a music video by the hip hop artist and new commissioner Ayesha Khan (also known as Deva One), expertly filmed by Elaine. ‘We’ve forgotten who we are’ she sang as she raised themes of the stark disparities in quality of life between those born in the deprived areas and the expensive areas of Glasgow. Ayesha herself has lived in a variety of different parts in Glasgow and has worked with Volition Scotland which tackles the alienation felt by many youngsters in deprived areas and seeks to steer them away from violence and find expression through music and other art forms.

Just before the audience departed Martin left them one challenge: to find another person in the room to arrange to meet up with independently of the commission. This was enthusiastically received by the audience as they quickly sought to build relationships and further the discussions of the day.

The Poverty Truth Commission would very much like to thank the commissioners old and new for their attendance and the enthusiasm which they brought to the event. The PTC is eagerly anticipating the next meeting on Friday, March 22.

Click here to view Ayesha's video

Friday, 11 January 2013

Kinship Carers take their campaign for a fairer deal to Scottish Parliament

Yesterday Kinship Carers from across Scotland visited the Scottish Parliament to raise awareness of their campaign for a fairer deal. The event was hosted by Johann Lamont MSP and organised by The Scottish Kinship Alliance, the Poverty Truth Commission and the Family Addiction Support Service. The event included a play named 'Chap at the Door' which tells the true story of the hardships faced by Kinship Carers in Scotland.
According to official figures, Kinship Carers are currently looking after at least 10,742 of Scotland's most disadvantaged children. A 2011 survey by Buttle UK, however, estimated that there are more than 60,000 children in kinship care.  Kinship Carers are family members, often grandparents, who have become the primary carers because of parental drug or alcohol abuse, neglect or bereavement. Using the official figures of 10,742 kinship children, Kinship Carers are currently saving the government £176 million per year by keeping children out of foster and residential care and with their families where they are happiest.
Despite this huge saving for the public purse, kinship carers continue to face significant disparities across different local authorities and with other similar carers, such as foster carers. A Kinship Carer in Glasgow describes his situation: ‘I became a kinship carer 11 years ago when my wife and I brought our granddaughter home from hospital to care for her in only the clothes she was wrapped in. We had both retired and had no money to fall back on and nobody to help us.’ The Children and Young People Bill currently passing through Holyrood proposes to address some of the shortcomings in the current support provided but without effective resources real change is unlikely.

The event attracted coverage by both the STV news and the Glasgow Evening Times.
Martin Johnstone, secretary for the Poverty Truth Commission’s secretary commented, ‘Some progress has been made over the last five years but it is not enough – and it is not nearly quickly enough. We need to move from warm words to real action in order to ensure that this group of children, and their carers, get the support they need and deserve. Kinship Carers need to be listened to and what they have to say needs to be acted upon.’
 ‘With the proposed benefit cuts and the independence referendum hitting the headlines daily, the issue of what sort of society Scotland wants is now more important than ever. Thursday’s event will highlight, once again, the wonderful work Scotland’s Kinship Carers do as well as highlighting the on-going need for change.’

Thursday’s event was an opportunity to recognise and celebrate the vital role of Kinship Carers and thanks are given to the MSP's that attended.