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.