Tuesday, 16 December 2014

My Story - part 8

I don’t feel like a strong person.  I’m using food banks and stuff the now and gambling. I want to be strong but I’m not yet, there’s a long way to go.  It’s a long slow road, but it’s a road, not a stop.

I get £104 a fortnight to live off.  Crisis loan repayments and Council Tax comes off that first.  Then £30 to the hostel.  £40 for messages.  I will have to start paying back my old rent arrears if I want a new flat with the Housing Association.  I have very little left at the end of it.  It’s hard to cope.  Even though I get my Housing Benefit, it’s hard times.  Everything is money.  Everything.  And everything is going up apart from what you’ve got in your pocket.  

Sometimes I end up going back the Bookies because I’m desperate to make my money stretch a bit further.  I used to gamble a lot in the past.  It gets a hook in you; it’s like control in the head.  Sometimes it’s like it’s just whispering to you.  But you can never beat a bookie, no matter how hard you try.

They push you and push you at the Job Centre. I’m always worried I’m going to trip up and get sanctioned.  Every time I go in there it’s a worry.

One of our Commissioners gives us a privileged insight into their life. They give us the good and they give us the bad. The story helps us understand poverty a little better. Here is part 8.

I feel trapped because I’m living in a hostel, and if I took a job and lost my Housing Benefit, I wouldn’t be able to pay the hostel.  It would be too hard.  But they don’t listen to me at the Job Centre, I’m just another number. I really want to work, but I don’t know how, and it feels like they’re choking to sanction me.

At times I feel socially excluded out of everything.  I feel like people look down on me because of the way I look, the way I dress.  I start to think in my head that I’m a waste of space.  I might look homeless, but there’s still good inside of me.  Don’t insult my intelligence.  I don’t want people to pity and patronise me when I walk down the street.  I am still a human being.  Every time I get up, get a shower in the morning, get ready, go out, every day is a battle.  Sometimes it really affects my mental health.  But I know there will be low days and try to keep going.

I try not to use food banks because they make me feel worse.  They make me feel low, ashamed, it shows I’m struggling, it feels like another judgement.  I know they’re there to help people, but that’s how they make me feel.  Sometimes I have no option though.

I’m much more than someone who is struggling with money, mental health and homelessness.  I am a singer, an actor, a striver.  My strength is being with people, building relationships, and supporting them.  I know what it is like to be alone and isolated.  

I volunteer with Bridging the Gap in the Gorbals.   I feel happy when I go there. They are amazing.  Every time I go in there it’s always a positive and something I’m good - I can be somebody.

And now I am part of the Poverty Truth Commission too.  I want to help change things.  Actions are better than words.  We all need to take a stand together, and I want to be a part of that change.

The most important thing I’ve learnt about myself is to never give up on yourself.  If you give up on yourself, what chance have you got?  

Monday, 15 December 2014

My Story - part 7

One of our Commissioners gives us a privileged insight into their life. They give us the good and they give us the bad. The story helps us understand poverty a little better. Here is part 7.

There hasn’t really been one turning point for me, because my life journey has been so rocky.  It’s been an unsteady road.  That’s the way it’s always been really, so many uneven roads.  

I started going along to the Lodging House Mission.  It’s a Day Centre for people with homelessness needs and stuff.  I went there for the cheap food, just to eat, but I wanted something more so I started getting involved in things.  I got involved in the choir they ran.  It was good - I grew to love singing.  

Scottish Opera ran a project with the Lodging House Mission, and I got my first lead role in their production - “Who Killed John King?”  We ended up performing it at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.  Who would ever have thought that I would be performing with the Scottish Opera at the Royal Opera House.  

Our play was 8 minutes long and there were other groups there from all over the world, all of us experiencing homelessness.  We got a standing ovation at the end of our piece.  I’ll never forget that.  It was a beautiful experience.  Our play was about two families and a gangland war.  I felt like I was going to be sick from nerves, heavy nervous before I went on - but I done it and it was good.  I still can’t believe I done that.  People dream of that sort of thing.
That’s when I got my first taste of acting, and I wanted to continue.  My heart is in singing and acting and I would love to be able to make a career out of them.

That gave me the confidence to go to college.  I did Sound Production, and the music side of stuff. I get to work on my own music. It’s amazing and has given me something that I like doing - singing is a big part of my life.  Learning how to deal with sound, adding sound onto your music and adding wee beats and stuff, and its amazing the door it opens, its just amazing.  

I want to be an actor; I’ve made my mind up.  I’m doing a course in the Citizens Theatre now.  Cause that’s what I want to be.  Like being on stage because you can get to be whatever you want. And then you just leave it on the stage at the end.
But day to day life isn’t easy.  I’m still running that race like when I was fifteen, but now there are lots of hurdles in the way too and people trying to pull you back. It’s a long road but I keep running in the race to win.  You want to beat the odds, you want to beat everything.  The finishing line is when you conquer everything, when you feel good in your head.  Instead of having all these worries about the DWP, sanctions, money and homelessness.  So you’re not going to be stressing, so your mind doesn’t play games with you - that’s all I want.  Poverty really affects your mental health, but I want to be strong, not back down the hole, not back in the slump.

Watch out for part 8, tomorrow...

Saturday, 13 December 2014

My Story - part 6

One of our Commissioners gives us a privileged insight into their life. They give us the good and they give us the bad. The story helps us understand poverty a little better. Here is part 6.

I ended up in a fight but I can’t really remember very much about it.  I was outnumbered, surrounded by about 20 bodies around me - folk from another area.  I got that - the bottle - down my face.  The night is kind of blurry still, but I get flashbacks sometimes.  I went to hospital myself.  Ran up there and got my face stitched.  And I have to keep looking at that reminder in the mirror, that reminder of how stupid I was.

I went to stay with a friend for a while, and then got back into my mum’s - things were a bit more sorted out for me.  I tried to just stay in at night, not to fall back into my old ways, but then the boredom cut into me and I got back into the wee circle again. The downward spiral again. If I didn’t get out I was going to get put in a box or in the jail.  And so I found myself homeless again.  

That time I went to the Hamish Allan Centre.  They sent me for a weekend to the Talbot, and then when the Monday came, they put me into Clyde Place.  I was there for 5 months.  And the after that I was moved into supported accommodation through the Simon Community.

Then at last I got a flat.  My first home of my own.  It was a three apartment in Tollcross.  They weren’t able to offer me anything smaller, and it was hard work to keep it up and to furnish it, but I loved my flat and it became like home.  My first home of my own.  It meant so much to me and I told myself I would never become homeless again.

Four years later when the bedroom tax came in I was hit with extra money for the spare room I hadn’t wanted in the first place.   I couldn’t afford to pay and got into debt and arrears.  Things spiralled, and I couldn’t cope.  It started to affect my mental health - I suffer from depression - and I wasn’t able to ask anyone for help. I didn’t have the energy. I just dragged me down and down and then I was evicted. I had to give up my nice home.

And here I am now, back in a hostel again.  I thought I would never go back.  I feel as if my life is going backwards instead of forwards.  But I’m not going to let it beat me. It’s a slow process, but I’m just going to keep my head held high.  I don’t want people feeling sorry for me.  I was doing so well.  Don’t say it’s a shame for me.

Watch out for part 7, on Monday...

Friday, 12 December 2014

My story - part 5

One of our Commissioners gives us a privileged insight into their life. They give us the good and they give us the bad. The story helps us understand poverty a little better. Here is part 5.

I was on wee training schemes where you were earning £70 a week for learning how to do bricklaying, gardening, plus you got bonuses £30 on top of that, and they would pay your travel expenses.  I thought that was good, I thought it was amazing at the time.  It was my first money, I’ve actually earned this, I’ve actually done something to earn it.  At the end of the day I would finish and sneak into the pub. I was 16, but I would dress smart so I wasn’t getting ID’d, so I would sneak into the pub, and it was kind of good.  

Then I got a job as a porter at a hotel.  That was good, a good wage.  It was my first big wage and was lot of money to me.  I bought myself clothes with my money and that.  The shifts were 11 hours, 15 hours though, and it was too knackering, it was affecting my health.  It was too hard.  It became too much.  I had to give it up in the end.

I was still living with my mum and dad at that point, but with me not working now, it became more and more difficult.  I did some bad things.  I was being bad with just drinking, being an idiot - my mum ended up having to threaten to throw me out.   

Things were really bad at home and I had to go - I decided to go myself though rather than be thrown out.  I thought this was going to be the answer, I would make myself homeless. I didn’t know what to expect - I thought I would be able to get my own place.  So I came into this world of homelessness for the first time, and it was tough. I did not expect it to hit me the way it did. It opened a new world.

I was a nervous wreck at first but was just trying to be strong. I got put in a hostel. I didn’t like it there. I got robbed it was a bad experience. People could just nudge into your door, and your door would be open, so I was scared to go to sleep. It was not the environment for me.

It was a tough world.  You have to be tough in the hostels, because if you show weakness, they’ll pick on you. Try to bully you.  If you show a weakness, you’ll be the one walked over.  You have to be strong or you learn the hard way.  Being in a hostel you need to be strong.

I was still drinking.  One night when I was out I ended up getting slashed by a bottle through drunken stupidness.  I had taken Ecstasy the night before, and was coming down.  I drank a litre of wine in 20 minutes to try and take away the feeling.  I was drunk, staggering about, not realising the stupid things I was doing. 

Watch out for part 6, tomorrow... 

Thursday, 11 December 2014

My Story - part 4

One of our Commissioners gives us a privileged insight into their life. They give us the good and they give us the bad. The story helps us understand poverty a little better. Here is part 4.

When I hit sixteen, I just wanted out of school.  I’d got put back a year at Primary 7 and I was kind of gutted because all my pals were going on to Secondary, and it kind of bugged me all the way through - I always felt behind.  Soon as I hit sixteen I was out that door, and just into training schemes and stuff, you couldn’t hold me back.

My pals and I hung about on the streets at night, drinking and getting into trouble.  You had all these different schemes in the East End.  You had Dennistoun, you had Duke St, Alexandra Parade, you had the Gallowgate - we all kind of just clashed really, and then you had Calton as well so like there was always gang fighting.  And in gang fighting there’s always repercussions.  Sometime down the line you might think it’s all over and nothing will pop up, but people don’t forget a face, and people don’t forget stuff.  

Peer pressure and boredom makes people join gangs.  That and feeling excluded.  Because you want to be like them, you want to be a part of something if you feel like you’re a part of nothing.  If you feel a part of a gang, you feel a part of a group, you feel safe, you’re part of this, you’re with your friends, you’re feeling good. And then if somebody’s got a knife, you’ll start carrying a knife.  If somebody’s drinking, you’ll want a drink.  If somebody’s smoking hash, or more - that’s how you start.  

So there we were, jumping about corners being bored, always getting pulled up by the police.  And then you start getting into that spiral, you’re getting angry, you’re getting lost. You’re always getting pulled up by the police, you want to just graffiti on the walls, spray stuff.

When the police saw you drinking they would pour the drink out and then you would be gutted.  Or you used to see them coming and you would drink it was fast as you could, get as much down you as possible, cause you knew they were coming to pour it away.  Get as much down the belly as possible before that.  It was warrant checks they stopped you for - if they had a warrant for your arrest and then the next minute you know you’re up the Sherriff Court.  You were always in and out, it was like a second home London Road.  In and out for stupid things - drinking on the streets, sometimes gang fighting, just a lot of stuff building up and a lot of court cases over the years.  Luckily enough I never got the jail. I know a lot of my friends have been in and out of the jail, I’ve just been fortunate not to be.

Growing up from a teenager to an adult was a downward spiral.  We were all drinking, we were all still bored.  The Shettleston Harriers seemed like a long time ago.  

Watch out for part 5, tomorrow...

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

My story - part 3

One of our Commissioners gives us a privileged insight into their life. They give us the good and they give us the bad. The story helps us understand poverty a little better. Here is part 3.

My gran would have been so proud of my running.  I started when I was fifteen.  I wasn’t enjoying school was dogging a lot.  I was looking for other things to do and came across the running club at Crown Point. My teachers hadn’t encouraged me in my running; I just kind of stumbled on it.   It was every Tuesday and Thursday.  Mostly I went for the extra training to keep fit.  I didn’t think I was actually going to end up running races, but I ended up really enjoying it and the next thing I knew I was buying a set of running shoes, spikes, and that was me.  I got the taste of running.  And I was good at it.

The teachers didn’t believe in me, they thought I was a failure.  Especially one who had it in for me and said I would never achieve anything. One Sports Day I won 4 races out of 5.  I turned round and said to him, who’s the failure now? He didn’t know what to say back.  It was good seeing his face.  He could stick his failure down his throat. That motivated me more.  It made me determined.  It made me more determined than ever before.  

Running opened my eyes to being good at something.  Even though my teachers had told me I would never amount to anything - I was good at it, and I just went for it.  It’s like life, isn’t it, goals and aspirations.  Even though you feel so low at certain times, always have goals, always have dreams, always have aspirations.  Everybody has dreams, everybody has goals, and aspirations.  A year before I was sixteen, I was achieving those goals.  

I used to run for Shettleston Harriers in the old McDonalds League at the Kelvinhall, 800m and 200m, and have a lot of medals for that.  My mum still has them all in a wee box back at home.  Then I started on Cross Country.  I came second in the first race, but by the third I had come first.  I just loved running.

At the weekend my pals and I were bored hanging about the streets at night, but was nothing for the group of us to do.  We started drinking more.  It wasn’t like we were drinking every night, but it did become more and more.  We were drinking through boredom though - boredom, boredom. 

As we drank more, I started to miss a few training sessions. I would just think - I’ll just have a few beers tonight instead and go next time; it won’t matter missing one session.  I started missing more and more sessions and then suddenly I hadn’t been for a really long time.  In the end I stopped going altogether and that was it.  A few people tried to encourage me back, but I didn’t listen, I was a really stubborn person.  My own person.  I had loads of ambitions when I was growing up, but they never amounted to anything, just all these ambitions just sort of wasted away.

Watch out for part 4, tomorrow...

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

My story - part 2

One of our Commissioners gives us a privileged insight into their life. They give us the good and they give us the bad. The story helps us understand poverty a little better. Here is part 2.

School was different.  I don’t know why, but I didn’t like Primary School at all.  I was a stubborn wee person at the time, I just didn’t like it.  Apart from playing football.  Every day I just couldn’t wait till the bell rang to get home and get out to play with my friends - that took a bit of the boredom away.   Football was a big bit of my life.

I thought TV’s were awesome, and when I was about nine or ten I remember becoming more aware of the news, and how things were changing politically.  The way the world was changing.  I wasn’t afraid, but I was curious and interested in what was going on.  I used to listen, even though I was in my room I could still hear through the walls what they were talking about and how bad it was for people.

I used to go round to my Granny’s a lot - she just lived round the corner from us.  I liked her.  She was strong, she enjoyed life - she was just full of energy.  She was my Gran.  She believed in me and I believed in my Gran.  We were very close.  I loved her so much.

My Granny had been all over the world, and she was good friends with Ricky Fulton too.  There was one photo where Ricky Fulton was playing on my Granny’s piano.  She had a beautiful piano.  I don’t know if my mum still has that photo.  But I would love to show it to you, because it was so beautiful.

After school one day I went round as usual and I knew there was something wrong.  The storm doors were all closed and that usually never happened.  She didn’t answer the door and I knew something was wrong straight away.  

So I went to a neighbours and got a towel and put my hand right through the glass.  I climbed through, even though there was the risk of cutting myself but I knew I had to.  It was hard, but then I found her lying there, - seeing her face,  and that was even harder.  She’d taken a stroke.   She went to the Royal and then got moved to Aberdeen and died on arrival at Aberdeen.  

I think the lowest point of my life was losing my Granny.  I still find it hard to take - she was my rock.  I didn’t find it easy to talk about missing my Gran with my family - I bottled it all up. I started to sneak away and drink more.  My mum could smell it off my breath.  My head was away and I started dogging school more.  I said I was going and then just wouldn’t turn up.  I was only fourteen and had lost the inspiration of my life.  

Watch out for part 3, tomorrow...

Monday, 8 December 2014

My Story - part 1

One of our Commissioners gives us a privileged insight into their life. They give us the good and they give us the bad. The story helps us understand poverty a little better. Here is part 1.

I couldn’t hear myself for the sound of the crowd. I couldn’t quite believe I was actually there.  It was electrifying.  I knew I had to try and focus but it was hard - I couldn’t hear myself think.  I knew what I was waiting for though.  Once I heard that pistol that would be it.  Just go…

I was 15, living in Dennistoun, skipping school, told by the teachers I would never amount to anything in life - and standing at the start line of  the 800m  in Scotstoun.    Running for Scotland. There were nine of us in the race and I was nervous, but I just dug deep into what I was good at.  I knew I could run, and I  knew I could run well.  When the pistol went I got into my wee zone.  At the 400m mark I overtook the leader and the way I was running was just so fast. I was off and no-one was catching me.

When I crossed the finish line I ended up falling to the ground - I couldn’t believe I actually won.  Even though I got over the line, I was still like - what just happened?  I was exhausted, lying on the track they had to pick me up and tell me I had won.  I couldn’t take it in; my first race for Scotland and I won gold.   I can still remember it so clearly in my head.

Running for Scotland in that race was the high point of my life. It made me feel great.  I was doing something I was good at, something that was worthwhile.  For once I could believe I was good at something no matter what other people told me.  I was good at it and I just went for it.  Who knows what the road for me could have been.  Who knows?  If I hadn’t messed up, maybe I could have been running in the Commonwealth Games.

I grew up in Dennistoun and Duke St. and lived there for twenty-six years.  It was a great community to grow up in.  There was a lot of happiness there.  The people were great and it’s an amazing place.  Everybody knew each other and looked out for each other.  It was a good area. I’ve got a lot of good childhood memories.  

I remember going on my first holiday when I was about six.  We went to Blackpool, got the bus down from Buchanan St.  I just loved seeing all the lights, I kept thinking - wow – there was just so much for your eyes to feast on.  

We went for a week, my mum, my dad and me and it was good. I remember wanting things out of the shops, nagging my mum and dad for them. And I loved it down on the beach.  I loved just being on holiday, and didn’t want to come home.  I kicked up a fuss, moaning and crying because I wanted to stay.  It was a great holiday.

Watch out for part 2, tomorrow...

Thursday, 20 November 2014

People Change Things!

Martin Johnstone reflects on his recent trip to Rome for the Global Meeting of Popular Movements

The Church of Scotland and Faith in Community Scotland have recently made submissions to the Smith Commission. The Smith Commission has been given the task of getting agreement on the specifics of the new powers that will come to Scotland following September’s Independence Referendum. At the heart of both submissions lies a plea: “Let’s make our democracy better, stronger and much more engaging.”

At the Global Meeting of Popular Movements, Pope Francis committed the Catholic Church to walk alongside the poor in their struggle for justice. He also stated clearly what I certainly know to be true: those who struggle against poverty have clear insights into how it can be effectively addressed. And over these last days, I heard that on a global scale:
  • In the wisdom of waste pickets who talked about the contribution that they are making to recycling and care for the planet; 
  • In the experience of slum dwellers about how to make our homes and lifestyles much more sustainable and community-focused;
  • In the experience of rural farmers warning about the dangers of genetically modified crops which are designed to feed profits rather than stomachs.

We also heard from Evo Morales, President of Bolivia. President Morales would not be on the Christmas card list of too many western leaders but his government – now in its 9th year – was re-elected with 60% of the popular vote. What I found most inspiring about his speech was that he spoke about how he had needed to change his views (and his government’s policy) in the light of insights from those who are amongst the very poorest in his country. He seemed to talk about a genuinely participative democracy at work – and one where real change and progress was happening.

As the Smith Commission deliberates on future powers for Scotland, my heartfelt plea, emboldened by what I have heard over these last days, is that we have the courage to trust the people. Democracy is too important to be left to politicians! 

Martin Johnstone

Monday, 10 November 2014

Is what we call poverty, what you call poverty?

The following blog is a personal reflection from Dr Peter Kenway of the New Policy Institute who attended the second conversation of the Poverty Truth Commission at the end of October.

From a distance, other people’s lives are our numbers. In a world made up of statistics, what matters is to be measured. Something called poverty is measured; so it matters. But is what we call poverty what you call poverty? Is what we say matters what you say matters? Not just at any time, but now?

I have been using statistics to make arguments about poverty and social exclusion in the UK since around the time when Tony Blair first promised to abolish child poverty within a generation. Centred on low income but ranging widely, we measure everything from poor schooling and substandard housing to ill-health and a social security system whose principal purpose is now punishment.

In truth, work like this always involves plenty of conversations. Statistics and the how they are used require choices. The conversations which affect these choices are almost always with others of a similar background, trained in the same ways, in government, universities and the large voluntary sector charities.

So a PTC Conversation is not unique but is still unusual. The high point for me of last Friday’s Conversation was the reading of a testimony, one paragraph a person as the story travelled from hand to hand round the circle, the life story of one of the new commissioners from early teenage years until now.

This story made a great impression on all who heard it, MSPs among them. The story itself, a hard struggle punctuated with moments of triumph, was memorable enough. But the manner of its telling added to it. Relieved of the task of reading ourselves, the pace set by the speaker, we are free to hear and not just listen, free to feel and not just think.

At the time and afterwards, I drew my own conclusions. But these Conversations are part of the PTC deciding itself what its new priorities are to be. I am eager to hear. But as an outsider I won’t use this platform to say what I think they should be.

But I can say this. The value of the PTC’s testimonies doesn’t just lie in what they point to: most of the big changes are quite clear in the statistical world. But how these changes feel, why they matter – we can guess as fellow human beings but only testimony can really say. How and why, not just what.

That such testimonies are rare is a compliment, a compliment to their power.

Peter Kenway
New Policy Institute

Monday, 27 October 2014

Poverty in a Good Food Nation

The Scottish Government has stated its aspiration for Scotland to become a Good Food Nation. A plan based on improving diets and access to nutritious food is clearly commendable and necessary. The litmus test for this project, however, should be the diet and health outcomes of those on the lowest incomes, living in marginalised communities. And this will likely only be achieved when people from these communities have a direct say in the shaping and delivery of the strategy.

The presence of foodbanks in a country as wealthy as Scotland is a source of national shame and must not be allowed to become the norm. At the Poverty Truth Commission, we have heard from a number of people who have been forced to use Foodbanks. They have talked powerfully of the indignity of someone else picking out the food that you get to eat; of needing to admit that you do not have a tin opener or your power supply has been cut off; of begging for a voucher; and of needing to walk for miles to get food for your family.

However, whilst welfare reforms and other recent phenomena have largely driven the need for foodbanks, there are long-standing deeper issues around food poverty which must also be tackled. What is first required for any change, of course, is expert knowledge from those with experience

Due to the structural nature of poverty in Scotland, people on low incomes have been deprived of access to cheap and fresh healthy food for years. Hearing from individuals who have survived on low incomes, the Commission has learnt of the crippling effect the poverty premium has on their diet. These extra costs which people on low incomes have to pay, as detailed in the Commission's latest report, often result in people severely restricted on what they can buy.

Unlike what has been stated in recent times by a famous celebrity chef amongst others, ready meals and other unhealthy lifestyle choices are not the result of wilful ignorance on the part of people in poverty. They are the result of people simply having no choice.

Unless we start to listen to people living in food poverty to understand this lack of choice, we will not be close to being a Good Food Nation.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Inequality by "Loki"

A Tale of Two Societies - guest blog by "Loki"

When we talk about inequality we usually get into the same old ‘haves/have-nots’ scenario.  The debate is always about how we take some stuff from the wealthy and give it to the poor or how the poor need to work hard enough to become more wealthy.  Like so many other things, the discussion exists only on a material level and we miss the opportunity to look deeper at some of the other effects structural inequality has on us as human beings.  Not just in terms of our social groups and structures, but also how we relate and empathise with the people who exist outside of that.

We all hold private assumptions about people from other classes whether we would admit it or not.  But what happens when these subtle assumptions become so entrenched that we can no longer understand one another?  This is what happens in an unequal society and more and more I find myself at a loss trying to express what I mean to anyone who exists outwith my own frame of reference.

In the UK we now have two societies emerging.  Both have unique value systems and world views, but sadly are markedly different and almost incompatible.

It’s probably most plain to see in how the mainstream media reflect certain issues.  The media, more or less, dominated by middle class perspectives on everything.

It leads to a scenario where the well meaning professionals attempt to portray the issues that affect the lower class but come off looking out of touch and perhaps even a little glib.

This is why so many people from disadvantaged back grounds take no interest in the news or current affairs.

Not only is it full of those perspectives that only an educated, affluent person could relate to, but more worryingly, it’s ridden with that middle class language and manner that many people would consider ‘posh’ or ‘snobby’.

It leaves the people at the lower end of our economic system feeling misrepresented and this anger then finds expression in the most destructive force possible: apathy.

Nobody crosses class lines.  Instead, we send in ‘researchers’, ‘reporters’, ‘detached youth workers’ to gather information to bring it back to us so we can decide how to solve the problem from the comfort of an ivory tower where we can always be safe from having our deepest assumptions challenged.

Occasionally we may invite a ‘poor’ person to come to our poverty conference to testify about their experience and this looks and feels authentic, except it isn’t.

We have two echo chambers that function like intellectual ghettos.  They gather in the same places to talk about the same issues in the same ways all the while re-enforcing their own dominance and legitimacy.

My honest opinion: Both classes are as bad as each other.  Both are keen to talk but not so keen to listen.  Both are quick to empower charismatic figure heads to represent their points of view and both harbour unfair and uncomfortable prejudices about one another.
Working class or middle class, there’s enough blame to go around.  The real question is: Where does the power lie?

For more blogs by Loki: http://lokithescottishrapper.com/2014/10/16/a-tale-of-two-societies/

Inequality by John and Molly Harvey



We're writing this in a week when inequality is very much in the news.  Headlines shout out that Britain is fast becoming a two tier society – the haves and the have-nots more sharply divided than ever.  Politicians offer possible policies on what they would like to do – some more sensible than others, like getting everyone onto a living wage, although nobody seems quite clear as to how that will be done. All agree that less equal societies, as the authors of The Spirit Level have clearly shown, are also less healthy and less happy societies – and Britain is very far down the scale. But the fact remains that the gap is widening all the time, and with a General Election coming up in just over seven months time, the least we can do is seek as many ways as possible to bring pressure to bear on the political parties to offer serious proposals in their manifestos which address this shocking situation.


But this is too deep and too widespread an issue just to be left to the politicians.

The energy  created by the Scottish Independence Referendum campaign owed its generation, in large part, to the conviction that all of us – not just the powers that be – should, and can, do something to make change happen in our society, based on the values of justice, struggle and indeed sacrifice. In recent weeks in Scotland, it's been exciting to see how many groups and individuals have refused simply to disappear after the vote, but have instead increased their efforts to keep working at how we can, among other things, really reduce the inequality that we are experiencing. Commonweal, Bella Caledonia, Radical Independence, and others seem to us to offer at least an opportunity to make real the conviction expressed by Jim Wallis, the American Christian activist, that “hope is believing in spite of the evidence – and watching the evidence change”.


We also believe, though, that perhaps more than hope is needed. The growing inequality in Britain today, we would argue, demands anger as well, if we are really going to do something about it. The rise in the number of children living in relative poverty in Scotland, highlighted this week, from 150,000 last year to 180,000 this year, is not just a shocking statistic – it is 180,000 individual girls and boys, together with their families, who are simply not sharing in the same opportunities for health, education, holidays, travel, or work which the majority of the rest of us can expect to have.  This is a surely a cause not so much for pity, or shame, or even despair, as for real, deep down anger. It was the fourth century African Christian theologian and philosopher, St. Augustine of Hippo, who wrote, way back then, that “hope has two beautiful daughters – their names are anger and courage – anger at the way things are, and courage to make sure that they do not remain the way they are.” If we are to build a more just society in Britain, then hope, linked to anger and courage, motivating not just politicians but all of us together, may be the only force that will make it happen.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Facing benefit sanctions: can Oakley make a difference?


 In the 1980s there was much talk in the News of sanctions against South Africa. Sanctions were about stopping the trading of goods with South Africa and thereby affecting it financially, as it was viewed as a country which oppressed its black majority population. The UK government was not keen and imposed only minor sanctions on South Africa.

Today the talk is of sanctions again. This time the UK government seems keen on imposing financial sanctions on individuals and families who are adjudged to have infringed benefit rules. Thus, sanctions today are about the immediate stopping of poverty line benefits like Jobseekers Allowance. Some PTC Commissioners have been sanctioned and / or threatened with them. Stories of injustice and inhumanity are reported to us.

This July the DWP indicated it agreed with the 17 recommendations of the Review into benefit sanctions by Matthew Oakley. The Review Report calls for improvements to the sanctions process for the benefit claimant and with a view to reducing departmental costs.

For those of us in the PTC the recommendations will only be significant if they lead to job centres adopting a more humane approach to the sanctions process.

The first thing to be said about Oakley's Review is that its remit was very specific. He was asked by the UK Government to enquire into the effectiveness of the sanctions process on claimants of JSA alone. We think that his most important recommendations, as regards possibly mitigating something of the impact of sanctions, are (in italics):

·         “The Department should revise procedures and guidance to ensure that proportionate steps are taken to inform all claimants of a sanction decision before the payment of benefit is stopped....”

The thinking here is obvious: for a claimant to attempt to draw money out from an account and find the expected benefit has not been paid must feel like being hit with a proverbial sledgehammer and individual (s) we know can confirm this. The trauma of being left with no benefit is itself great but to have no notice of its happening must be even greater.

Oakley notes the importance of clear communication in letters. One claimant told the Review team that he/she had not “...heard of the word sanction within Jobcentre Plus until it happened to me.”

·         "All letters sent to claimants ... should be reviewed to improve claimant understanding. They should give a personalised description of exactly what the sanction referral or decision relates to and include clear information about reconsideration, appeals and hardship [payments]."

Hardship payments equal 60% of JSA, after two weeks, if you are sanctioned, unless you are a member of a “vulnerable group” whereby you can access hardship payments immediately. A specific concern surrounding the hardship payments system was that the Review team found that only claimants that asked about help in Jobcentre Plus were told about such payments.

“After sanction decisions ... the Department should consider how vulnerable groups might be identified, helped to claim hardship payments and/or access support services offered through Jobcentre Plus and contracted providers.”

We would be grateful to hear from people who unfortunately have or will in future face sanctions, regarding whether these recommended improvements have been made. Also, if implemented, whether they have had an impact in reducing the stress of their situations.

David Milligan


Monday, 29 September 2014

Freezing Incomes of the Poorest Harms Us All

The Poverty Truth Commission believes that policies such as freezing incomes will only serve to further impoverish the poor and negatively impact all of us. As a society, we have collectively failed to understand poverty properly as we have not listened to the experts, those people with experience of it first-hand. The UK is an extremely wealthy state and choosing to cut the incomes of the poorest to pay off the debt is a political choice, with far-reaching negative economic consequences.

The Poverty Truth Commission believes that people living in poverty are the experts on their situation and that the long-term reduction and eradication of poverty will only be achieved when they are placed at the heart of the decision making process.

Listening to the testimonies of our commissioners over the years we have learnt of the deep structural barriers which create and reinforce poverty in Scotland. Punitive measures, such as reducing the incomes of those already struggling to put food on the table, will not address these obstacles. Instead, it will merely serve to push people further into a desperate financial situation where they may have to resort to food banks, pay day lenders, disconnecting from electricity suppliers and other unsustainable solutions, which in turn will see their debt levels rise.  

We live in an extremely wealthy society. Choosing to reduce the debt by cutting the incomes of the poorest in society is a political choice, it is not inevitable, nor does it make economic sense. It is likely to create further costs which will have to be borne by other sections of society, such as family and friends, local communities, charities and local governments. In addition, the long-term negative implications of a life spent in poverty are well documented and include poor outcomes for health and wellbeing and for educational attainment.

Instead, measures such as alleviating the cost of childcare, increasing the minimum wage, safe-guarding working hours and tackling the poverty premium are positive alternatives. The majority of people in poverty in the UK, after all, live in a household with at least one employed adult and many unemployed people are there not through choice but lack of opportunities and training.

We will only find sustainable solutions to reducing inequality, which in turn will decrease public expenditure, when we start listening to people with experience of poverty.

In June of this year the Poverty Truth Commission turned up the volume on these voices. Read the report here

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

An Open Letter from Scotland's Poverty Truth Commission to Prime Minister David Cameron

Dear Prime Minister,
An Open Letter from Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission
The ‘people of Scotland have spoken’ and have decided that Scotland will remain an integral part of the United Kingdom. Now is the time for us all to work together for the changes which all political parties have committed to and for which there is a clear hunger throughout the nation.
People in Scotland who struggle against poverty on a daily basis were on both sides of the debate. Some wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom and others wanted an independent Scotland. It would be wrong to claim otherwise. However, it is also clear that there is a correlation, at least at local authority level, between the intensity of the levels of poverty within communities and support for independence. The four local authorities which returned a vote in favour of independence are the four with the highest levels of deprivation.
Over the last five years, Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission has brought together those living in ongoing poverty with some of Scotland’s leading civic and political leaders. The Commission is non-partisan but it is clear on one thing: poverty will never begin to be adequately addressed until those who suffer most directly from its impact are recognised as germane to its resolution. Our most recent report, Turning Up the Volume on Poverty was published in June.
As you embark on the journey of helping to deliver the change that Scotland has demanded, I would invite you and your colleagues to meet with the Commission. It is one small, but significant, way in which your plans will be informed by the issue that really divides our nation – the growing disparity between rich and poor.
Yours sincerely,

Martin Johnstone

Secretary, Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Democracy and the Referendum

With just 10 days to go until the Referendum, frantic conversations are taking place throughout Scotland as both sides try to persuade family members, friends and strangers to jump off the fence and join their side. My flatmate even went so far as to take part in the Great North Run yesterday to avoid me pestering him about it.

With the date inching ever closer, the temperature is being notched up as the tension builds and builds. Taking a step back from this, however, I find all this nervous energy not just exciting, but also something to be savoured.

People seem to be engaging in political issues in Scotland to an extent not seen for many years. Certainly in the ten years in which I have been eligible to vote this appears unprecedented. Turnout predictions of over 80% are heartening for any democracy, especially as the last Scottish Parliament election just scraped past 50%.

The referendum campaign has reinforced my belief that the Scottish people desire to engage with important questions and to have their voice heard. People in Scotland are clearly not apathetic, but have been turned off politics in recent years due to a variety of reasons.

In my experience with the Poverty Truth Commission and elsewhere, people will engage when they believe their voice to be listened to and to have the ability to make tangible change. This is not a ground-breaking revelation by any means, but people in power appear to have forgotten this.

We seem to have stalled at the stage of only participating through the ballot box once every few years. The result has been an apparently growing distance between the people making important decisions and the people affected by them. This has created an increasingly self-reinforcing downward spiral.

As the referendum debate has shown, however, this is certainly not something which we cannot tackle and overcome. Regardless of the constitutional framework in which we find ourselves in, this must be our challenge going forward: how do we ensure everyone’s voice is heard and valued?

In June of this year the Poverty Truth Commission gave those with experience of poverty the platform to have their voices heard by important decision makers. The Commission’s Turning Up the Volume on Poverty' campaign challenges all of us to make our institutions more participatory and easier for people to engage with.

After all, increasing participation will not only serve to better legitimise decision making, but will result in enhanced outcomes through greater input from people with real experience of the issues at hand.

It is my sincere hope that, regardless of next week’s outcome, both sides can keep that hunger and desire for a greater say in their society. A more participatory democracy is clearly a benefit for us all but it won’t happen itself, we have to reach out and grab it.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

First Meeting of our New Commission

Friday 22 August saw the first meeting of our new Poverty Truth Commission.  

Why did you come today?
  • To meet the new Commissioners and see how we can build on the work of the previous Commission.
  • To fully understand why poverty still exists in the 21st Century
  • I’ve been affected by poverty and I know several people in poverty, working and not.  I hope I can contribute and to make a difference.
  • A wider circle, imaginative ideas, some sense of application.
  • I am driven in my every day work to improve how education can reduce the impact of poverty, but I need a broad perspective to do this.

We got to know each other, shared our initial thoughts and experiences and found it hard to stop talking.  A truthful, exciting, hopeful and inspiring place to be.