Monday, 30 June 2014

How the Volume on Poverty was Turned Up

The volume was definitely turned up to the maximum on Saturday 21st June as a packed Woodside Halls in Glasgow heard some truths about poverty. An audience of over 450 witnessed a stunning performance of comedy, drama, song, film, and conversation which, through showcasing personal experiences, revealed some shocking injustices and harsh realities of lives lived in poverty in 21st century Scotland.

The event was organised to showcase the Poverty Truth Commission's work over the last 18 months, marking the closing of the current commission and the beginning of a new one. The Commission draws together people with experience of poverty and key decision makers in Scotland and has focused its work on a range of issues. These include food poverty, tackling the costs of being poor, welfare reform, in-work poverty, kinship care and the stigma faced by those in poverty.

Powerful Testimonies

A short video telling the Story of the Commission kicked off the proceedings.  What then followed were powerful personal testimonies. Such was the effect on the crowd, many were laughing at the humour in the performances one minute, only to find themselves a short time later close to tears and angry at the stigma and unjust situations faced by many. Hard-hitting stories of unfair sanctions were coupled with the humiliation of going to a food bank. There was outrage that, in a rich society such as Scotland, many still have to go without in order to feed their children, or have to choose between eating or heating.

The spotlight was shown on the experience of a young woman going through the asylum process. She explained how she had felt dirty and humiliated, as was met by a culture of disbelief at every turn, whilst routinely threatened with deportation to a country in which she knew she would suffer grave violence.

The senselessness of people on the lowest incomes often having to pay more for food, fuel and financial services acutely highlighted how many are trapped in poverty. The Commission showed how low wages, combined with employers inflexible to the demands of childcare, meant work is not a route of poverty for many.

These hard-hitting realities were often portrayed in creative ways. Using hip hop, a young woman spoke of her experience and her dismay at the inequalities she saw throughout Glasgow. ‘No Ball Games’ was a touching and clever film showing how poverty and the surrounding environment can stifle a persons need to express themselves.

A Call for Action

This event, however, was not merely designed to raise awareness of the unjust suffering of others. It was also a call for action.

A call for everyone in a position of power in Scotland to enable those with experience of poverty to have their voices heard, to give them a seat at the decision making table. It was a call for everyone to write to their energy companies, to demand better treatment of those on low incomes.

It was a call for all of us to stand up and say foodbanks are not the answer. Yes, we must ensure nobody is going hungry tonight in Scotland, but we must also focus our energies on tackling the causes of food poverty, so we do not have foodbanks tomorrow.

In addition, what emerged from the stories just as clearly as the injustices, was the real sense of resilience and determination of the individuals to keep striving for a better life for them and their children. Many highlighted the strength they had drawn from volunteering with organisations such as the Poverty Truth Commission, Bridging the Gap and the Scottish Refugee Council. Groups which managed to see past the label we often too readily put on people living in poverty.

Passing the Baton

After the work of the previous commission was presented the baton was passed to the new commissioners. Karyn McCluskey of the Violence Reduction Unit, speaking on behalf of the new batch, admitted she was left humbled and very much affected by the sheer strength of the performances. She was joined on stage by a host of other new commissioners, including Jackie Baillie MSP (Labour), Bob Doris MSP (Scottish National Party), Ross Finnie (Liberal Democrats), Margaret Lynch (Citizens Advice Scotland), Jim McCormick (Joseph Rowntree Foundation) and Most Rev Philip Tartaglia (Archbishop of Glasgow).

Nothing About Us, Without Us, is For Us

‘Nothing About Us, Without Us, is For Us’ was bellowed out three times by everyone in the hall as the event drew to a close. The message is clear: in order to eradicate poverty in Scotland, those with experience of it must be placed at the heart of the decision making process. They must be listened to.

Friday, 20 June 2014

‘Breaking people’s spirits’ – the impact of welfare cuts

Twice over the last 18 months, members of the Poverty Truth Commission have been reduced to tears during our meetings. One of those was when we heard from one of our members about the experience of being sanctioned by the Job Centre for failing to fulfil the requirements that had been placed upon him for applying for work. In the previous week, he had applied for one less job than he was meant to have. No matter that the week before that he had applied for more jobs than he needed to. It was a harrowing account of a loss of dignity, genuine hunger and deep depression.

Commissioners were both tearful and angry. On the 21st June, as we present our findings at Turning Up the Volume on Poverty, we hope that you will share our sense of outrage as you hear members of the Commission talk about the experience and impact of being sanctioned.

Since October 2012, when the criteria for sanctions were revised by the Department of Work & Pensions, there has been a massive growth in the numbers of people being sanctioned. The numbers of people being sanctioned has almost doubled in an 18 month period. The Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee recently published a damning report on the punitive use of sanctions with which the Commission would agree.

In Scotland we have a principle that people are innocent until proven guilty. The imposition of sanctions appears to work in the opposite direction – you are guilty until you can prove yourself innocent. And with over 40% of sanctions being overturned on appeal, it is clear that even using the DWP’s very strict criteria they get it wrong an awful lot of the time.

Not only is the use of sanctions unjust – and frequently nonsensical – but it is also damaging and costly. As one of our Commissioners put it: ‘You used to come out of the Job Centre happy if you had found a job. Now you come out pleased is you haven’t got a sanction.’ This climate of fear does not help people find work. Indeed it is having the opposite impact. It is damaging people’s physical and mental health. It is making people less able to work not more able.

It is for this reason that we are challenging the Department of Work & Pensions to change their policy and practice around Job Sanctions. But we recognise that this will not happen without pressure. And so we are challenging people to find out more about the impact that sanctions is having – the way that they are breaking people’s spirits – and then demand change.

Turning Up the Volume on Poverty will be launched on 21st June 2014 in Glasgow’s Woodside Hall. You can book your place here

Thursday, 19 June 2014

‘Heat or eat’ – the cost of being poor

People who struggle against poverty frequently have to pay more for their food, fuel and financial services (such as credit and insurance) than those who are better off. Quite literally, there are too many people living in Scotland today who need to choose between heating and eating.

The additional costs of being poor – sometimes described as the Poverty Premium – has been one of the core issues considered by Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission over the last 18 months. The Commission will be reporting on what it has learnt and its recommendations for change at Turning Up the Volume on Poverty on the 21st June 2014.

One of our Commissioners describes her own experience of the Poverty Premium: ‘I have to switch off my electric in the winter as I cannot afford to put money in the meter. Three days before my giro it comes down to ‘heat or eat’ as often I cannot afford to do both.’ At this point, the Poverty Premium ceases to become a fancy concept and becomes a cruel and unjust choice.

Commission members have learnt, in particular, about how energy companies charge those with pre-payment meters significantly more for their electricity and gas than those who have direct debit schemes. We ask: how can it be justifiable that those who have the most pay least for their energy whilst those who have the least pay the most? Follow that logic if you can!

However, it is not enough to blame the big energy companies. They do what they think their customers want. And so the Commission is challenging everyone to write to their energy provider asking them to provide proper choice and value for low income customers – the same value and choice that others get. That is something that we can all do.

However, the Commission wants to go further. We recognise that globally – as well as locally – it is those who live in poverty who are bearing the brunt of climate change. And so we advocate the further development of alternative energies and the establishment of not-for-profit energy companies. We know these companies already exist but we want them to increasingly include people living in fuel poverty within their key stakeholders. While some people spend as little as 3% of their income on paying their fuel bills, others pay as much as 30%.

It is time to end the scandal of fuel poverty. It makes sense for everyone – fuel is becoming an increasingly scarce commodity – and it is achievable. It is time for people to be able to both eat and heat.

Turning Up the Volume on Poverty will be launched on 21st June 2014 in Glasgow’s Woodside Hall. You can book your place here.

Martin Johnstone

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

‘When people in poverty are listened to, change happens.’

This is the simple, and stark, message of Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission. The opposite is also, tragically, true. When people who struggle against poverty are ignored, or worse still, blamed for their poverty, things will only get worse.

Over the next three months, the leaders of the Yes and No Thanks campaigns will be constantly in our papers and on our radios and TVs, as well as in countless conversations in the house, the workplace, the playground, the church hall, the pub, and the sports centre. There will be times when we will all wish that we could just turn down the volume.

At the same, there will be another group of people whose voice, wisdom and experience is rarely heard. They are many of Scotland’s poorest and most disadvantaged citizens. Politicians talk about them. Newspapers blame them. But they are rarely heard. This is not only a disgrace. It is also a huge – and unacceptable – waste of talent, creativity and energy. We can never create a Scotland we are capable of making, whether independent or as part of the union, when so many are marginalised and ignored.

On Saturday afternoon, Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission will be Turning Up the Volume on Poverty. After 18 months working and learning together, we will be presenting our conclusions and recommendations to an audience of over 450 people.

Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission is a unique combination of people. We bring together some of Scotland’s most influential people with others who are frequently ignored. We have done much more than work together. Many of us have also established friendships which will last a life time. All of us have been changed by the experience.

In our report, to be published on Saturday, we issue a set of challenges to energy providers, to the Department of Work & Pensions, to newspapers and to politicians. We suggest some practical steps which be taken to address food poverty, in-work poverty and the additional expenses that people living in poverty often have to bear.

Above all, however, we argue that the scandal of poverty will never be adequately addressed until those who struggle against it are seen as pivotal to the solutions and not part of the problem. We very much hope that you will join us in Turning Up the Volume on Poverty.

Turning Up the Volume on Poverty will be launched on 21st June 2014 in Glasgow’s Woodside Hall. You can book your place here.
Martin Johnstone

Sunday, 15 June 2014

One week until we Turn Up the Volume on Poverty

With a week to go until the Poverty Truth Commission Turns Up the Volume on Poverty, the excitement amongst the participants is beginning to mount. Speeches are being timed, videos edited and comedy routines refined and polished.

It will be the actual messages, however, and not their method of delivery, which will remain within the memories of the audience for a long time.

Contained within the performances are the real lived experiences of people in poverty.

At times on Friday those listening to the rehearsals were brought close to tears, feeling both anger and a sense of despair. There was also, however, a large amount of laughter in the room and a resounding feeling of hope prevailed. 

A belief that by standing up to have their voice heard, people in poverty are making a difference to their situation and the lives of others.

The breadth of subject matter covered in the stories is remarkable. There are experiences of in-work poverty. There are now more people in Scotland living in poverty in households where at least one person is working than in homes without an employed individual. Stories of how unjust stigma created and perpetuated by journalists, politicians and society more broadly, tarnishes the self-esteem and well-being of its victims.

There are examples of welfare reforms disproportionately and unfairly hitting the poorest and most disadvantaged in society, further deepening inequality. There is also anger at the presence of foodbanks in Scotland, and shame at being forced to use them. There are stories of how those on low incomes have to pay more for food, fuel and financial services, further trapping them in poverty.

Amongst the anger, injustice, and sheer relentlessness of it all, however, there is a burning sense of hope.

Hope for a better society where we can overcome stigma and no longer have foodbanks.
A Scotland where, regardless of its constitutional framework, people have their values and skills recognised properly. Where we, collectively, work towards reducing inequality, not increasing it.

Here in lies the key to it all. Not only will hearing the stories help to open our eyes to the injustices and hardships faced by those on low incomes. The process will also show us the expert input of those in poverty.

If we are serious about tackling poverty as a society, we must involve those with experience at the heart of the decision making process.

If you are serious about the need to reduce and eradicate poverty in Scotland then please come along to our event on Saturday as we Turn up the Volume on Poverty.

To register at this free event click here; call 0141 248 2911; or email #TurnItUp2014

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The noise levels are rising, but who is listening?

With 99 days to go until you know what, both the Yes and Better Together camps appear to be raising their noise levels. There are innovative campaigns on social media, with Obama slogans being bellowed by both sides. This has been coupled with an increasing volume of commentary from politicians, writers and political commentators from across the globe.

This collective sound, however, is travelling very much in a single direction, from the top down. Those at the bottom are being drowned in the racket. Both sides claim to be representing the people of Scotland, yet are not taking the time to include, and listen properly to, the most marginalised individuals in our society.

As well as marking 100 days to the referendum, yesterday also heralded a startling warning from the Child Poverty Commission. This watchdog estimated there will be 3.5m children in poverty in the UK by 2020. A colossal number, I’m sure both sides would agree.

The referendum debate has been filled with a lot of uncertainty, and this was always going to be the case, as so many questions are impossible to answer. However, one thing we can be certain of is that when we wake up on Friday 19, September, poverty will still be a major issue in Scotland.

Both sides have acknowledged some of the issues of sever social and economic inequality and deprivation in Scotland. They also believe that the particular constitutional framework which they are promoting will be best placed to tackle these. However, neither side has articulated how it will involve those with direct experience of poverty.

‘When people in poverty are listened to, change happens.’
(Tricia, PTC Commissioner)

Just as struggles for gender and racial equality have been won when the oppressed have been at the heart of the struggle, the eradication of poverty in Scotland needs to have those with experience of it leading.

The Poverty Truth Commission believes those in positions of power need to stop and actually listen to those in poverty. On Saturday 21, June the Commission will be doing exactly this as it Turns Up the Volume on Poverty.

Through a mixture of music, comedy, dialogue and presentation the Commission will be highlighting our work over the last year and a half. The Commission will also be welcoming its new set of commissioners as they pick up the baton, ready to address the new challenges poverty will present immediately after the vote.

To register at this free event click here; call 0141 248 2911; or email #TurnItUp2014

Friday, 6 June 2014

Don't Believe the Hype: Glasgow ain't a Sick City

15 years ago, when my brother told me to listen to Public Enemy, I must admit I was a bit hesitant. However, he had introduced me to Neil Young (no relation) and the Velvet Underground before, so I realised I could trust his judgement.

I certainly didn’t regret it. My eyes were suddenly opened to a world of racial oppression and media prejudice.  I learnt how the labelling and stereotyping of black Americans, particularly the youth, had continued long after the days of Martin Luther King. The mainstream media in the US had, thankfully and to a large extent, moved along way from overtly racist headlines, but negative images remained. This had clearly helped to perpetuate ongoing political, social and economic inequalities between blacks and whites.

What’s that got to do with Glasgow you may ask. Well, I was reminded of the words of Chuck D yesterday as I was looking through the BBC News website. Tucked away under the barrage of coverage marking 70 years since the Normandy landings, I found a story titled:

Many people living in and around Glasgow will have heard the city referred to as the 'sick man of Europe' and researchers will know it often tops the statistical charts for the wrong reasons. The headline is certainly not factually inaccurate and the article is thoughtful and well written. It even draws positive attention to Galgael and other projects which are having a greatly positive impact on communities, helping individuals to turn their lives around.

However, it’s the headline which bugs me. Provocative language like this helps to foster and reinforce negative ideas of places and people. The health rates are indeed alarming and certainly need to be given proper attention and action. However, the headline doesn’t allow the space for well-rationed solutions to be discussed: it merely labels Glasgow as a problem holding the rest of us back.

The Poverty Truth Commission has learnt how stigma and negative media labelling pervades the lives of people living in poverty, haunting them at every turn. One of our Commissioners shared her experience:

 ‘I’ve seen me fill in application forms and I’ll put down “Govan” ... but no. You don’t put down “Govan.” It’s Glasgow because if you live in “Govan” no one is going to employ you. ...They are even saying that at the Job Centre.’

Just as Public Enemy decided to stand up to negative media coverage, we as a society need to challenge the false myths of people living in poverty. If you are willing to look past the headlines and hear the truth then please come along on Saturday 21, June as we Turn Up the Volume on Poverty.

To register at this free event click here; call 0141 248 2911; or email #TurnItUp2014

Monday, 2 June 2014

The Wood for the Trees

With just under 3 weeks to go till our event, "Turning up the Volume on Poverty" things have become somewhat hectic around the Poverty Truth Commission.  To do lists multiply, diaries are squeezed, panic begins to set in...

And yet of course important though the number of rehearsals, the numbers attending, the number of microphones and the number of press interviews are - this is not what it is all about.

I have a folder holding all the script information for the day.  Occasionally I can be seen manically flicking through it.  What happens here?  Why are these pages still blank?  Will we be ready in time?  This I know is the way with organising a large event - and yet...

There is one piece in that folder that makes me stop.  It has been finished for a while.  It's completeness makes me calm.  And when I glance at it I remember what the whole event is about.  

For this story tells the truth about asylum so honestly and profoundly, I know that if it was the only story told on the 21st June, the event would still be of extreme importance.

"...When you claim asylum, no matter who you are, no matter what you have achieved in life, as soon as you claim asylum you are crushed.  It's like being told you have done something wrong and you are nothing now.  But I am still the same person.  I am still Aimee..."

Of course it won't be the only story.  Each one that is being so carefully crafted and rehearsed in these last few weeks has a dramatic importance and quiet authority.  To be there on June 21st when the volume is turned up will be a privelge and experience.  To hear the truth publicly told - things will not stay the same.

I am glad to lift my head from the chaos of organising and to hear the leaves of trees of the wood rustling in anticipation.

Elaine Downie