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:

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