Monday, 28 July 2014

The onus is on us all to raise voter turnout

Nothing About Us Without Us is For Us

In less than 3 months, the people of Scotland will take part in what is one of the most important democratic decisions that our nation will take during my lifetime. It is the decision about whether or not Scotland should become an independent country or remain a part of the union with the rest of the United Kingdom.

All the signs are that record numbers of people will turn out to vote. That, regardless of the outcome, is fantastic. So too are the record number of village, town and community hall meetings which are taking place the length and breadth of the land as we think about how to vote. And the campaigning which we are seeing on our streets every day is brilliant, even if occasionally it goes a little bit over the top. We must never forget that in other nations, and at other times, people have died for the right to exercise the choice that we will do freely on in September. Maybe, when our descendants look back on this period in our history, they will point to it as a time when popular democracy was re-ignited. When we discovered again that our voice, our opinion and our vote mattered. I hope so.

However, whilst it is exciting that so many people are involved in the debate, we need to recognise that thousands and thousands are still not. They are not only those who could vote but won’t – turned off by scandal or the sense that nothing changes. They are also those who, whilst eligible to vote, are not yet on the electoral register. They are frequently those who have the least in our society. There is still time for people to register to vote. Let’s all do our part to make sure that that happens. To make sure that no one who has the right to vote in September is not able to do so.

For the last 5 years I have been involved with Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission. The Commission brings together 2 groups of people: some of Scotland’s senior leaders and some of Scotland’s very poorest and most marginalised citizens. Our understanding is simple: that Scotland will never be as great nation as we could be until those who struggle against poverty every day are seen as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. In our work we have adopted, from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, one of the great slogans of that historic struggle. Nothing About Us Without Us is For Us.

20 years on, the TV images of people queuing to vote in South Africa’s first free and democratic elections still give me goose-bumps. It would be great if similar pictures could be transmitted around the world on the 18th September. As we turn out, in record numbers, to make our decision about what sort of future we want for ourselves, our children, our grandchildren, our friends and our neighbours.

Martin Johnstone

Martin is a Church of Scotland minister involved in a wide range of anti-poverty organisations. He is Secretary of Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission. 

Monday, 21 July 2014

In-work Poverty: an idea whose time has come?

Just before the 2010 UK election, David Cameron famously declared that the living wage was an idea “whose time has come”. After four years, however, it seems that in-work poverty has become for many a more decade defining phenomenon, and you do not need to look far to find Dave’s vision illusory.

Just round the corner from his house, in fact, you will find 12 out of 17 Whitehall departments paying their cleaning staff below the Living Wage. The dark humour is certainly not lost when you consider this dozen includes the departments for Health and for International Development, the latter of which has a mandate for tackling poverty globally….

“[the lack of a living wage is]…an affront to human dignity”

The need for a proper living wage is self-evident. There are now more people in Scotland living in poverty in households where at least one person is working than in homes where no-one is in paid employment. There are fundamental flaws which mean that education and employment are not providing people with a route out of poverty.

However, just as spurious as Dave’s vision, is the belief that the manifestation of a living wage across society will neatly end in-work poverty.

It is a vital component in the campaign for a fairer society and a reduction in poverty. However, to regard it as the all-encompassing solution shows a lack of understanding of the intricacy of in-work poverty.  

We need a deeper insight. We need to hear from the experts: people with experience of it.

The PovertyTruth Commission has been doing just this over the last few years. Our findings have revealed the numerous barriers which are everyday realities for many, but often fall below the public radar. These include: lack of support for training and development; expensive and inflexible childcare; caring responsibilities going unrecognised; limited opportunities for career progression; the inflexibility of the current Benefits System and the rising trend of underemployment.

This is set against a backdrop of rapidly escalating costs for food and fuel in particular. In addition, it has been matched by a trend of decreasing working conditions for those on the lowest incomes. The increasingly ubiquitous zero-hour contract has brought no guarantee of working hours and, as such, no assured income. In addition, these working arrangements are extremely unlikely to leave their recipients with any holiday entitlements or pension contributions.

Challenges for all of us

It is palpable that the Living Wage Campaign needs continued support from all of us across society. It is deeply connected to legislation decided at Westminster and energy should be expended there. However, it also has a local current to it. Campaigning for it to be part of procurement considerations at both Holyrood and at local authority level is just one step we can all take.

However, we must also stop perpetuating the myth that work is the route out of poverty for everyone. It is only the case in the right environment and unless we make a concerted effort to address that context, we will remain in an age of in-work poverty.

Monday, 14 July 2014

When tackling poverty, it's not just statistics

‘I want the opportunity to have a life – to thrive not just survive.’ Marie

Last week the Labour party argued for more rigorous monitoring of child poverty levels in the UK. The call was for the Office for Budgetary Responsibility to produce two yearly assessments, as it currently does with economic growth predictions. The logic being that greater public awareness of poverty statistics could lead to improved Government action on what is an increasing problem.

Certainly child poverty has been absent from George Osbourne’s last three budget speeches and independent analysts predict child poverty rates are set to rise significantly. One estimate of a 600,000 increase by 2015-16 is truly shocking and should make everyone take note.

The Coalition’s approach

The government’s defence is that its new welfare regime has been designed to encourage people back to work and support those unable to do so.

How it has been carried out, however, has been roundly criticised on numerous fronts. A report on sanctions this month from Citizens Advice Scotland, for example, documents some of its brutal shortcomings.

The Poverty Trap

Moreover, aside from the actual implementation, there seems a deeper structural flaw to the system. By removing the safety net, huge swathes of people are being pushed into poverty, without recognition of how once there they can be easily trapped. Many of those bearing the brunt of the cuts are already working full time, stuck on the minimum wage, or struggling in an elusive search for more hours to cover rising living costs.  

There appears no understanding that poverty traps people: once there your opportunities decrease significantly, you encounter damaging stigma, and not only is your income reduced but you are charged more for basic goods and services.

A return to the safety net?

The previous administration’s record of reducing child poverty by 800,000, from 3.4m to 2.6m, seems, at first glance and in our current climate, to be of notable achievement.

Further analysis, on the other hand, highlights that the policies of New Labour did not display a deep enough approach. Heavily reliant on tweaks such as increases in Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit, this method lowered levels of child poverty statistically. However, this was against a backdrop of a failure to dent income inequality, as calculated by the Gini coefficient.

It gave many low income families some much needed extra income, but its inability to alter the overall structure of power, or encourage people’s sense of agency to flourish within it, resulted in a lack of sustainable progress.

Rethinking the Welfare System: involving people directly

It is clear that we need a wider dialogue around welfare policies which halt and reverse the rising inequality which has gone largely unquestioned over the last thirty years.

Income transfers are required and the welfare system should provide a safety net to prevent individuals from falling into poverty. However, to merely stop there would be a failure to learn from our past mistakes.

We cannot expect to create a sustainable system to lift people out of poverty if we do not directly involve those whom the changes are meant to be helping. People living and experiencing poverty on a daily basis need to have control over how it is shaped. We need their voices to help guide us.

Alternative Approach

The Poverty Truth Commission is trying to create this. On Saturday 21st June, an audience of over 450 heard people with experience of poverty stand side by side with people in positions of power in Scotland. As well as hearing true stories of life on low incomes, those in attendance heard a vision for the future often ignored by the mainstream media. A vision of a fairer and more inclusive economy, geared towards the benefit of all in society, with universal and equal participation in decision making.

Challenges for us all

Since its inception in 2009, the Commission has been constantly and profoundly challenged by the testimonies it has heard from people living in poverty. In that spirit, it has offered a set of challenges for everyone across society, from politicians to the woman or man on the street.

Chief amongt them is this:

“We challenge politicians and civic leaders to stop talking about those in poverty and to start learning with them”

Friday, 11 July 2014

The Challenge to see past the Stereotypes

I was annoyed but, truth be told, not really surprised when reading Harriet Harman's account of the rifeness of sexism within UK politics. The gender disparity statistically which exists at Westminster, Holyrood and at lower levels of politics, is clear to see. Harman’s personal account, however, helped to illuminate the everyday realities of life in a heavily male dominated environment.

She spoke of how a female MP is "still defined by her marital status and reproductive record in a way that would be unthinkable for a man".  

Harman struck on a wider issue then gender equality, however, when she spoke of how unrepresentative of society parliament is. She identified that although many in positions of power have adopted the rhetoric of supporting equality, they feel this is enough in itself to bring about change. She said:

"You don't have to openly oppose equality to perpetuate inequality … All it takes is for those in positions of power to do nothing and the status quo prevails.

The Poverty Truth Commission has learnt all about how this exists and impacts on the daily lives of people living in poverty. We have understood how the language and practices of different organisations - public service bodies, businesses and charities – can make individuals feel as if they are second class citizens, not worthy of equal treatment. One commissioner told us:

‘I’ve seen me fill in application forms and I’ll put down I live in Govan. But I’m then told “No, you don’t put down Govan. Write Glasgow, because if you say Govan, no-one is going to employ you.” They are even saying that at the Job Centre’.

We have heard stories of commissioners being judged and encountering stigma based on what clothes they are wearing or where they live. We as a Commission are appalled at the lack of moral courage of many within public life to stand alongside those who are unfairly caricatured.

Change is possible

As Harman correctly identifies this situation of acute gender inequality has continued because those in positions of power have done very little to address the root causes. The same is true of poverty. People in positions of power need to listen to those with experience of poverty. We challenge everyone to stand up to the stigmatisation of all marginalised groups across society.

Our Challenges
  • We challenge all of us to see beyond the labels that stereotype people and which diminish our society as a whole.
  • We challenge politicians to avoid unfair and prejudicial language against people living in poverty.
  • We challenge organisations tackling poverty to engage more effectively with the media to ensure positive stories are heard

To read more about the work of the Commission and our challenges please have a look at our report.