Speaking with poverty: The Dundee Fairness Commission
The day after the Parliament debated poverty Cllr Jimmy Black, Chair of the Dundee Fairness Commission, declines to quote statistics …
What’s on the telly – property porn … ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ porn … and now benefits and poverty porn. Some of us have become obsessed with the lives of the so-called ‘underclasses’, viewing their struggles with a mixture of sympathy and fascination, but generally from a safe distance. There is something deeply comforting – schadenfreude – in the knowledge that others are much worse off than you. And there is a ready stock of reasons to explain why they are poor and you are not.
Here’s one popular theory … “there are families where three generations have never worked and have no idea how to work.” Oddly enough the Dundee Fairness Commission failed to locate such families. What we did find were family members in badly paid part-time work; or carers trying to look after old or disabled relatives. We found the working poor struggle as much as those dependent entirely on benefits.
Here’s another … “they are poor because they won’t work and can’t be bothered turning up for Jobcentre appointments. So they get sanctioned. Serves them right.” But that also proved to be rubbish. Our Commission heard from many claimants who had been sanctioned, unfairly. One of our conclusions was that sanctions are indefensible, and must be abolished.
And wrong assumptions about alcoholism, and drug addiction offered yet another comforting explanation for other people’s poverty. We were told that stigma of various kinds is one of the major problems people face when seeking jobs, claiming benefits or applying for council services.
It’s always tempting to throw in statistics which provide the kind of ‘evidence’ on which policy-makers insist. But such statistics can also often dehumanise and be overwhelming. Real human stories let you see where things went wrong, and also how bad situations can be avoided. So I’ll tell some of these tales.
One man said he had been homeless and was sofa surfing until the council found him a hostel. At just under £800 a month that was fine as long as he was on benefit. But he made the mistake of finding himself a job, so swiftly and inevitably built up huge arrears. He was told to leave and he was again roofless.
A woman whose husband left her was working two jobs to keep her head above water. She failed, lost her house and car, and her severely depressed son committed suicide. Her own mental health was now in tatters, but she was passed fit for work. Told to claim Jobseekers Allowance, she was then sanctioned for missing appointments. The happy ending was that she appealed, was reassessed and was shifted onto another benefit. But even then she was still depending on food banks for weeks until her money – her entitlement – came through.
And there was the ex-offender who came out of jail to a hostel; handed over his liberation grant to pay for shelter and fuel; and then found he had no money for three weeks until his benefit came through. “I can see why less strong minded people could be tempted to shoplift,” he told us. The genuinely happy ending here was that with help from Shelter and local employability specialist Craigowl Communities, this man found a tenancy and eventually a job.
Which brings me to the practical things we can do to tackle poverty in Dundee – or anywhere in Scotland. Lobbying Holyrood and Westminster for changes to what was once called ‘social security’ is one important thing. But a bit of co-ordinated action from our public services is as equally important and within our hands.
Where is the incentive for someone who is homeless to get a job if it means they can’t pay the rent, so they are sofa surfing again? Why are the NHS, social workers, the Police and the Jobcentre not getting together to work out how best to support and assist a grieving mother whose life has just entirely fallen apart? Why does no-one ensure someone leaving prison and moving into a hostel has enough money to buy food?
There is a principle which guides work with young people in Scotland, and it’s called ‘Getting It Right for Every Child’ (GERFEC). So is it not time we got it right for every citizen? Rather than saying … “I am a benefits officer and I have processed this man’s claim correctly“, our public servants need to think … “I am part of a team and if any part of the team fails to provide the right support for this individual, my work will be wasted and nothing concrete for that person will be achieved.”
The Dundee Fairness Commission came forward with 56 recommendations. Some, like the abolition of workfare, or mandatory work placements, depend on the actions of others. Some, like reducing the cost of the school day to avoid hardship for parents in poverty, are practical at a local level. For example, the Commission highlighted the need for higher school clothing grants, and now the grant is £81. Putting council workers into the Jobcentre to provide independent advice to claimants is also working well. Dundee is already on the road to becoming an £8.25 per hour Living Wage City, and local businesses are willing to work towards that goal.
The Dundee Partnership links the Council, the NHS, Health & Social Care, the Police and local businesses. We in the Fairness Commission have given the Partnership six-months to come back with an Action Plan which addresses our recommendations, and we told them not to hang about. If anything useful can be done now, we said … ‘do it’. It’s clear that the people round the table … including a College Principal, the Director of Public Health, a Trades Unionist, a Head Teacher, and many Dundonians … were all visibly moved by what they heard from those in poverty and left determined to create a change. One, a community leader, said she was “moved by the strength shown by those willing to offer up their personal experiences to us, but also shocked and equally angered by the callous indifference we as a society choose to show those in poverty.”
It’s that anger and the shock at such indifference that will bring about real change.
The report of the Dundee Fairness Commission, “A Fair Way to Go” and its associated videos, reports and presentations are available at:http://goo.gl/9Mnvgh
Jimmy Black is an SNP Councillor for Dundee Coldside