Poverty and inequality in Scotland

JOHN MCFALL

The impact of welfare reform

A Labour peer who chairs a new group in Scotland set up to examine the impact of welfare reform outlines the group’s approach to evaluating a system which many believe has lost sight of people’s dignity.

Last month the All Party Enquiry into Hunger in the UK launched their ‘Feeding Britain’ report in Westminster with a declaration from the Archbishop of Canterbury that hunger stalks large parts of the country.

On the same day, the newly formed Scottish Civic Leaders Welfare Group, made up of representatives from the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), churches, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and Trades Unions, was visiting Drumchapel to examine Archbishop Welby’s hypothesis.  It was the first step in a plan to gather evidence of the impact of benefit cuts, which will be presented to the UK and Scottish governments.

In discussions with local CAB and food bank staff, and listening to testimony from benefit clients, we formed the impression of a system which, in the words of Archbishop Philip Tartaglia, was complex, bewildering, conflicting and in a number of cases inhuman.

Certainly in the prevailing sanctions regime, the evidence revealed an arbitrary, inconsistent and heavy-handed system which could result in clients with no money at all for an indeterminate period of time, and no access to any crisis payments.  If it were not for the active and persistent involvement of CAB and food bank staff in the management of vulnerable people’s cases, many of them would have been in desperate penury.

One glaring unfairness of the sanctions system is that when individuals lose their jobseekers allowance the jobcentre computer automatically forwards a message to the local authority to stop Housing Benefit.  This inevitably results in rent arrears, thereby plunging the person deeper into poverty.  Ian Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Works and Pensions, has since promised to look into this matter and ensure that all benefits offices disregard the present approach.

An example of the arbitrary and inconsistent nature of the sanctions regime involved a client who was given a written instruction to attend a jobcentre appointment on a Monday – which he duly did.  He was, however, sanctioned for failure to attend on the previous Friday, despite having no appointment to attend.  After six weeks, the sanction was overturned on appeal, during which time he had to access a food bank.

Another case involved a lone parent of a five year old child who was sanctioned for four weeks for failing to keep an appointment in the jobcentre with her careers advisor.  This was despite the fact that she was in the jobcentre for her first appointment but was misdirected and did not hear them call her name.  A new appointment was to be sent to her by post but never arrived.

The present mood of the country to people in receipt of benefits is becoming less tolerant.  Recent British Attitudes Surveys, which have equal resonance in Scotland, found that the number of people who think that life on benefits means a life of hardship fell from 55% in 1993 to only 19% today.  People also think that one in four welfare claimants defraud the system rather than one in 50, which is the true figure.  With almost one in three people of the view that the poor have brought misfortune on themselves, it is indeed a harsh climate for those living on benefits.

The Welfare Leaders Group will examine further, and continue to take evidence on the shortcomings of the benefits system in the hope that change will result which reflects the human dignity of each individual the system serves.  We can do no better than reflect on the words of a US priest colleague on a visit to Scotland when he declared that what we need is a compassion that stands in awe at the burden the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgement at the way they carry it.

John McFall is a member of the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee.  He represented Dumbarton as an MP from 1987-2005, then West Dunbartonshire from 2005-2010, and chaired the All Party Treasury Select Committee.

Box: What are sanctions?

Sanctions are a reduction in benefit, often to nil.  They are applied to people who are held not to have complied with conditions attached to their jobseekers allowance, or less commonly income support or employment and support allowance.  The period of sanction can range from one week to three years.  For some people, a sanction could result in a loss of income of £72 a week.  The use of sanctions in the year running up to September 2013 was at its highest level since jobseeker’s allowance was introduced and with harsher conditions attached to universal credit, it is likely that more and more families will be affected by sanctions.

For more information see the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland at www.cpag.org.uk/scotland

Tackling child poverty

Congratulations to Danni Moore, a senior pupil at Holyrood High School, Glasgow, who was the first ever winner of the annual essay competition set up in memory of Fr Frank Kennedy, a former pupil, who died in May, 2013 (Open House 233).

Frank was a contributor to Open House and a former industrial chaplain whose involvement in justice and peace took him to Argentina after the Falklands/Malvinas conflict.  He would surely have approved of Danni’s essay topic, Poverty and Exclusion: A Scottish Perspective.  Here is an extract from the essay, which highlights the need for a multi agency focus on ending poverty in Scotland.  It was written before the independence referendum in September.  Danni writes:

Poverty is still very much a shocking reality in Scotland today.  The UK government’s policy for combating poverty is characterised by ambitious targets, particularly for the reduction of child poverty.  There is evidence to suggest that these policies have had some effect on reducing poverty in Scotland over the past ten years.  Nevertheless, while there is one child being held back from their true potential, there is so much more work to be done.

It is believed that in this time of food banks, recent progress on reducing poverty must continue over at least the next decade.  To achieve such aims, more resources and an even greater effort will be needed to reach those groups that have not yet benefited from the slow economic growth enjoyed by other parts of the UK and Scotland.

In order for this to happen, the government has to make a more concerted effort to present a coherent anti-poverty strategy across all policy areas, joining up across UK government departments as well as the Scottish Executive and local government.  I do not believe that the government is doing enough to ‘poverty proof’ its policies and exploit available opportunities to integrate services.  One in five of Scotland’s children are officially recognised as living in poverty.  In some areas one in three children grow up in poverty.  Poverty remains one of the most serious problems facing children today.  Its effects last a lifetime, negatively impacting on health, education, social and physical development and seriously harming future life chances and opportunities.

Poverty is currently far from central to the independence debate but it is vital that it becomes so.  This discussion is, after all, about the kind of country Scotland wants to be and should cover areas that are central to tackling poverty – health, schools, childcare, benefits, taxes, work and pay, housing and more.  The Scottish government already has powers over many of these areas.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the debate on the future has provided an opportunity to explore the makings of a new approach to tackling poverty and inequality.

Happy are those who are concerned for the poor: the Lord will help them when they are in trouble. Psalm 41:1

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CONFERENCE PAPERS

In June 2019 Open House held a conference exploring possible new directions for the Catholic Church in Scotland. See conference papers.


Open House also held a conference on the role of lay people in the governance of the Catholic Church in November 2013. See conference papers.