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 …

Social pityWhat’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.

Dundee saved my lifeWhere 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

 

Comments (7)

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  1. George Gunn says:

    We need this work right across Scotland, especially in the Highlands and Islands where poverty and real hardship are often hidden. I always take heart when people get organised.

  2. Alf Baird says:

    £80m (and rising) spent on a museum(?) for the middle cless while 7,000 wait on the Dundee housing list; meantime thousands of inbound univ students continue to bid up city property rents, pleasing the buy-to-rent middle cless, yet leaving in its wake the inevitable downside of higher rents and housing shortages. Easy to see here who the ‘policies’ favour.

    1. Muscleguy says:

      You write as though the council is all controlling and runs under ironclad 5 year plans. Did it not allow the building of many more blocks of student flats/halls of residence? Or is the transformation of Hawkhill invisible to you? How also do the council restrict students to just those places, if there are enough of them? We don’t live in that sort of country.

      What you want is Stalinist levels of control and absolute knowledge of what the future holds. Also you ignore the money and employment the students bring. Past Ninewells (with it’s students and researchers) the university is probably the biggest employer left, sadly.

      I also wonder where all these houses are going to go. The land the multis were on is being built on, multis nobody wanted to live in. Do you oppose the Western Gateway development? I hope note, or maybe we should build some Japanese style capsule hostels. A tube with a bed in it. London is going there, should we? How about your rail against the Estates who own all the land that rings the city. The council can’t get housing built on land that won’t be released. The council, sadly, cannot wave a magic wand and magic up wonderful cheap housing.

      Could be worse, Westminster is forcing English Housing Corps to sell of their own stock. The SNP banned council house sales. Syrian refugees are going into unused council houses all over Scotland. House prices here are as influenced by England and Edinburgh as much as the realities of the local market.

      1. Muscleguy says:

        Re those multi replacements, from today’s Courier:

        https://www.thecourier.co.uk/fp/news/local/dundee/186378/councillor-believes-10-million-investment-will-benefit-homes-across-city/

        I’ll extract one bit to counter your accusations:

        “In 2013 the first council houses for around 20 years were completed at Ann Street and Nelson Street.

        Since then, more developments in partnership with housing associations and other RSLs have been completed in Mill O’Mains, Whitfield and Lochee.”

      2. Alf Baird says:

        The policies/powers I refer to reside in Holyrood (and its agencies).

        The housing ‘developments’ you refer to are too little, too late.

        ‘Scottish’ universities are a law unto themselves; ‘our’ supposed elite uni’s are merely international businesses focusing on securing high fees in teaching the children of the global middle and upper classes, and for the most part they are run by and employ academics from elsewhere too.

  3. Ian Kirkwood says:

    Scotland chooses to continue investing the returns on its tax investments in the owners of land, which ensures the rest are rendered to a larger or smaller degree outcasts of society. What do I mean by the return on tax investments? Increasing site values that arise when amenities are improved by society. These returns remain the privilege of one segment of tax payers — the owners of land.
    Until these are collected, social exclusion, substance abuse, self harm, poverty and inequality will remain. The thing is, Holyrood could start the goodbye to poverty now by reducing income tax by the maximum prescribed devolved limit and replacing it with Annual Ground Rent (also know as LVT). See http://www.facebook.com/AGRforScotland

  4. Stephen Cairns says:

    What you say is good. I recognise the value of the commissions work and commend you for it and for your own work both with (and against) the city council.

    Despite starting with the property porn angle, what you do not say, and the SNP seem to have forgotten recently, is that rents need to be held to affordable levels and private landlords held accountable for providing a decent service at a fair price. Housing benefit payments distort the rental market, and turn the transition from unwaged to low waged into a loanshark infested nightmare for people less likely to have any kind of financial resilience or contingency. Regulation of rents and a simple basic income that guarantees dignity is essential, not only to avoid hard pressed and disgruntled citizens complaining about Higher Education or cultural attractions being permitted, but to give them access to the many benefits they bring.

    Changing central government policy is not ‘One thing’ it is essential, as is getting away from the implication, that if you had been able to find 3rd generation unwaged, or people with drink or drug addictions, it would have somehow made them any less in need of help. If you start trying to differentiate the deserving poor at the expense of the merely destitute, you will never get beyond tinkering with a cruel, arcane system founded on privilege and entitlement. To randomly counter it’s worst offences by dispensing a few quid extra here and there for good behaviour is not enough.

    I appreciate more fully than I would wish on anyone, how vital those small sums can be to the desperate recipients, and I do not in any way belittle your good work, but under stress the entire benefit system is showing it’s victorian workhouse foundations. We need architects and engineers invested in this work. A local cooncil wi a roll of gaffer tape and some outsourced agency labour cannae fix this, but thank you…. And damn those authorities who are doing any less.

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