Monday, 29 September 2014

Freezing Incomes of the Poorest Harms Us All

The Poverty Truth Commission believes that policies such as freezing incomes will only serve to further impoverish the poor and negatively impact all of us. As a society, we have collectively failed to understand poverty properly as we have not listened to the experts, those people with experience of it first-hand. The UK is an extremely wealthy state and choosing to cut the incomes of the poorest to pay off the debt is a political choice, with far-reaching negative economic consequences.

The Poverty Truth Commission believes that people living in poverty are the experts on their situation and that the long-term reduction and eradication of poverty will only be achieved when they are placed at the heart of the decision making process.

Listening to the testimonies of our commissioners over the years we have learnt of the deep structural barriers which create and reinforce poverty in Scotland. Punitive measures, such as reducing the incomes of those already struggling to put food on the table, will not address these obstacles. Instead, it will merely serve to push people further into a desperate financial situation where they may have to resort to food banks, pay day lenders, disconnecting from electricity suppliers and other unsustainable solutions, which in turn will see their debt levels rise.  

We live in an extremely wealthy society. Choosing to reduce the debt by cutting the incomes of the poorest in society is a political choice, it is not inevitable, nor does it make economic sense. It is likely to create further costs which will have to be borne by other sections of society, such as family and friends, local communities, charities and local governments. In addition, the long-term negative implications of a life spent in poverty are well documented and include poor outcomes for health and wellbeing and for educational attainment.

Instead, measures such as alleviating the cost of childcare, increasing the minimum wage, safe-guarding working hours and tackling the poverty premium are positive alternatives. The majority of people in poverty in the UK, after all, live in a household with at least one employed adult and many unemployed people are there not through choice but lack of opportunities and training.

We will only find sustainable solutions to reducing inequality, which in turn will decrease public expenditure, when we start listening to people with experience of poverty.

In June of this year the Poverty Truth Commission turned up the volume on these voices. Read the report here

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

An Open Letter from Scotland's Poverty Truth Commission to Prime Minister David Cameron

Dear Prime Minister,
An Open Letter from Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission
The ‘people of Scotland have spoken’ and have decided that Scotland will remain an integral part of the United Kingdom. Now is the time for us all to work together for the changes which all political parties have committed to and for which there is a clear hunger throughout the nation.
People in Scotland who struggle against poverty on a daily basis were on both sides of the debate. Some wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom and others wanted an independent Scotland. It would be wrong to claim otherwise. However, it is also clear that there is a correlation, at least at local authority level, between the intensity of the levels of poverty within communities and support for independence. The four local authorities which returned a vote in favour of independence are the four with the highest levels of deprivation.
Over the last five years, Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission has brought together those living in ongoing poverty with some of Scotland’s leading civic and political leaders. The Commission is non-partisan but it is clear on one thing: poverty will never begin to be adequately addressed until those who suffer most directly from its impact are recognised as germane to its resolution. Our most recent report, Turning Up the Volume on Poverty was published in June.
As you embark on the journey of helping to deliver the change that Scotland has demanded, I would invite you and your colleagues to meet with the Commission. It is one small, but significant, way in which your plans will be informed by the issue that really divides our nation – the growing disparity between rich and poor.
Yours sincerely,

Martin Johnstone

Secretary, Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Democracy and the Referendum

With just 10 days to go until the Referendum, frantic conversations are taking place throughout Scotland as both sides try to persuade family members, friends and strangers to jump off the fence and join their side. My flatmate even went so far as to take part in the Great North Run yesterday to avoid me pestering him about it.

With the date inching ever closer, the temperature is being notched up as the tension builds and builds. Taking a step back from this, however, I find all this nervous energy not just exciting, but also something to be savoured.

People seem to be engaging in political issues in Scotland to an extent not seen for many years. Certainly in the ten years in which I have been eligible to vote this appears unprecedented. Turnout predictions of over 80% are heartening for any democracy, especially as the last Scottish Parliament election just scraped past 50%.

The referendum campaign has reinforced my belief that the Scottish people desire to engage with important questions and to have their voice heard. People in Scotland are clearly not apathetic, but have been turned off politics in recent years due to a variety of reasons.

In my experience with the Poverty Truth Commission and elsewhere, people will engage when they believe their voice to be listened to and to have the ability to make tangible change. This is not a ground-breaking revelation by any means, but people in power appear to have forgotten this.

We seem to have stalled at the stage of only participating through the ballot box once every few years. The result has been an apparently growing distance between the people making important decisions and the people affected by them. This has created an increasingly self-reinforcing downward spiral.

As the referendum debate has shown, however, this is certainly not something which we cannot tackle and overcome. Regardless of the constitutional framework in which we find ourselves in, this must be our challenge going forward: how do we ensure everyone’s voice is heard and valued?

In June of this year the Poverty Truth Commission gave those with experience of poverty the platform to have their voices heard by important decision makers. The Commission’s Turning Up the Volume on Poverty' campaign challenges all of us to make our institutions more participatory and easier for people to engage with.

After all, increasing participation will not only serve to better legitimise decision making, but will result in enhanced outcomes through greater input from people with real experience of the issues at hand.

It is my sincere hope that, regardless of next week’s outcome, both sides can keep that hunger and desire for a greater say in their society. A more participatory democracy is clearly a benefit for us all but it won’t happen itself, we have to reach out and grab it.