Lynn Williams from SCVO highlights the opportunities to rebuild trust and ensure that people in poverty shape the services which affect their lives.
Poverty in Scotland is big news. Consider the recent Poverty Truth Commission report and latest poverty figures at UK and Scottish level. The expansion of food banks, and the public and political responses to the injustices of benefit sanctions have highlighted that Scotland is experiencing a heart-rending and devastating poverty crisis.
For specific groups in our society the risk of experiencing hardship – of struggling to fulfil the most basic of human rights to food, shelter and participation – is that much greater. This is not their fault in any way. They are at the mercy of a flawed economy and of policy and spending decisions which do not take into account their views on what matters.
Policies across a range of areas contribute to the experience of poverty. My work as part of the Expert Group on Welfare confirmed many of my suspicions – short-term cuts and savings in areas such as community care and transport compound the risks.
At an early session facilitated by the Poverty Alliance, unpaid carers talked about being effectively forced out of paid employment because of a lack of support for their loved ones. They didn’t want to be dependent on Carers Allowance. At just £61 per week, this is the lowest of income replacement benefits and you need to be caring for 35 hours a week or more to be eligible.
Let’s look at the experience of Scotland’s unpaid carers in more detail.
Almost half of carers are in debt as a result of caring. 59% of carers experience fuel poverty. More than 170,000 people had to give up paid employment to care. More worryingly, almost half cut back on essentials such as food and heat.
The survey also showed that at UK level, effectively £1bn of support for carers had been cut. More and more people are having to contribute to purchasing, or are buying outright, equipment and support that was previously provided by statutory services.
Charging for social care means that for some, the cost of getting support just to get out of the door is prohibitive. And as more carers are pushed towards jobseeker benefits because of the transfer to PIP, the chances of them being sanctioned and pushed into greater poverty (because of their caring role) greatly increase.
The harsh reality of welfare cuts is driving people to the edge but decisions made at Scottish level can contribute to increased poverty. No one can truly absolve themselves of blame. Yes, times are tough but when we pull support from those who actually save statutory services a whole shedload of cash, we are heading for disaster.
It comes down to how much we value key services such as social care and how much we value unpaid care.
Poverty is the reality for many of Scotland’s 600,000 unpaid carers. Many of them are also growing increasingly despondent about decision makers’ ability to respond to what they and their families need to survive – never mind achieving any real quality of life.
We need to face this crisis of trust head on. The voices of those who experience the hardship of poverty, day in and day out, MUST be at the heart of policy making. We may be working towards independence after September or looking at the possibility of more powers coming to the Scottish Parliament. Either way, we need to stop patronising people and start to bring them into the fold. Listening to unpaid carers will provide easy and sometimes cheap solutions to many of the challenges they and their loved ones face on a daily basis. This was recognised at a session involving unpaid carers and the Deputy First Minister in April this year. As a result, she will meet with carers on a 6 monthly basis to take the concerns and ideas of carers straight to the heart of the Scottish Government.
Neither independence nor the promised additional powers offered by Better Together parties will be a magic wand. The only real change can come when we take the findings of the Christie Commission to heart and ensure that people and communities themselves shape the policies and services which impact on their day to day lives. Decision makers might not always like what they hear but I can guarantee this – what we will hear are common sense solutions to making people’s lives better, to tackling the blight of poverty in Scotland.