End sanctions to ease burden of the poor

Listen to the voices of those in debt trap, says Sally Foster-Fulton

When people who struggle against poverty are ignored things will only get worse. Picture: Ian Rutherford

When people in poverty are listened to, change happens.

That is the simple – and stark – message of Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission. The opposite is, tragically, also true. When people who struggle against poverty are ignored – or worse still, blamed for their poverty – things will only get worse.

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Twice now, the Poverty Truth Commission has brought together some of Scotland’s most influential citizens and an equal number of people who live their lives at the sharp end of poverty. When this second generation of commissioners reported to 450 people recently, the impact was simply stunning. The bonds that had developed were clear and deep. People who had spent years researching and talking and thinking about poverty had been transformed by spending time with people who lived it, and people who were struggling with life at the hard end were lifted by the new experience of being listened to and taken seriously. And stories were shared, simply and imaginatively.

We know the figures about poverty, but too often dodge the issues, preferring to buy into the comfortable myths about “scroungers” and “skivers” and people “choosing a benefits lifestyle” – lies we tell ourselves so we can stay in our safe, little bubble. Most of us live our lives with little clue about what the daily grind means, the choice between food and heat. Moira said: “I had six children. I am lucky to say my kids never went to bed hungry but my husband and I did ... and we were working. When I had just had kids we were not in debt. Once I had the grandkids to look after I got a lot of debt. There was so much going against them. I am still trying to pay off the debts.”

These are not hard-luck stories to make us feel sorry for “poor people”; they are heroic survival stories and they are all too common – not only should they inspire respect, but they should inspire change and call for justice.

Some of the most scandalous stories are of the welfare “sanctions” that fuel the ever-increasing need for food banks.

Sanctions – simply cutting off benefits, for a period from four weeks to three years – are imposed for being a few minutes late for an appointment, or applying for one fewer job than you should have done, and can also be the result of clerical errors by JobCentre staff. Rather than incentivising people to find work, sanctions have the opposite impact: breaking people’s spirits and damaging their physical and mental health. Would you lose four weeks wages if you were half an hour late for work, or only completed four of the five tasks your boss had given you? Why do we treat people like this? What does it do to them, mentally and physically?

Sanctions have rapidly become part of their daily lives and fears, not of a few slick abusers of the system but of thousands of folk struggling to survive. Their growing, harmful impact was underlined by Citizens Advice Scotland in a report last week. They may be set up to “incentivise”, but the reality is that they are dragging folk down.

We’re told that work is the answer, and we’ve built a system round that. For many it would be the answer, but remains a forlorn hope, flickering in the face of applications that aren’t even acknowledged and bureaucracy that ticks boxes without listening or apparently caring. For others, work hasn’t lifted them out of the poverty that continually holds them down. Twenty per cent of Scotland’s children are growing up in poverty, and most of their families are in low-paid work – low-paid to achieve “efficiency savings” or to deliver the services we need on the cheap.

There are serious challenges – and not just to governments – in the PTC report. But the biggest message, the message with the potential to transform people and communities (and maybe even systems) is found in the relationships built on simply listening with respect. I’m glad to be part of a church that helped that to happen through the PTC (and in other places too), a church that can only lay a claim to being “national” if it reflects all Scotland’s communities and helps create a space for all of us to listen to each other, especially to the voices we don’t usually hear because poverty has stifled them.

• Rev Sally Foster-Fulton is convener of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council www.churchofscotland.org.uk