Too many Scots can’t afford to party

The glamour of the world-famous Edinburgh Festival cannot mask the fact people in Scotland’s capital are trapped in food poverty, says Moira Tasker

AS ANOTHER busy Edinburgh Festival season, ends it can be difficult to imagine the capital as anything other than a vibrant, beautiful and successful modern city offering equality of opportunity and cultural richness for all. The Festival was established in the post-war era to “provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit” and has brought the capital to full bloom each August ever since.

Hidden amongst the street performances, shows, market stalls and fireworks, however, are the 22 per cent of households in the capital – and the 33 per cent in areas identified as deprived – existing on incomes below the poverty threshold. These people and families cannot afford the basic items of day-to-day living.

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Whilst Edinburgh may rank in the top quartile for income, it ranks in one of the poorest quartiles for indicators of poverty. This stark inequality is something the volunteers and staff at Citizens Advice Edinburgh see every day. Edinburgh’s Citizens Advice Bureau service was set up in 1939 to give advice about evacuation, allowances and pensions, and to help trace soldiers lost in battle or taken as prisoners of war. Our role since then has changed – but we are still seen as an essential “emergency service”. With more than 260 volunteers and a small staff team operating out of 22 locations, we helped with over 27,000 inquiries last year and demand for services consistently outstrips supply.

As we turn 75 years old this year, organisations and individuals consistently recommend us because they know they can rely on us, they trust us and they know we have the experience and knowledge to find solutions to help people in need.

In response to this rising demand, we’re expanding our reach further with two new, much-needed services. Both are aimed at helping people resolve an immediate crisis – but they crucially also offer the knowledge and skills to prevent crisis re-occurring.

Citizens Advice Edinburgh has just received some very welcome funding from the Scottish Government’s Emergency Food Fund. Between 2011 and 2014, the number of people using food banks grew at an alarming pace. Due to this period of rapid change, a consistent, co-ordinated response to food poverty need has been profoundly lacking.

Within Edinburgh, numerous agencies offer different varieties of food aid. One – Edinburgh City Mission – saw each person visiting more than five times for an emergency food parcel during the course of last year. Advice and preventive support is essential then to ensure that food banks are not our vibrant capital’s accepted response to hardship and crisis.

Through this 18-month project, a CAE adviser will visit four Edinburgh food banks each week to offer on-the-spot financial advice, education and income maximisation support.

This free, confidential, independent and impartial service will help people solve problems there and then and will also offer the tools and knowledge to stave off future financial meltdown.

Our goal is to ensure no one enters or remains trapped in a cycle of poverty for want of information about accessing benefits, challenging sanctions and unfair employment practices, or lack of knowledge about tackling debts and budgeting.

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Another area where demand for advice has increased dramatically is the number of households struggling with energy bills.

Gas and electricity prices have continued to rise at a pace that wages and benefits cannot match. Last year, CAE experienced a 53 per cent rise in the number of clients seeking help with fuel bill arrears.

In recognition of this, we have received much-needed funding via Citizens Advice Scotland and SSE to deliver a project to help people struggling with their fuel bills and other energy issues.

By finding the best value energy deal, maximising income, saving energy, effectively managing debts and fuel arrears and accessing the support available, our new Energy Matters project will offer vital face-to-face practical help to individuals and families.

To ensure this new service reaches those most at risk of fuel poverty, Energy Matters will run an evening clinic for people in work or unable to visit a bureau during working hours and will also offer home visits. This takes advice right to the door of those most at risk of fuel poverty – those unable to work or access mainstream services due to disability, 
ill-health or caring responsibilities.

In addition to supporting people and families with their immediate energy issues, the project will offer easy access to all our advice services to tackle the root causes of fuel poverty – low incomes, unsustainable debts, legal and housing issues, health problems and employment concerns.

The kind of holistic, client centred advice which we deliver is unique – and vital if we are to tackle Edinburgh’s growing inequality, levels of poverty and disadvantage.

Through our work, we aim to ensure that people are empowered to make positive change that is meaningful and lasting – and that no one has to live with the anxiety and 
misery of being unable to heat their home or put food on the table.

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We rely, however, on charitable donations for the majority of our funding and we are looking to increase our network of friends to establish sustainable funding that enables us to look forward with confidence to another 75 years of helping those in need.

If you can help us, please do contact us – by doing so you will be standing side by side with our volunteers in transforming lives and strengthening Edinburgh’s “flowering of the human spirit”.

• Moira Tasker is chief executive of Citizens Advice Edinburgh