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The poor law

The poor law

When David Cameron, standing in front of a golden throne, delivered a message that Britain needed to “do more with less. Not just now, but permanently”, the message was clear.

It didn’t matter that, speaking at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, he was following the long tradition of both Prime Ministers and senior cabinet members before him, the contrast between the austerity he preached and the finery that surrounded him highlighted to many that old maxim: ‘The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.’

In 2013, poverty has once more been the central theme running through debates at both Westminster and Holyrood parliaments from the UK Government’s benefit reforms and the ‘bedroom tax’ to the rising number of food banks opening up north and south of the border.

There are many different classifications that have been invented to measure and quantify poverty, whether it is food, fuel, child poverty or even those who are classed to be information poor.

But surely there is just one measure of poverty? A person or family, whether unemployed, in work or retired, unable to afford the basic essentials for life – such as food, clothing and a properly heated home.

According to the Scottish Government’s own research released earlier this year, in 2011/12, 710,000 people were in ‘relative poverty’ – a measure of whether their income was keeping pace with the population as a whole, while an estimated 780,000 people were in ‘absolute poverty’ – a measure of whether income was rising in real terms.

While both of these groups showed poverty numbers were falling, with a greater number of people living below the threshold than live in Glasgow, nobody could claim the problem has been solved.

Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa whose death this month at 95 saw tributes flood in from leaders across the world, said of poverty: “It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.” So what was done in 2013 to end it?

The major political focus has been on the UK Government’s aim to cut the cost of welfare – a measure to reduce the deficit, until public spending and the economy get back on track.

In his Autumn Statement, George Osborne set out plans to cap overall welfare spending, saying that it had been “completely out of control” when the Coalition came to office.

Osborne spoke about the “sacrifice” that people had made and said £19bn a year had been saved for the taxpayer, the result of “difficult decisions to bring benefits bills down”.

But those “difficult decisions” have been put under intense scrutiny. The SNP and Labour in particular fought tooth and nail over who most-hated the ‘bedroom tax’, the part of welfare reform that sees people’s allowances cut if they are considered to have a spare bedroom.

In Westminster, the Labour Party’s attempt to scrap the tax fell by just 26 votes, but the party then faced questions as to why 47 of its own members, 10 of them from Scotland including deputy leader Anas Sarwar, failed to turn up for a crucial vote.

The Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee launched a ‘your say’ initiative, asking people for their personal experience of the changes, including the ‘bedroom tax’.

One respondent, 58-year-old Linda Kennedy, who said she was suffering from anxiety and panic attacks, wrote to the committee saying she feared being thrown out of the three-bedroom house she had shared with her husband until he died in 2011.

She said: “I fear what the future holds and question, what do I do next, where do I go, where will I end up?

“I have lost everything, my husband and now potentially my family home.”

In Scotland, the Scottish Government announced a £20m fund to be paid to local authorities across the country to mitigate the effects of the bedroom tax.

Addressing the Welfare Reform Committee in October, Margaret Burgess, Minister for Housing and Welfare, said: “The cuts and changes that the United Kingdom is pursuing do not reflect the values or beliefs of the Scottish Government or people.

“Hearing first hand the reality of what the cuts means to individuals and families throughout Scotland is quite harrowing.

“We are well aware that the cases are not isolated but, unfortunately, the UK Government is carrying on with its programme of reforms.”

Burgess said government analysis estimates would result in the country’s welfare bill being cut by £4.5m by 2015.

Under tough questioning from the committee, she said the money was not ringfenced for councils but allowed local authorities to make discretionary payments to mitigate the effects of the tax.

She added: “We have made it very clear from the outset that we cannot mitigate all of Westminster’s welfare reforms. Where we can we have done so and we will continue to look at mitigation methods.

“This government will not sit and do nothing and that is why mitigation is so important.”

Scrapping the ‘bedroom tax’ was made one of the key components of the Scottish Government’s White Paper on independence, a representation of what it believes can be achieved if there is a Yes vote.

With welfare currently reserved to Westminster, the Government has promised it could abolish the tax immediately under independence and would promote the introduction of a Scottish living wage.

At the same time, Labour in Westminster has claimed Iain Duncan Smith’s flagship welfare policy, Universal Credit, is in “tatters” after missing key targets and the revelation that in 2015/16, 400,000 will be receiving the new benefit, compared to initial expectations of 4.5 million.

Universal Credit will merge six working-age benefits, income-based jobseeker’s allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, income support, child tax credit, working tax credit and housing benefit – into one single payment.

The Scottish Government has claimed its own analysis shows the new structure will mean women in particular will lose out.

Poverty is an issue that affects every country across the world, and while for many the charity Oxfam has a reputation for tackling the desperate levels of poverty elsewhere, it has become increasingly apparent that its work is just as important closer to home.

This summer, Oxfam Scotland launched Our Economy: Towards a New Prosperity. Among its recommendations was creating a new Poverty Commissioner to ensure all spending decisions are “poverty proofed” and crack down on tax havens, offshore earnings and loopholes that allow the wealthier in society to avoid meeting their tax obligations.

It also supported further adopting its own Humankind Index, which attempts to measure the prosperity of a nation through more than the lens of economics and GDP, but more abstract concepts such as ‘feeling safe’ and ‘being part of a community’.

The latest index showed that the relative prosperity in Scotland had risen 1.2 per cent between 2009/10 and 2011/12 but that prosperity was broadly flat and deprived communities were still lagging behind.

Speaking at the time, the then head of Oxfam Scotland, Judith Robertson, said: “The existing economic model is not working. Despite decades of economic growth, and a myriad of anti-poverty policies, the reality for too many Scots is a cocktail of high mortality, economic inactivity, mental and physical ill-health, poor educational attainment, and exclusion from the decisions that affect them.

“This is a structural problem caused by our economy. If we are serious about tackling these issues, then our politicians and policymakers need to make a fundamental change. Without that change, poverty and inequality will continue to shame us and drag all of us down for generations to come.”

What the report also revealed was that 40 per cent of people in poverty in Scotland were in work – highlighting the need for higher wages across several sectors.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has updated its ‘minimum income standard’ for 2013, based on what the public believes is a basic requirement for a socially-acceptable standard of living – the basis behind what is known as the Living Wage.

Scottish-specific figures are expected next month, but the charity estimates that single people need to earn £16,850 a year and couples with children at least £19,400 each.

With household finances stretched even further, the outcry over payday loan companies and the high rates of interest they charge has increased.

In June, Newcastle United player Papiss Demba Cissé initially refused to wear his club’s famous black-and-white strip as it was sponsored by one of the most well-known of the payday loan companies, Wonga – which also sponsors Heart of Midlothian.

Labour’s Lothians MSP, Kezia Dugdale, led her Debtbusters campaign to crack down on lenders, promote credit unions as a viable alternative and change the laws governing them.

In October, the UK Government said tougher regulation would be introduced, but Dugdale’s campaign is also urging the Scottish Government to provide more support for families who are deep in debt.

Wonga itself has taken out national advertising in its campaigns, saying that it carries out thorough credit checks before every loan, will not extend loans more than three times and will not let the cost of a loan spiral out of control.

One of the starkest demonstrations, though of the poverty gap in Scotland is on food. In a year when the Scottish food and drink industry celebrated breaking the £13bn barrier for turnover, since April, more than 23,000 Scots including 7,000 children, received emergency aid from food banks.

Another damning report from Oxfam Scotland and Church Action on Poverty said more than half a million people across the UK could be going hungry and blamed the need for a rise in food banks on changes being made to the benefit system, unemployment, increasing levels of underemployment, low and falling income and rising food and fuel prices.

Speaking to Holyrood earlier this year, when the latest turnover figures had been announced, Environment and Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead acknowledged more needed to be done to ensure everybody was benefiting from the country’s booming food and drink sector.

He said: “There’s a long way to go and we have to ensure that the food debate in Scotland is not just about export figures or value-added economic stats, it is about ensuring local people are encouraged to enjoy more of their own larder.”

In October, the Scottish Parliament marked Challenge Poverty Week, organised by the Poverty Alliance to coincide with the UN International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

John Wilson, a Central Scotland MSP and a former director of the Scottish Low Pay Unit, who worked for the Poverty Alliance, said: “As someone who formerly worked for the Poverty Alliance and who experienced childhood poverty, I recognise the issues that many people are facing.

“I know that poverty is unacceptable in modern 21st-century Scotland, so in many ways, it is sad that we find ourselves discussing the subject when its awful reality and associated consequences should have been despatched to history.

“Poverty should not be underestimated, as it has a lasting impact on our children’s educational achievement and it results in failure to develop Scotland’s potential for growth, especially as regards people’s individual progress.

“Poverty is wasteful, because the problems that it creates mean that we as a society regularly try to catch up, and we create projects of various types to tackle the symptoms instead of the root causes.”

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Read the most recent article written by Neil Evans - Finding warmth: fuel poverty in Scotland.


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