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A collective effort: inside the new Poverty CPG

Exterior of condemned blocks of social housing flats prior to demolition in Gallowgate , Glasgow

A collective effort: inside the new Poverty CPG

The members of the Scottish Parliament's new cross party group on poverty have vowed to put political ideology to one side and find workable solutions to alleviate poverty in Scotland.

With the cross party group (CPG) set to meet for the first time in January, and with families living in poverty set to endure an even tougher time over Christmas, MSPs from the SNP, Scottish Labour, Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Liberal Democrats shared their thoughts on the role of the new CPG, and their experiences of Christmas in Scotland.

Neil Gray, the SNP MSP for Airdie and Shotts, is set to chair the CPG, following on from his role combatting poverty as a former member of the UK Parliament.

“I had previously chaired the all-party parliamentary group for poverty in Westminster,” said Gray, “and I was conscious when I made the move from Westminster to Holyrood that there wasn’t a cross-party group on poverty, and there hadn’t been.

“I felt that there is so much good work going on by governments, plural, but also local government, third sector and business organisations across Scotland that I feel it would be a good thing for us to come together in a safe space, to talk about poverty issues – what causes it, what drives it – and to actually get the agreement that we need to tackle poverty.

“We’ve had conversations with other stakeholders, the likes of the Poverty Alliance and others, who said this would be a useful thing for us to be doing and to have discussions around it.

“I’ve been very pleased with the support in this room, and from others, to be able to get it off the ground.”

Lothian region MSP Jeremy Balfour, Scottish Conservatives, wants the CPG to avoid playing a “blame game”, and to realise their common goal of ending poverty.

“One of the issues when we discuss poverty is that it can become quite formalized quite quickly,” said Balfour, “and we can start a blame game – it’s all the Scottish Government’s fault, it’s all the UK Government’s fault, or even worse, it’s the people who are in poverty’s fault – and, I think, it would be really helpful to try and take a step back, lay aside our political ideologies and actually drill down a bit into some of these issues, and with the help of the third sector particularly, we can do that.

“Clearly everybody wants to see poverty ended. The question is, how do we do that most effectively?

“We all have our own views on that but for me it really needs to be shaped by hearing about people’s experiences, listening to the third sector, and acknowledging that actually, no one’s got the whole answer, and we need to grab as many good solutions as we can.”

“I agree,” said the Liberal Democrat’s Beatrice Wishart, “and seeing generations of children in poverty and not being able to break that cycle, and the impact that has on society generally, and all the talent you lose there – I’d like to see an end to child poverty, and the way you do that is actually to work together, and I feel this group will be very formative, and we’re going to hear a lot about the good work that is going on.”

Wishart, the MSP for Shetland, added: “It’s about learning what we can from that, and taking what we think will work.”

Scottish Labour MSP Pam Duncan-Glancy wants each member of the CPG to use their role in Holyrood to champion the voices of people living in poverty, and affect change using their platform.

“There’s so much we could cover, and a lot of work has already been done,” said Duncan-Glancy, “but there’s a real role for the CPG to champion anti-poverty work that we need to do, because each of us has a role in parliament, in using the chamber, and the committees, to affect change.

“The lived experience of poverty is going to come from the organisations we’ll hear from on the CPG – but they don’t have a seat in parliament like we do so we can really champion those voices in Holyrood, and I think that’s a responsibility we all have. It will give us a broad spectrum of what the issues are.

“We all agree, I think, in doing as much in the social security system as we possibly can in making it easier to get those payments, whatever those payments are, so you’re not relying on people having to self-select and we can make as much of it as automated as possible.”

Each of the MSPs has witnessed brutal poverty in their respective constituencies, with each saying they’ll use their experiences to inform their work on the CPG.

As an island MSP, Wishart has experience of isolation and connectivity issues, and how poverty contributes to them.

“Isolation can play a big part, as can connectivity,” said Wishart, “whether that’s transport, digital connectivity, people being isolated and not easy-to-access services.”

“For someone in a rural or island area that doesn’t have a smart phone to access lots of services, there’s an exclusion right away which doesn’t help.

“One woman that sticks in my mind, with children at school, was running up debt on a credit card because she didn’t want her teenage boy to be different from the rest of the people at school in terms of his football boots, and she hadn’t applied for free school meals because of the way the system was working and he would be standing out from other pupils and she didn’t want him to be stygmatised.”

As chair of the CPG, and previously chair of the Westminster All-Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty, Gray says he will draw on the experience of the MSPs from demographically-diverse constituencies, both rural and urban.

“I could give any number of examples of the poverty, ranging to destitution, in my area sadly,” said Gray.

“I’ve been reintroduced to it in many ways, due to lockdown ending and being able to go into people’s homes, where there’s dampness, mould, no carpets or proper flooring, overcrowding, the kids don’t have appropriate clothing  – I visited one home where a kid’s toes were literally poking through the end of their shoes – and in some of these cases that is in families where there is a working adult, and more than one working adult.

“Beatrice’s experiences of what it is to be in rural poverty are going to be different to urban poverty, but what is universal is a lack of income, the challenges that you’re facing in that particular community. Whether it’s connectivity – not being able to afford transport or broadband – or in my area, being unable to pay the premium of private rent, which will be a similar issue in Jeremy’s area.”

As an Edinburgh resident, Balfour gave a vivid account of the inequality within the capital city – with rich neighbourhoods butting up against poor ones.

“What struck me most,” said Balfour, “was when I was elected back in 2005 to be a local councillor [for Edinburgh City Council’s Corstorphine/Murrayfield ward], it was in a fairly posh area – I travelled two miles in a car, and the life expectancy dropped 15 years. So it’s not just poverty of what we have here and now, it’s poverty of health too.

“Literally a 20 to 25 minute walk, and you’re likely to live 15 years less as a male, and I don’t think that’s improved since 2005.”

In the run up to Christmas, each of the four MSPs were asked to reflect on their experiences of the festive season while they were growing up in Scotland – and how those experiences might inform their work fighting poverty as part of the CPG.

Balfour reflected on both faith and family, and the isolation caused by poverty at Christmas.

“Christmas for me was a massive family occasion,” said Balfour, “Christmas night, we’d have all the cousins, all our aunts, all our uncles over, there was probably 30-plus people over eating mince pies and watching James Bond, so for me there’s a real positive feel to it.

“I was very fortunate in that my parents could afford to do that, they could provide. For many people that is just way beyond them, and that can lead to isolation – they don’t want to go their brothers, or their neighbours, because they can’t take something with them, it’s a really practical thing.

“The other thing for me, Christmas is a time for hope, it’s ultimately the birth of Jesus, who said he wanted to bring hope, and to help those who are most vulnerable.

“So Christmas is a refocus of what does matter, and how we fulfil that in every person.”

Gray spoke of his experience growing up on Orkney, and the hardships his family sometimes endured.

“I too have very positive memories of Christmas, and had wonderful times,” said Gray.

“I grew up on Orkney, with open coal fires, and my Santa letter didn’t go in the post, it magically went up the lum to the North Pole – so my Mum and Dad very much got into the magic of Christmas.

“But I also remember it being quite hard, because before my Mum was able to go back to work being a teacher, we struggled financially and we lived on a small croft on Orkney and Mum and Dad kept turkeys, and geese, and throughout the year it was looking after those, and they were made oven-ready and the cash was needed immediately in order to go out and buy Christmas presents on Christmas Eve.

“That just illustrates what some families, mine included, will be going through to work and provide for their families – the pressure they feel. My childhood absolutely informs what I do, and what I try to do.”

Wishart said her mother’s charitable nature has stayed with her: “I too was very fortunate – I come from a family of six, and my mother came from a big family too – and presents would begin arriving in the run up to Christmas from far afield.

“My mother would always say: ‘There are children who don’t have what you have – I want you to take a present from under the tree, unopened, and we’ll make sure a child gets it’.

“Mum was a great supporter of any child-related charity, she would do collecting frequently, so it wasn’t really a surprise for Mum to be thinking of other families at Christmas, and I try to do the same.”

Pam Duncan-Glancy said that although times were sometimes hard for her family, she didn’t realise the extent of her parent’s struggles until she was older.

“We always had lovely, big family Christmases,” said Duncan-Glancy, “I only have one sister, Jen, who is just eleven months younger than me, so whenever we got stuff at Christmas we got a lot of stuff to share.

“The year we heard everyone was getting a Super Nintendo, we got a Nintendo – we never got the top end stuff, it was always a wee bit delayed in our house, and that was because my Dad was the only person who worked. My Mum worked in a nursery, but when I was diagnosed she stayed home to look after me and so gave up her work.

“We always had a lovely Christmas, but I know my family struggled – but I didn’t realise how much they struggled until I was older.”

As a final word the chair of the CPG, Gray, said he wants Scotland to realise that preventing poverty will actually save money in the long term, and that political consensus is the key to combatting poverty.

“I think getting political consensus on as many areas as possible is my key aim,” said Gray, “and that’s touching on what both Jeremy and Beatrice have spoken about – the need to tackle poverty.

“All of our manifestos made a commitment around the Scottish Child Payment, and I do think there is still more work for us to do in terms of explaining to people, and to get a better understanding in the general population, that this isn’t just a moral, ethical or social imperative that we tackle poverty – it’s also an economic imperative for all the reasons Beatrice has outlined there, including the generational cycle of poverty.

“That drives many of the topical issues we’re talking about right now, around the poverty-related attainment gap in schools, around drug deaths, around the drug deaths in prison, and the fact that adverse childhood experiences related to poverty drive so many of those issues.

“Tackling poverty is one of the greatest preventative-spend areas that we can make.

“I’m also keen that we learn more about what it is that is driving poverty, and I imagine we’ll be doing that by looking the areas where poverty is most prevalent, looking at rurality, looking at race, looking at disability, looking at single parent families, and understanding why it is that those key groups suffer higher rates of poverty.”

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