On Tuesday 15th December the Dundee Fairness Commission was presented with a report entitled "Gathering Experiences of Poverty in Dundee". Like any other report it contained statistics, but through its stories the voices of those living every day with the stresses of poverty and stigma were heard. It read like a horror comic, except it was for real. A welfare system that is supposed to be restorative has been corrupted and become punitive.
I was reminded of the Book of Job in the Old Testament. It is the story of a good man who suffers total disaster. The story begins with Job's children off having a good time at a party at the home of their eldest brother. A messenger comes running to tell Job that his enemies had attacked, stolen all of his oxen and donkeys and killed all of his servants. Before the messenger had finished speaking, another servant, who had escaped the massacre, came and told Job that lightening had struck his sheep and his shepherds killing the lot. Then another messenger came to say raiders had taken away all his camels, before, finally, another came to tell him that a storm had blown down the house where his sons were partying and killed them all. Job tore his clothes in grief and uttered the fatalist words that have reverberated down through history, "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away." He astonishingly adds, "May the Lord's name be praised." Throughout all his trials and tribulations, though he rages at God and argues with Him, Job continues to believe that the Lord will provide.
The report to the Fairness Commission echoed the ancient story......good men and women and innocent children upon whom disaster after disaster befalls......broken relationships, illness, disability, debt, hunger, cold, unemployment, stigma. They turn for help to 'the lord of today', the Department of Work and Pensions. The evidence is clear that the DWP giveth and the DWP taketh away with the same capriciousness of the Lord who continued to bewilder poor Job. The modern British reality is that people in need have no option but to hope that the DWP will provide. The DWP wield the power of God over those who have to turn to them and that power seems absolute! Benefit changes, sanctions, delays in payments, these things happen and appear to be totally arbitrary, without rhyme or reason....a living nightmare where you are powerless, pushed to the edge and sometimes over the edge, consistently made to feel like rubbish. Here are just a few examples:
- The mother almost pushed into madness by 'the system' following her son's suicide.
- The released prisoner whose benefits did not come through on time.
- The 60 year old man working 21 hours - too much for top-up benefits, too little for tax credits, too young for a pension, in rent arrears to his private landlord.
- The young mother struggling with the cost of public transport to hospital with her sick child.
- The mental health diagnoses that take far too long and the stress caused by tribunals.
- Cost of the school day.
- Sofa surfing.
- The feelings of shame at 'begging and borrowing'.
Each of these were individual stories, but they are also the stories of many, repeated over and over again.
Dave Morris of the Trussell Trust said "The big issues are out of our hands. We are doing what we can where we can......any referral to a foodbank means there has been a failure elsewhere in the system." But he told a story of Dundee, 'a city that's ready to act', describing the generosity of citizens as inspiring: there are regular donors, frequent, occasional and one-off givers all moved by basic goodness.
Gordon Birrell of the City Council's housing department told the Fairness Commission that often 'heating or eating' is a real dilemma for some households and outlined the myriad of ways by which his department seeks, as far as is possible, to ensure that people can heat their homes. Personal advice is given to people in their own homes. Many families choose pre-paid meters because of their limited incomes, but of course that means they pay more than those who can afford direct debits. "Engage with Ofgem and get stuck into the energy companies" we were told. It was heartening, just a few days after the Commission's meeting to learn that Ofgem had fined Npower £26 m.
The frightening truth as we approach New Year, is that things are going to get worse, as the squeeze on the public purse continues. A 3.5% cut is to be enforced on the already stretched local authorities' budgets. New Year is a time for resolutions. We must allow our resolutions to be driven by our aspirations for a fairer society.