Twimukye Macline Mushaka, Senior Fieldwork Officer at Poverty Alliance, reflects on the things she learned from talking to different people across Scotland as part of the Get Heard Scotland project. Her blog comes ahead of the publication of the full Get Heard Scotland report later this month. While all of these sessions were undertaken before the current crisis hit, we anticipate many of the issues discussed will become even greater challenges in the coming months.
The essence of Poverty Alliance’s grassroots engagement work is about giving people with experience of poverty the opportunity to get their voices heard in order to inform national and local policies to tackle poverty.
Get Heard Scotland is a three-year community engagement programme that seeks to ensure that the voices of people experiencing poverty across Scotland are heard by policy-makers. This work is intended to support the delivery of the Scottish Government’s 2018 Tackling Child Poverty Delivery Plan, which amongst other things, tasks local authorities and health boards with developing joint action reports outlining what they have done and what they plan to do in response to child poverty.
In 2019, we delivered 37 local discussions, primarily focussed in three local authority areas: Highland, Midlothian and North Ayrshire. The sessions were hosted by local third sector organisations and in some cases in partnership with local authority officials. Discussions were also held in Glasgow, Edinburgh and North Lanarkshire in partnership with Broomhouse Community Development Trust, Action Group, Glasgow Association for Mental Health (GAMH) and One Parent Families Scotland.
The reflections below are based on my own insights in the sessions that I led. Later this month, we will publish a report summarising the common patterns that emerged across all the sessions. These were carried out before Covid-19 struck. It is likely that without increased interventions from our governments, many of the issues raised here will become more challenging in the coming months.
5 lessons from Get Heard Scotland;
- The stark evidence from our sessions supported our existing concerns that the grip of poverty on people’s lives is tightening. This is due to a social security system that is failing to protect people from harm, a labour market that does not prevent poverty, and rising living costs. It was evident from discussions that some of the steps that the Scottish Government are taking in relation to social security are welcomed by people living on low incomes. Community groups told us that the new Scottish Child Payment is a good step forward that will help eligible families to meet their needs. But while the Scottish Child Payment is welcome, we also heard that it will not go far enough where a range of complex factors are still at play, such as unemployment, underemployment, lack of child care, rurality, high living costs and the intersections of ethnicity, disability and gender. The new Scottish social security agency is a breath of fresh air for most people, who strongly believe that this is an opportunity to do things differently in Scotland. However, people we engaged with remain concerned about the operation of the majority of the social security system, with Universal Credit consistently raised as an example of this concern.
- Public transport plays a key role in helping people on low incomes access services, employment and education opportunities. People in rural areas spoke of the extent of transport related problems they face in accessing health and social care services, youth clubs and advice services. Young mums, supported by the Ormlie Association in Caithness, told us that they had been forced to take their children out of school in order to attend an hour’s orthodontist appointment in Inverness which is a 200-mile round trip. In Wick, we heard about a constant struggle to access maternity care services, with specialist services concentrated over 100 miles away at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness. It is arguable that this does not only impact on the rest of family in relation to childcare and education for older children, but also makes it difficult for family visits at this very crucial time when there is a new baby. Since these Get Heard Scotland discussions took place, the Scottish Government has announced that under 19s will receive free bus travel. This has been greeted with a lot enthusiasm by people we work with who are living on low incomes as it will help many families to reduce outgoings on public transport costs especially when accessing education and training.
- The backbone of any local community engagement relies heavily on our partnership with local community organisations who are continually trying to mitigate the impacts of poverty at a local level, but most of these organisations are poorly funded and some rely on just volunteers to do the work. It is imperative that there is more investment and long-term funding commitment to local community organisations so that they can support children and families they work with. Some of the gaps include access to independent benefit advice in order to ensure incomes are maximised. Having a safe friendly space to go to is often seen as the first point of call to unravel the challenges of poverty at local level, whether it is to access a food parcel or an energy voucher or simply to meet others in a similar situation for a friendly chat. These initiatives ought to be given more recognition for the work they do but also be financially supported to stay afloat. In one session a parent had this to say about the support she received; “My kids went to a summer camp and at the end of the camp they came home with good things. Each got a jacket, a school bag, pencil cases and lunchboxes provided by the local community group. This was very helpful as I only had to buy uniform and shoes. I was so lucky.”
- The cost of the school day was highlighted in many of our discussions in relation to the cost of school trips, school uniforms for older children who are more likely to need more expensive items such as a school blazer, and also tend to outgrow their shoes and clothes quite quickly. While the increase in the school clothing grant provided by local authorities was welcomed in most of the discussions we held, it was mentioned that this might not be enough for secondary school pupils. Families also noted that while the grant does not help with other family pressures such food or energy bills. There were strong calls for introducing universal access to free school meals for all primary schools kids in the light of the gains of universal free school meals for p1 to p3 across Scotland. It was argued that this is crucially important in tackling stigma within the education system.
- Most community groups we spoke to believed that work should provide a route out of poverty, however, they also pointed out that high numbers of children growing up in poverty are in working households. Concerns were raised about employment support initiatives not going far enough to get people into meaningful jobs, this is in addition to pressures of the current system that force people to accept any job including zero-hour contracts. In one of the meetings, one contributor said “the current zero hour contracts reminds of me the time when workers would be queuing at the dockyards just for a day’s job or an hours job. How did we honestly get here in this day and age?” Most parents talked about the challenges of accessing childcare outwith school hours and raised problems in accessing childcare for parents considering night shift jobs where the individual has no extended family support. It was also mentioned that universal childcare initiatives work better than the current system in Scotland even taking into account the recent increase in childcare hours to 30hrs a week. There is still a long way to go for every three-year old to access a free nursery place, especially in rural areas where provision is scanty.
Later this month, Poverty Alliance will publish the full report of all the Get Heard Scotland sessions held across Scotland in the last year.
Twimukye Macline Mushaka is Senior Fieldwork Officer at Poverty Alliance.