Stuart McMillan MSP, Greenock & Inverclyde
In 2017, myself and local MP Ronnie Cowan hosted a drop in event during Challenge Poverty Week (CPW) for which we’d secured the attendance of several local organisations to offer advice and support. The only issue was nobody turned up. This was really disappointing; not only had we put a good deal of effort in to arrange the event, but we weren’t able to help anyone.
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated just how easy it can be to fall into poverty, as almost overnight some people’s income took such a hit that meant they were struggling to afford their bills.
It was clear that once the restrictions had eased, these issues wouldn’t just rectify themselves, and so tackling poverty became even more important – and in 2022 when we were able to do face to face events again during CPW, I decided to run two Cost of Living surgeries, one focusing on energy issues and one focusing on employment and social security. They were both held in the Greenock Oak Mall Shopping Centre, which is right in the heart of the town centre. This time, people came.
The Oak Mall was the right location. We had people walking past who had gone into town to do their shopping who stopped by to see what we were all about, and we have even been able to support people working in Oak Mall. Off the back of their success, my staff and I decided to make these surgeries a regular occurrence and that is exactly what we have done. Since CPW 2022, either jointly with Ronnie Cowan MP or on my own, I have hosted eight cost of living surgeries and I have another two organised for later this year. I need to give a special thank you to Greenock Oak Mall and their staff as they have been fantastic and really supported my office’s efforts to reach as many people as possible.
Several different organisations have supported the surgeries, including Fair Start Scotland and Inverclyde Advice First, but the three main participants have been Advice Direct Scotland, Home Energy Scotland, and Social Security Scotland. Advice Direct Scotland can give advice on a range of matters including income maximisation. It has been great to have Social Security Scotland along to help promote the new Scottish benefits, including the game-changing Scottish Child Payment. Home Energy Scotland have probably been the most popular organisation as they can provide fuel vouchers.
Having given some background regarding the type of surgeries my staff and I have been running, I must go onto why they are needed. My constituency sadly has some of the most deprived areas in Scotland. My own office sits on the edge of the most deprived data zone in Scotland, according to the SIMD 2020 stats.
It is becoming increasingly important that politicians go out and speak to people and offer support where we can.
I take no pleasure in saying this, but my constituency, which I have called home for almost my whole life, has issues with poverty, drug and alcohol misuse, inequality, and deprivation. I became a politician to help make things better.
I grew up as the son of a shipbuilder and Auxiliary Nurse. My father was working in Barrow-on-Furness when I was born, and the family moved back to Port Glasgow 2.5 years later. Then, as we know the River Clyde and communities with industrial bases changed forever from 1979 onwards. Inverclyde has never fully recovered. Over the years, we have lost other major employers including IBM at Spango Valley which once employed over 5000 people. Just this year, we have watched Amazon close its doors in Gourock, BPI Berry recently announced around 60 job losses and as I’m writing this, we have recently lost Wilko.
These job losses could not have come at a worse time as the cost-of-living crisis engulfs the country. I feel I now need to hold these surgeries consistently to try to help people who might not know where to look for support. Again, holding them in Greenock Oak Mall where there is a natural footfall and people often stumble upon us is essential. I often hold street surgeries as well. These involve my staff and I visiting streets in a selected area and just going round chapping each door asking if my office can help with anything. These work well; I can speak to people directly, often people who would not have approached me or known who to approach and I have been able to offer help and advice on various issues.
It is becoming increasingly important that politicians go out and speak to people and offer support where we can. I do all I can to make myself accessible – I have an office in the town centre open five days a week. People can phone, email, and engage with me on social media. However, often people in the worst situations are the last ones to reach out for help. It is so important that we get people the right support at the right time. There is nothing worse than when someone contacts my office at the eleventh hour when they have run out of options, knowing that the outcome potentially could have been more positive if I’d have been able to intervene earlier.
My call to everyone reading this is to encourage your friends, family, neighbours and anyone you know to ask for help when they need it. The longer they put off seeking help, it inevitably becomes more difficult to resolve.
Thus far, I have chosen not to be political in this blog post, but there are so many ways we could address poverty if there was the political will. Scotland and the UK are wealthy; there is no need for poverty, foodbanks, or people being scared to turn the heating on or choosing not to eat to feed their children. I will continue to challenge poverty, week in week out, as a politician in the hope that one day, we can end this scandal and ensure everyone in our society has a wind and water-right roof over their head, money in their pocket and food in their belly.