Thursday, 3 March 2016


Since the 'economic crisis of 2008 and the eye-watering sums taken from the public purse to bale out the banks, the predominate political narrative in the United Kingdom has been the need for austerity.  Central to the government's 'austerity' programmes has been the controlling of and reining in of public expenditure.  The sub-narrative has been the support of 'hard working families' and clamping down on the benefits system, within which, so goes the narrative, lurks an unnumbered horde of feckless skivers and cynical cheats.  Too many people, it is claimed, have chosen, or at least have settled for what is portrayed as a 'cushy life' on benefits.
In the course of the past year the Dundee Fairness Commission has taken evidence from experts in the fields of welfare, employment, education, health and housing.  The evidence has clearly shown that, far from 'all being in it together', as the predominate narrative goes, the gap between the comfortable and the vulnerable has widened dangerously.  Thanks to the skill and efforts of agencies in the town like Faith in Community Dundee the Commission has been able to hear at first hand the voices of vulnerable people, our fellow citizens.  The Commission's report which is now at the stage of being drafted, has been fundamentally shaped by these voices which have put living breath and throbbing flesh on the bones of the evidence of the experts.  The Commission has heard an alternative narrative!
Although in every aspect of life there are cheats and skivers to be found, the Fairness Commission has heard compelling testimony to just how hard people on benefits or low pay have to work to survive.  They have to survive in the face of suspicion and stigma and all too often being treated as 'rubbish'.  The challenges of everyday life are like mountains to climb loaded down by the weight of low income, erratic income, going without food, afraid of the costs of heating, the worry of the cost of the school day, bus fares, rents and sanctions that leave many desperate and dependent on food banks.  It cannot be right!  The rigmarole around being ill or disabled seems to tower like a colossus over the illness itself.  A changing face of work that seems more like a revolving door than an escalator to better things, a benefits system that seems like a maze without a map, a system designed to trip people up.  We should stand in awe of the burdens people in poverty have to carry rather than judge on how they carry them! 

Monday, 1 February 2016


At a meeting of the Pensioners' Forum last Friday, Cllr. Willie Sawers, the administration's finance spokesperson, sought to defend the Council's proposed budget.  There were 3 principles guiding their choices, he said:
  1. to protect front line services.
  2. to have no compulsory redundancies
  3. to keep the Council Tax freeze.
The meeting had some sympathy for the Council in the face of the brutal cutbacks being implemented by the Westminster and Holyrood governments.  It was acknowledged that the local administration was doing what it thought was the best way to manage the massive decline in the resources available in the public sector.  However, it was crystal clear that the Pensioners' Forum were saying that the administration has to do more than manage decline.  It was time for the Council to embark on different policies that would restore the jobs and services being lost.  There has to be the political courage to say the Council Tax freeze has run its course and that the better-off must pay higher taxes.  If the Council is on the side of the people, if they stand on a manifesto of protecting the most vulnerable they have to fight back against the policies of austerity which hurt the poorest and most vulnerable the most.  Mr. Sawers was told unequivocally 'Enough is Enough'.
The following day, Saturday 30th January, hundreds turned out in a driving blizzard to march and attend a rally in City Square.  Their attendance despite the relentless snow, far more than words could convey, said, "Enough is Enough"!

Monday, 21 December 2015


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.

Thursday, 26 November 2015


The structure of the new 'world class' Dundee Employability Service was outlined to the Fairness Commission at our November meeting.
Some of the things that unemployed people had already told us in our 'Jobs and Work' survey laid bare the challenges the new service has to tackle.  To give you a flavour here are a few quotes from people who are searching for work.
  • "Lots of services out there to help you into work if you want help, but the work you're offered is ridiculous as compared to your own skills and qualifications. How many teachers and degree students now work at Tesco or other shops ?  Total waste of our qualifications."
  • "It's terrible.  I am 59 and I'm on JSA (Job Seekers' Allowance).....I go for interviews and compete with 100 young people.  I have no chance....I have to apply for jobs I'm not even qualified for in order to meet my job hunting quota of 15 per week.  Be better off dead than living like this."
  • "It is hard.  I have disabilities and find the ignorance of employers of Dundee astounding.......I manage my condition well and can ensure I am able to carry out my work duties, however employers in Dundee seem to think they are doctors and have actively discriminated against me due to my condition."
  • "My partner applies for jobs he is either not suited to in that he has no experience of that type of work or that he is over qualified for because he has to apply for so many of them in a certain period of time.  Limited availability means people are just applying for anything and everything to be able to show a certain number applied for."
  • "It is so depressing.  Staff treat us like cattle.  No compassion or kindness, just a number to be processed!  We are made to apply for jobs we stand no chance of getting or face sanctions...... we are constantly disbelieved and treated like real jobs, no careers.  Pointless!  It makes me despair!"
  • It's extremely hard.  The amount of people unemployed, everyone is trying for the same jobs.  Would like there to be more job opportunities and for places to get back in touch with you to let you know if you were successful or not for an interview.
Recognising these as some of the challenges, Allan Millar, the City Council's Employability Manager told us that as well as the huge cost in human misery, the financial cost to Dundee of the current unemployment figures is more than £121 million per annum.
Current resources in the city are significant in terms of both money and staff, but already fall short of what is required.  A strong, sustained partnership approach, drawing on and aligning staff and financial resources, is needed.  We are, he said, a small compact city, with good practice and experienced and committed staff.  Outlining the structural steps, including the exploring of City Deal opportunities, he sought responses from the Commission.  Amongst these were our belief in the importance of client feedback, affordable childcare, transport costs, relationships with employers and employers' organisations, and, not surprisingly, the pursuit and establishment of the living wage city.  It was then said and recognised that whilst it is important to get the structures right, without well trained and highly motivated frontline staff, it all falls apart.
Years ago part of my remit as an Industrial Chaplain was a weekly visit to the staff in the famous Gleneagles Hotel.  The hotel's HR director said, "Although our setting here is beautiful, our golf courses wonderful and our facilities opulent, we have our weather!  We are not southern California nor the Caribbean, so how do we compete with the other great resort hotels of the world?  We compete by virtue of giving service that is beyond reproach, indeed beyond compare.  Our most valuable asset is our staff, so we make sure our staff training, discipline, advancement, terms and conditions are the very best.  The key to the enduring success of Gleneagles Hotel is their well trained, well rewarded and highly motivated staff.  Every guest is treasured and every effort made to ensure that their stay at the hotel is the best it possibly can be."
If the new Dundee Employability Service is to be truly 'world class' then every visit to the Job Centre or Triage or support and training agencies, as well as job interviews should be an experience of hope and expectation, conducted with empathy and encouragement.  What a transformation that would make for the unemployed man who says "I would be better off dead than living like this", or the unemployed women and men who say, "We are made to apply for jobs that we have no chance of getting" and for everyone who feels they are treated as cattle.
All of the above still only describes what we might call 'the waiting room for work' and the truth is many more good jobs will need to be generated.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015


Now that Dundee City Council has conceded the extended retail element of the Sports Direct superstore and gym in Lochee, I hope the Council will heed the demands of the Fairness Commission's drive to make Dundee a 'Living Wage City'.  Will the Council press Sports Direct on their notorious low wage/zero hours employment policies?  The Fairness Commission says there should be a Dundee standard of employment which means that work truly offers a way out of poverty; will Sports Direct be pressed to meet this standard?

Thursday, 29 October 2015


Some things I've heard recently.

Dundee Polio Fellowship.
  • Attitudes towards people with disabilities have changed for the worse.
  • We face 'everyday' aggression
  • Accused of being benefit scroungers.
  • Late-life disability brings increased problems
  • Care in the Community - under-funded, under-staffed not enough time
Dundee Independent Advocacy Support.
  • Difficulties with Atos/Maximus
  • Medical assessments often carried out with inappropriately trained people - example of a physiotherapist assessing a person with learning difficulties.
  • DLA to PIP - delays and changes in criteria causing havoc.
  • 'Payment by results' is a sanction on service providers.
Dundee Access Group.
  • State of dropped kerbs
  • Misuse of disabled parking spaces by able-bodied people.
  • 'Accessible' toilets that are only partly accessible.
St Mary's Lunch Club, Lochee.
Though not specifically for people with disabilities, never-the-less had a high proportion of such persons present when I visited.  These were some comments:
  • "Listen!!!!" - that's the polite version.
  • Job Centre - you mean the Gestapo Centre.
  • They just talk through you, don't listen and lie all the time.
  • Mental health services are hopeless and take forever.
  • Turmoil with doctors
  • Temporary jobs muck up your CV.  They make it look like you can't keep a job.
  • MPs 10% pay rise is a scandal
  • When someone is sanctioned, what are they supposed to do?
Dundee Blind and Partially Sighted Society.
  • 'A' frames in the street.  City Council banned them but haven't enforced the ban.  What use is that?
  • As Christmas approaches shops pile more and more goods into the aisles.  We trip over them and wheelchairs can't get past them.  Is that not a matter for Health and Safety?
  • 60/65% of our clients are over 65.
  • Visually impaired children have a special unit at Craigiebarns Primary
  • Taxi drivers who get to know us are great.
  • Quality of life depends so much on the quality of other people's services to you.
Scottish Trades Union Congress.
  • "Information received following requests under Freedom of Information Act show that the needless policy of austerity pursued by the Government, and Ian Duncan Smith's department in particular, could be preventing disabled people securing employment."
  • In 2010 when the coalition government came to power, in the 781 Jobcentre Plus throughout the UK, persons with disabilities looking for work could rely on the support of 499 specialist Disability Employment Advisers.  Five years later that number has been decimated.
  • The information supplied by DWP shows that in May 2015 the number of Disability Employment Advisers had fallen to 297, a fall of 40%.  The on-going attacks on supported employment, the loss of Remploy jobs and other attacks on disability benefits such as the bedroom tax are proving this government plans to be one of the most heartless and uncaring we have seen.
  • 'Disabled people need support, not sanctions to get into work.'

A couple of ideas that have been floated.

  • Dundee, a decent city.  Can the Fairness Commission try to raise a culture of respect for vulnerable people; promote a Dundee where citizens do the right things?
  • A 'GOOD' Places Register.  Can the Commission, or perhaps the Council, set up something along the lines of the Trusted Trader scheme?

The Challenge of Physical Disability

In my presentation to the Fairness Commission on the challenges faced by people with physical disabilities I began by talking about some of the things we should treasure and protect.  First there is the National Health Service - a concept of Collective Generosity and practical goodness.  This concept of collective caring, of loving our neighbour, our fellow citizen and the stranger in our midst is our true national treasure.  We must protect this beating heart of practical goodness against the vultures who are forever circling, looking to health care as a moneyed carcass ripe for plundering.
Secondly I spoke of our Education System - a concept of expectation and a collective investment in potential.  My parents told me it was a big battle (I have limited mobility due to contracting polio, or infantile paralysis as it was called, as a baby) to get me into mainstream education.  Apparently they were told that I should go to a 'special' school where I would be 'more comfortable'.  "He doesn't need comfort," argued my mother, "he needs an education!"  At earlier meetings the Commission had heard of some of the difficulties of the attainment gaps in our schools, but we should acknowledge the great deal of extra support provided in Dundee's schools to pupils with both physical and mental disabilities.
Third 'treasure' on my list is our somewhat currently battered system of Social Security - the true expression of our all being in it together.  Whilst not wishing to stifle incentive, opportunity or responsibility, it would be dishonest to say other than there will always be those who will never be able to work or sustain independent living, and there are many, many, many others who for some periods in their lives will be shut out from paid work.  The vision of the safety net of social security is another expression of collective caring, of loving our neighbour, our fellow citizen and the stranger in our midst.  The other side of this coin was that those who were able to pay taxes would do so willingly.  Clement Attlee, who was Prime Minister at the time of the birth of the modern welfare state said, "Charity is a cold, gray, loveless thing.  If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money on a whim."  There is something of 'once upon a time' about that I'm afraid, but its a philosophy we would do well to recapture.
If anything undermines any sense of security that people with disabilities might have it is the introduction of the current Work Capability Test.  It was, we were told, a revolution.  People with disabilities were to be tested on what they could do, not on what they couldn't do.  Great!! Absolutely right.  But this proper concept with which nobody could disagree has been turned by the Government, through agents like Atos and Triage and JobCentre Plus into a tool of exclusion, a weapon for sanctions.  At the recent Tory Party conference, blatantly and dismissively Ian Duncan-Smith said, "Disabled people should stop relying on the State and work their way out of poverty." 
In preparation for my presentation I loitered around a few groups and agencies asking what they were saying and will post these shortly.