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.


I had the opportunity to give a presentation to the Fairness Commission on Tuesday 27th October on the challenges that people with physical disabilities face in every day living.  I have no doubt that everything we face, people with mental or unseen disabilities face these challenges with knobs on.
But first I had a word or two to say about the task of the Fairness Commission as I see it.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle said, "There is no greater injustice than to treat unequal cases equally."
The Fairness Commission is looking at a city which has huge divisions.  Many citizens, including most of us on the Commission are doing quite well, whilst many of our fellow citizens are struggling just to keep their heads above water; still others  are utterly dependent on meagre benefits and foodbanks.  Side by side in this city walk the secure and the insecure, the expectant and the depressed, the honoured and the dismissed.  Ours is a city of unequal cases and we have been appointed to try to make things at least a little bit different.  That is our task and we cannot be even-handed!  we are called to champion the cases of those whose urgencies are treated as of no account.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015


The September meeting of the Dundee Fairness Commission took place in the Finmill Centre in Fintry.  There were two presentations and we also had a helpful NHS 'Inequality Briefing' paper before us.
Peter Kelly, director of the Poverty Alliance outlined the 'Living Wage' and 'Stick Your Labels' campaigns.  The Scottish Living Wage Campaign is driven by a coalition of trades unions, faith groups and voluntary organisations and believes "that all workers deserve a wage that gives them the chance to achieve a decent standard of living for themselves and their families." 
The 'Stick your labels' campaign has 3 pledges:
  • poverty is not inevitable
  • Attitudes matter
  • Actions change attitudes.
This Fairness Commission is about Dundee and what we can do here to make ours a fairer, more equitable city.  At the end of Peter's presentation questions and discussion focussed on Dundee.  We had been told that only two Scottish local authorities had signed up to the Living Wage campaign.  Why not Dundee, was what we wanted to know. 
Dundee City Council wants to be an accredited 'Living Wage Employer' we were told and are "wrestling with the challenge, not ducking it."  Social care costs appear to be the biggest impediment to achieving accreditation.  "Why is it" asked Alison Henderson of the Chamber of Commerce, "that we keep hearing that social care, hospitality and retail are a problem?"  Small businesses are showing the way.  Poverty is a problem that has solutions, we should not be talking about the inevitability, we should be talking about solutions.
On the 'Stick Your Labels' campaign, the Commission recognised that using language that dismisses and diminishes is a serious problem.  This was clearly illustrated in the use of the term 'disabled people' in the second presentation.  I myself had to point out that people with disabilities are not 'disabled people' but persons of other abilities who happen to have a disability.  'Myth busting' is another crucial element of the campaign to change attitudes.
Jim McCormick of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation talked about the Changing Face of Work.
The number of semi-skilled jobs has fallen dramatically in recent years.  The 'revolving door' rather than the 'escalator' is the experience of many low wage earners; that is to say there has been a loss of expectation to advance from your low paid and the fear of getting the heave is now all too prevalent.  Over a third of workers receiving working tax credits are in retail, health and social work.  Devolution has made little difference.  Commenting on the effects of this summer's budget, for people on the new national 'living wage', the bad news hugely outweighs the good news.
The key messages from the NHS 'Inequality Briefing Paper' (which we did not have time to discuss) were:
  • good work provides a decent income, widens social networks and gives people a purpose.
  • not all work is good for health.
  • for working-age adults, not having a paid job is bad for your health.
It appears that the commitment of Commissioners, reflected in the intensity of discussion, is making our current self-imposed time constraints of a 2 hour meeting untenable and we have to do something about that.

Thursday, 27 August 2015


Three presentations were made on the subject of 'Closing the Educational Attainment Gap in Dundee'

Dr. Edward Sousa of Strathclyde University argued, what to my mind was a highly questionable proposition, that "Who you are in Scotland is far more important than what school you attend."  He was however making the valid point that parental involvement and encouragement is important - as are 'rich experiences' for children
On 'aspirations and expectations' he suggested that aspirations of parents and pupils across income groups are often similar, but expectations are quite different.
Sara Spencer of the Child Poverty Action Group gave us many insights into their report 'Cost of the School Day' which is to be published on 2nd October.  She illustrated 'cost' barriers to full participation in school life.  Often even short school trips and the small costs of clubs and fun events are impossible for some.  Costs are complex but the Commission agreed that we should be looking at the desirability of increasing the clothing grant.
Paul Clancy of Dundee City Council Education Department outlined some of the initiatives being pursued by the City Council to lessen the attainment gap.  He also spoke of 'placing requests' which have resulted in 1 in 3 children in Dundee attending schools outwith their catchment areas.  When asked what effect the ending of these placement requests might have, he replied, "Dramatic, but it wouldn't be a popular policy!"
If the Fairness Commission is to achieve change then it cannot be afraid of championing unpopular policies.  It must ask of what it proposes, "Is it right and is it fair to those who are least able to articulate their needs?"  In this case we must ask ourselves, "Do we wish to push for an end to parental placing requests?  What benefits would accrue?  What would be lost?"

Friday, 21 August 2015


A selection of headlines from this week's newspapers must make us wonder what kind of country we live in, what kind of nation are we?

In a letter to the Chancellor, the five biggest providers of care homes (Four Seasons Health Care: BUPA; HC-One; Care UK and Barchester) claim that the National Living Wage could result in a catastrophic collapse in the number of care homes.  The companies said that they supported the National Living Wage (put that to music) but efforts would be needed to rescue the care system.  The UK Homecare Association made a similar warning last month, saying services to care for people in their own homes would become 'unviable'.  The Government said, (don't hold your breath) social care 'would be considered' as part of the spending review later this year.  Clearly, the care and dignity of our fellow citizens who are elderly or disabled is valued at no more than the minimum wage that we can get away with.  Shame on us!
The business pages report as 'good news' that the Rank Group has cashed in with a 19% rise in pre-tax profit to £74.1 million in the year to June.
There has been concern for some time over the growth of betting shops in our high streets and the powerlessness of local authorities to do anything about it.  However, in the figures issued by Rank, revenue in betting shops grew by only 2% compared with 21% in digital.  Chief Executive Henry Birch said, "We are particularly pleased that the strong digital growth continues."  Maybe in our concern for the proliferation of betting shops we have had our focus in the wrong place.  At least in betting shops there is company and, hopefully, some responsible staff who might encourage the over-hyped punter to 'go canny'.  But what curbs exist for the person alone in the bedroom at the computer with 24 hour betting available at the click of a mouse?  Heavens above, 'thanks' to in-play betting, at five past three on a Saturday afternoon I could place a bet on who is going to score the next goal for Partick there's a route to throwing your money away!  But I shouldn't joke, the income generated by the gambling industry dwarfs the expenditure on the care of the elderly.  That is wrong.  That is a sin.  Shame on us all!
Speaking of sin, what about the revelations this week that the DWP have been inventing people in an attempt to continue the delusion that the welfare changes are reasonable, fair and welcome.  Far from apologising, the department has come out with some guff about the need to positively promote the worth of the sanctions regime.  To you, me and most folk, they are claiming that its OK for them to lie.  Were a claimant at the Jobcentre found to be giving false information, it would immediately be identified as lying and the claimant sanctioned.  Can the man at the top, the wicked and/or hapless Iain Duncan Smith not be sanctioned?  A withdrawal of his ministerial salary might be a start.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015


The focus of the Dundee Fairness Commission so far has always ended up with issues of poverty and lack of resources.  There is no greater, nor blasphemous, waste of resources, than the eye-watering sums spent on weapons of war and oppression. Trillions and trillions of pounds, dollars, euros and every other currency under the sun are spent on the manufacture, use and threat of use of weapons ranging from hand guns to nuclear bombs. 
One of the annual delights in my life is to go to the Duncan of Jordanstone degree show.  I've been going for the past 20 years and never once been disappointed.  The range of imagination that fires the artistry of the students is utterly amazing.  One student this year had an exhibition illustrating what he perceived about the world's trouble spots - he gave examples from the Middle East, the Central African Republic, the Philippines and Pakistan amongst others.  There wasn't a weapon at all in his display, it was all examples of heavy engineering.  He said, and I think I quote him properly, "Wars are as much about engineering and economics as about actual warfare."  At the time I knew instantly I was listening to wisdom.
This year, the Dundee Festival for Peace comprises various events between 6th August (Hiroshima Memorial Day) and 21st September which id the U.N International Day for Peace.
Details of individual events can be found on the dundeefestival4peace Facebook page or by emailing

Thursday, 23 July 2015


It's a question ringing round the United Kingdom and probably nowhere more painfully than in Labour's so-called heartlands in Scotland.  What is Labour for?  First Minister Nicola Sturgeon asks, "If Labour is not about standing up for the vulnerable, trying to lift people out of poverty and help those who are working hard to make ends meet, then what on earth is labour for?"
Can I put it more succinctly.  If Labour is not a crusade for social justice, it is nothing.  At the moment the Party seems depressingly moving towards proving it is nothing.


Contrary to the belief that the deep fried Mars bar is part of a Glaswegian's staple diet, I am a Glaswegian who not only has never had a deep fried Mars bar, I don't personally know anyone else who has.  Never the less, I cannot think what must have possessed the bright sparks in Aberdeenshire Council to want the Stonehaven chip shop to take down their 'Birthplace of the World Famous Deep Fried Mars Bar' sign. 
I was chaplain to the staff of Tayside Regional Council and then Dundee City Council for over 15 years and during these years I was impressed over and over and over again by their commitment to the well being of the City.  But even the best of folk sometimes make the daftest of decisions.  "Dundee - City of Discovery" was, I believe, a wonderful, pithy and memorable slogan, yet, at great expense, a number of years ago, it was decided to bin 'City of Discovery' for the far less memorable title, "One City - Many Discoveries".  Can this error not now be rectified?  Its been allowed to run for long enough, can we not get back "DUNDEE, CITY OF DISCOVERY "?

Tuesday, 14 July 2015


The Dutch city of Utrecht is about to start on an experiment which hopes to determine whether society works effectively with a universal, unconditional 'basic' income.  The City has paired up with the University to establish whether the concept of a 'basic' income can work in real life.  From January, some Utrecht job-seekers will receive around €1,300 a month with no strings attached.  Critics are arguing that job-seekers will not try as hard to get a job; the proponents of the experiment believe that more people will be a little happier and will find a job anyway.
The population of Utrecht (330,000) is about double that of Dundee, but in our city where the very opposite of 'no strings attached' prevails and is manifested in a bewildering welter of sanctions, the Fairness Commission should encourage the City Council to watch the Utrecht experiment closely.

Friday, 10 July 2015


"From Welfare to Work" was the headline on Thursday's Daily Telegraph.  It was just one of a number of banner headlines reacting to Wednesday's budget.  With its usual right-wing hyperbole the Daily Express trumpeted "HOORAY! ITS PAY RISES ALL ROUND".  Mind you, if you are working in the public sector your pay rise will be limited to 1% - not too much hooray there.  A so-called 'Living Wage' of £9 per hour, but by 2020 what might it be worth?  By this morning when the number-crunching experts had gone to work it was clear that over 13 million families would be left worse off.  Was this what Ian Duncan Smith was captured cheering ecstatically about?
But let me leave IDS (if only) and return to the "From Welfare to Work" headline.  I have had the privilege - I'm not sure that's the right word - of reading a memo to David Cameron from a woman struggling with ill health called Rosie Fletcher.  It was written on 3rd July, just a few days before the budget.  Here are some of the things she said:
"Another day, another rummage down the back of the benefits sofa to find a spare £12bn.  This week: changing Employment Support Allowance to incentivise ill people to get back to work.  One problem:  I already have the best incentive to stop being ill and get back to work.  It's called "being ill".  I would love to go back to work because if I were able to work I would no longer be sick.  Long term illness nibbles away at your identity from the edges, taking out chunks of the things that makes you you: the friends you meet, the shops you wander into, the job you do.............I would love to have a job.  I would like to feel productive.
This proposal (about changes to ESA) makes two fundamental mistakes:  that illness and disability are a) passive and b) attractively lucrative.
If you think I do not work for my benefits, you are wrong.  Ringing the DWP at eight in the morning to find out why my benefits are a month late, only to hear a recorded message to tell me they are busy and that perhaps I ought to call back between 8 and 9 in the morning..........the constant stream of sick notes I have to ask my doctor for, pick up from the surgery and post to the DWP..........the sight of a brown envelope on the doormat makes my heart pause; I fear each one will contain a ransom note of sanctions.  My doctor asks me what causes me stress.  I can answer in three letters, D.W.P.
Chronic illness often feels like a terribly paid admin job, chasing down missed payments, posting doctors' notes, requesting repeat prescriptions, sending in bank statements.  The rigmarole around being ill seems to tower, colossus-like over the actual illness.......cutting the money that sick and disabled people receive isn't an incentive to work, its a disincentive and a punishment for being ill.
If you think that eventually you can make people so sad and stressed and poor that they will 'get over' being ill, that you can starve them out and they'll end their little displays of sickness, then you are very much mistaken.  We have all the incentives we need to get back to work; cutting ESA will only make it harder to do so."
I don't think this letter needs any additional comment from me.

Thursday, 9 July 2015


The aspirations of the new V & A in Dundee to be a centre of international, indeed global  importance were surely enhanced by the recent announcement that there would be an example of Glasgow's culture in a model of Miss Cranston's Tea room designed by Charles Rennie MacIntosh.  The institution of the tea room in Sauchiehall Street as a venue for social intercourse for the ladies of the west end dates back to those heady days when Glasgow was the Second City of the Empire.
The tea room will be an important exhibit.  I hope however that alongside the tea room there might be another Glaswegian exhibit, The Steamie, which is of no lesser significance.  Even in those vibrant days, at the height of her economic power, there was another side to Glasgow, the largely impoverished east end.  If Miss Cranston's tea room was the venue for the 'ladies' of the west end, social intercourse for the 'women' of the east end was The Steamie.  So come on you directors of the V & A, get yourselves a Steamie!

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Dundee Fairness Commission met last night at the East Housing Office in Pitkerro Road to look at Welfare Reform.  With a compelling mixture of statistics and stories, Mary Kinninmonth of the Citizen's Advice Bureau and Ginny Lawson of the Brooksbank Centre laid bare the fear and bewilderment and powerlessness inflicted by the system on the most vulnerable of people.  Ginny described it as 'a maze without a map' and Mary said, "It cannot be right that people are left desperate."
Responding to the welter of evidence of the incomprehensible nature of the application of so many sanctions and their devastating consequences on people's lives, Alan Kane and Kirsty Marr of the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP) asserted that sanctions are a key component of the contract: the Claimant Commitment which is a legally binding contract.  "There are no targets (for the application of sanctions)" they stated categorically, despite what may appear in the press.
They talked about 'work coaches' whose task is to create a personal work programme for each individual claimant that is feasible, yet so much of the evidence before us points to people running out of jobs to apply for and being sent for jobs they have no hope of getting.  So-called 'workfare' is presented as an opportunity to gain experience, but seems to many just another form of exploitation.  All this is both demoralising and demeaning, a far cry from the incentivising that is the claim of their political masters.  The fact that 30% of sanctions are cancelled illumines a disastrous catalogue of waste, anxiety, agony and disruption of claimants' lives as money is withheld for weeks, and sometimes months.  It cannot be described as anything other than intolerable!
Greg Colgan of Dundee City Council informed the Commission of a range of services and projects that the Council has to try to break the cycle of debt.  Believing that support is best when community based, he described amongst other things the GP surgery project which has welfare rights advisors based in the surgery.  It has had massive results in benefits maximisation.  But all the time it seems that in the face of the Government's reforms it is like trying to push a huge boulder uphill all the time.  It was a member of the public, (who were again present, a very welcome feature of the Commission's meetings) who put her finger on it when she declared passionately, "The reason behind Welfare Reform is cuts, it's not about helping people!"  It is already well publicised that the current reforms will cost Dundee £56 million annually.
As we process our aim of seeking to create a 'living wage city', we will be looking specifically at the terms and conditions being offered to prospective employees of the new Sports Direct shop and gym.  An outcome of last night's meeting has been that we have been asked if the 'living wage city' could be coupled with the pursuit of a 'workfare-free city'.  The challenges mount.

Monday, 29 June 2015

On Monday 16th June, against the advice of their officials, Dundee Councillors voted to give the go-ahead to Sports Direct opening a gym and retail shop in Lochee with the promise of hundreds of jobs.  Since then a number of local politicians have been in the press wanting to know what questions have been asked about the terms and conditions that will be applied to these jobs, pointing out that Sports Direct are notorious for operating zero hour contracts and paying the minimum wage to non-unionised employees.  A member of the People's Assembly in Dundee has asked, "Where does the Fairness Commission's Living Wage City proposal stand on this issue?"
Promoting a Fair Wage City is among a number of 'good ideas' before the Commission and our next task is to create a process by which we can progress 'good ideas' and hopefully bring them into being.  It is important, we believe, not just to produce a report in a year's time, but to get some things done as we go along.
The main item of business for this month's meeting will be Welfare Reform and its impact in Dundee.
Oh how I wish I had the technical expertise to put a picture of the new Partick Thistle mascot on my blog.  It is exciting to learn that something about the dear old Jags has become an internet hit.  But there's an educational programme needed.  One journalist suggested that the mascot's fierce face would 'scare the children'.  Obviously the writer has seriously underestimated the children of Maryhill!!!!!
With the mascot has come a new song to the tune of Cwm Rhondda, "Partick Thistle, Partick Thistle, we're not cuddly anymore, we're not cuddly anymore!"  Visiting fans will be shaking in their boots... well, maybe.
A philosophical question for all you who like to think deeply about things.  Partick Thistle are liked, are popular because rarely are they ever a threat to anyone.  But were they to become fearsome and serious contenders, what then?  Is it desirable to give up cuddliness for fearsomeness?  Answers on a postcard please.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Don't just curse the darkness

I've had a response to making Dundee a Living Wage City that said basically, it's a good idea, but there's nae chance!  The writer, a mother from Whitfield, cites the exploitation of her young son by the employers he was sent to by the Job Centre.  It was yet another story to make your heart sink, but if we don't believe we can make a difference we might as well chuck it in now.
Another response to my blog has been to draw my attention to 'Babyboxes' in Finland.  You can find the story of these boxes at  Briefly it tells of how Finland once had a very high mortality rate, but 75 years ago introduced these baby boxes for every child born in the country.  These boxes were given to expectant mothers and contained everything needed for a newborn.  The box itself had a wee mattress and became a cot for the child.  The infant mortality rate dropped dramatically.  Perhaps the Commission might ask the City Council to cost such a provision for Dundee.
One little candle to light amidst the darkness of unfairness perhaps?
Adam Smith, the author of 'The Wealth of Nations' said, "No society can be flourishing and happy of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable."  In a modern society taxation is supposed to be the tool by which the cohesion of that society is maintained and all its members including the weakest are able to live with dignity.  With this in mind, it might be profitable for the Fairness Commission to visit the work of 'Common Weal'.
Common Weal is promoting a vision for economic and social development in Scotland based on the conviction that 'we will get better outcomes for both society and individuals if we emphasise mutuality and equity rather than conflict and inequality.'  Seems to describe the remit of the Dundee Fairness Commission.  The mechanics of change proposed by Common Weal are as follows:
  • There must be tax reform to reduce inequality, ensure strong public services and ensure that domestic industries are competing on an even playing field
  • Re-define welfare as a 'contract between the people' which all benefit from, with secure funding and strong social buy in.
  • Radically reform finance to make sure it is providing real investment security for industry and real savings security for citizens.
  • Promote balanced ownership structures in the economy to increase resilience and promote high quality employment.
  • Diversify the economy to move away from low-pay employment that creates poverty, inequality and contributes to public sector deficits.
  • Implement participative democracy practices at all levels to prevent the abuse of power by vested interest and better reflect the public will.

Monday, 15 June 2015


Summertime - and provided you have half decent health and an adequate income, for the old retired guys - the living is easy!  That's a big 'provided' in there.
I'm sitting in the sun with my wife looking at the boats in Arbroath harbour.  We're enjoying fish and chips fresh from the chippie washed down by a can of Irn Bru.  What could be better?  Reminiscing is what we oldies do best and I found myself thinking back to the days when fish suppers came wrapped in old newspapers - often the Sunday Post.  Now they're in a polystyrene box - but they still taste great.
Would you believe the polystyrene box got me to thinking about the world economy?
I'm sure the fish was caught and landed by a local fishing boat.....well I hope so anyway.  I hope the chips came from locally grown potatoes. But what about the polystyrene box?  What's polystyrene made of?  Where did it come from? Who manufactured it?  Gosh, my fish supper now comes in a product of global science, technology and manufacturing.
When I was a wee boy we were told that Irn Bru, made in Camlachie in the east end of Glasgow (hence its posh name 'Chateau Camlachie'), was 'brewed frae girders' which came from the nearby Ravenscraig steel works. So I know where Irn Bru comes from, don't I?  But what about the can I'm drinking it from, that someone will recycle after I've binned it?  We are truly in a global economy and in this real economy most people work hard for pretty modest returns.
There is another economy populated by the money boys (and girls) where avarice is honoured.  It is populated by the wild and greedy speculators who were the true architects of the financial crisis.  With the support of our political leaders, whose interests lie primarily with them, the money boys continue to pay themselves obscene salaries and award each other unearned bonuses. 
Meanwhile they treat any sense of democracy or decency with contempt and have been known to dismiss the rest of us as 'pond life'.  They have been, and continue to be, cavalier about the drop in living standards of most of the population.  They have presided over massive unemployment, partly masked by part time jobs and zero hours contracts and others being forced into 'working for their benefits'.  They have, without any sense of shame, given tax cuts to the wealthiest whilst imposing the so-called 'spare room subsidy' - a bedroom tax - on the poorest.  Then they paint all this as being just, fair and supportive of 'hard working families'.
They have raised to an absolute art form the power of propaganda to say that black is white and white is black.  The on-going assault on people with disabilities through the fitness for work assessments are made out to be 'opportunities' when they know fine well there is no work.  They maintain their steadfast denial, in the face of every scrap of evidence, that the burgeoning of foodbanks has anything to do with their policies.  Its like we are living in an Alice in Wonderland world with a succession of Mad Hatters in charge and no sign of any escape on the horizon.  It makes it hard to have dreams of a fairer more equitable society where prosperity is shared and the weak and elderly are valued and protected.
At the last meeting of the Dundee Fairness Commission it was asserted that 'grinding poverty and vast inequality are not inevitable'.  So, if we believe that, what are we going to do?

Monday, 8 June 2015

Dundee - our kind of city

One of the bonuses of being old and retired is that often, if, when you wake up in the morning and a peek through the curtains tells you it’s a dull and miserable day, you can just snuggle back under the downie for another hour or so.  It’s great!

 I’ve found that that hour or so is a good ‘thinking’ time, (except Saturday mornings when, if like me you support Partick Thistle, it’s an extra hour to worry about the day’s game).  The other morning I was having thoughts about the last meeting of the Fairness Commission.

 We had been unanimous in believing that to seek to make Dundee ‘A Living Wage City’ was a really good idea and the idea of drawing up a Dundee standard for employment was mentioned.  I found myself wondering if we could invite the Chamber of Commerce, the Trades Union Council and the City’s Economic Development Department to get together and come up with something that is feasible, even if not possible to enforce by law?

 Of all the statistics we were presented with about Child Poverty the one that stuck most in my mind was that children from the poorest backgrounds were already well behind other children by the time they were starting primary school.  ‘Unfairness’ begins in the womb.  There is nothing we can do about the unpredictable magic of the mixture of genes, but it is clearly crucially important to improve the health of pregnant mothers, post-natal care and early childhood education.  What steps can we take towards that and making Dundee ‘A Bairn Friendly City’?  Big costs involved I suspect.

 I thought about the woman who said, “When you are struggling to make ends meet you are treated as rubbish.”  One thing we can do without needing any more revenue is to treat each other decently.  1981 was the ‘Year of the Disabled Person’ and throughout Britain there were all sorts of events and campaigns to highlight the dignity and worth of people with disabilities – all with little effect at the time I’m afraid.  In 1982 Australia thought something different was needed and so had ‘The Year of the Patronising Bastard’.  It had a huge impact.  Too often if you are not being treated as rubbish, you are being patronised, there’s always someone or some organisation or department that knows what’s best for you.  Nobody in Dundee should be dismissed or patronised; nobody should be patronising or dismissive of any fellow citizen.  We can at least make Dundee, a Decent City’.

Thursday, 28 May 2015


This is an evil!”  The words of David Dorward, former Chief Executive of Dundee City Council describing the vast inequality in Dundee.   The Dundee Fairness Commission has been set up to do something about it.

Usually these kinds of bodies are made up of ‘the great and the good’ (so-called) because we often fall into the belief that they are the people ‘who know best’.  Mercifully the membership of this Commission is much broader than that and we are seeking to hear and listen to as wide a spectrum of the experiences of living in Dundee that we can reach.  So, at our second meeting on 26th May the public were invited to sit in, and they did.

John Dickie of Child Poverty Action Group presented us with mind numbing statistics about child poverty in Scotland and Dundee – 22% of Scottish children are living in poverty (28% in Dundee).  Over half of these are living in ‘working’ families; one in three live in households with a disabled person.  The Commissioners were not unaware of these figures, but it was still depressing to hear him say that we are now tolerating much higher levels of poverty than we used to.  John McKendrick of Strathclyde University added that when we talk about welfare reform, there is not wholesale anger about it, there is still a great deal of ‘blaming the poor for their poverty.’  Responding, one commissioner said that many people have a conservative, even a reactionary attitude to the causes of poverty, but we can win hearts and minds because politics in Scotland have changed.  We have an engaged population looking for new solutions.  The challenge for us is how do we harness that appetite?

Despite social security cuts already costing Dundee £56 million per year – and that will get worse, much worse in the next 5 years – grinding poverty and vast inequality are not inevitable.  Pointing out that people in poverty depend most on public services, Peter Allan of Dundee City Council outlined a range of initiatives currently being implemented by the Council.

One of the big hopes to bring new prosperity to the city is the Waterfront Development which will bring in its wake a large expansion of jobs in the catering and hospitality industries, where wages are notoriously low.  “Can we set a living wage standard to be met by employers coming here?  Can we make Dundee a living wage city?”  This suggestion was met with unanimous enthusiasm.

A woman once told the Dundee Partnership “When you are struggling to make ends meet you are treated as rubbish.”    This Commission is determined not to do things ‘to’ or ‘for’ people.  We recognise that the strength of people living with poverty and stigma and disability is enormous.  “I see people who are totally skint” another commissioner told us, “but they are happy when they are engaged – even in things like digging community gardens.”  We will only make changes with people on board!