If George Osborne wants to explore with any seriousness what would give a hint of reality to his assertion that “we are all in this together”, he could not have done better than attend the closing session of Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission on Saturday afternoon in Glasgow City Chambers. At the beginning of the Commission, two years ago, before a gathering of four hundred witnesses, a number of people with direct experience of poverty set out the challenge that their experiences have an essential contribution to make if we are serious as a society about tackling poverty. Also present were a number of people of the kind that we think of as having real influence, from the world of politics, the media, academic life, the police, business, and the Church. The outcome was the forging of a partnership between those with the experience of poverty and those with the influence. Together over the past two years they have wrestled with the need for change, and together they have taken, by way of an example of that need, the cause of kinship carers to Parliament in search of a little more justice for some of the people whose voluntary effort already goes way beyond anything the government might conceive. A big society already exists – big hearted, and at a big cost to those involved.
There are two questions that might be asked as Scotland’s Poverty Truth Commission reached its final session. What has been achieved, and what has been begun?
So what has been achieved? Recently I was asked to speak in Germany about the Church of Scotland’s work in our poorest communities. At the end the local mayor said: ‘Very good, but you have not told us how to end poverty.’ Neither has the Poverty Truth Commission. Child poverty figures are once again on the rise, and despite claims that the cuts programme is fair, all the indications are that once again the poorest among us are already being hit the hardest. Inequality is rooted in our society in ways that are hugely resistant to change, and only action and resolve from all of us together can make that happen.
Yet the Commission has brought change which may yet prove of lasting significance. It has demonstrated that with due attention paid to process, meeting style, appropriate support and acute listening, the many and varied gifts of people who have learned about poverty the hard way can be brought to bear as part of the solution. The learning that has made this possible is now available to be built on in other settings.
It has also provided evidence of the lie that is at the heart of the rhetoric about benefit fraud. Churches across the UK managed to extract an apology from Lord Freud when the Chancellor lumped together figures for error in the system with those for fraud and made the issue appear three times its actual size. After spending most of my adult life working in and around some of our poorest communities, I have met some people who are good at playing the system, even illegally. However they are few in comparison to the people who lead frugal, disciplined lives on amounts that many of us would find it hard to envisage existing on. The Commission has given a platform to some of the yearning and aspiration that exists in people who our society has failed, and demonstrated that they do not need to be portrayed in the ways that sadly prevail without much opposition.
Saturday's closing session presented a series of challenges that we ignore at our peril.
Too much of the way we have tried to deal with poverty has treated those most directly involved as objects, rather than those with the skills and experience to shape our response. In regeneration initiatives, little of the resources invested – other than the physical building of houses – stays in the poorest communities. It is time for a change, and as the Poverty Truth Commission is all too aware, that has only just begun.