4. Cross-Cutting Issues
"Respect is at the heart of it, it's the change we need to make first. The way people are shown on TV for example, as relying on benefits or food banks, they aren't shown with dignity. If we don't treat everyone with dignity, we have to ask what kind of society do we want to live in?"
"I felt small, simply because I was poor did not mean I should have no choice, I want to be happy."
These two final recommendations are about how public services are delivered, and about the policy making process itself. Both of these involve difficult challenges in terms of culture change: do we really value all citizens equally, and do we actively consider the needs of the most disconnected when designing policies and delivering services?
RECOMMENDATION 14 - Ensure that public service delivery is respectful, person-centred and preserves the dignity of people in poverty: pre-employment and in-service training should include the importance of avoiding stigma and developing understanding of the challenges of living on a very low income
A recurring theme in my many meetings with people in poverty, academics and the voluntary sector was how people felt about the services they received. This has also been a recurring theme in the consultation on a Fairer Scotland. Many people spoke about one fantastic teacher, or health visitor, or housing officer. Sadly, these were the exception, and the speakers who commented on very good experiences were always both surprised and enormously grateful. More often, people felt ashamed, belittled, and exhausted with the effort required to get basic needs met.
Some ethnic groups are more likely to be living in poverty, so may have a higher dependence on a public service that fails to meet their needs. Disabled people, likewise, are often denied access to the full range of services that most of us take for granted. An inclusive public service needs to be flexible enough to meet a variety of needs, without making assumptions about any individual's requirements. It is as unhelpful to assume a need where one does not exist, as to deny support where it is needed.
It's very difficult to deliver services that are under constant strain. After my poverty lecture in Glasgow, a DWP manager approached me asking how he could change the culture of the staff he manages, given the pressure they're under to meet targets. Nonetheless, much more effort could be made to provide in-service and pre-employment training to ensure that public services are provided with courtesy and respect for the user. It's likely that such a culture change would improve staff morale as well as the services themselves.
RECOMMENDATION 15 - Commence the socio-economic duty in the Equality Act 2010, when powers are available to do so
Stakeholders also suggested that Scottish Ministers should commence the socio-economic duty, currently in the Equality Act 2010, as soon as practicable. The duty seeks to ensure that all policies are evaluated through the lens of social and economic circumstances. It is ironic that under the Equality Act 2010, all groups are 'protected' save the largest group that encompasses huge numbers of the individuals in the protected groups: people in poverty. Particularly in terms of gender, race and disability, rates of poverty for these groups are higher than for the general population. As stated above, services that perceive themselves to be 'gender neutral' or 'race blind' are unlikely to deliver a high quality service. A framework already exists for policies to be screened for their impact on different groups, but not for their overall impact on poverty. Given the clear overlap between the aims of the equality and anti-poverty agendas, more could and should be done to link them.
Critical to the duty's success in practice will be buy-in from public bodies and from people on low incomes, who will need reassuring that their best interests are actually being protected. So it would make sense to develop guidance collaboratively - across the range of stakeholders - as to how the duty should ultimately be framed. Public bodies already report on equality duties, so there should be benefit from building upon existing mechanisms when developing the socio-economic duty.