Thursday, 19 February 2015

Stealing Food

You steal food when you are desperate. This is not the action of a professional criminal. He or she goes after much bigger fish, if you will excuse the pun.

I stole food once, years ago in Tarbert, Loch Fyne. I had arrived there late ready to start a new job the following day across the loch in Portavadie. I had missed the last ferry. It was a new job, so I would be waiting till Friday for the pay packet. I had next to nothing, and I slept that night in the heather above the wee town. That afternoon I stole a pasty from a corner shop.

And that is the nearest I ever got to stealing for food - for I am one of the lucky ones from a comfortable, well-fed background in middle class Scotland.

Yesterday's The National reports that Glasgow police and Maryhill Foodbank are working together to develop a scheme so that people accused of stealing food can be fed. That's good news.

But it's shocking.

We are a nation that produces oil, for goodness' sake! Why do we have people on our streets who are so desperate that they must steal food? What is going on? Don't we have a benefits system that is meant to ensure that no one starves?

Well yes, but of course real life is not how the Westminster politicians would paint it. Because we do have a benefits system but it includes a draconian and unaccountable punishments regime that means that people, already with nothing, can have their benefits stopped for a variety of petty reasons. Or they have signed on but have to wait a fortnight for the money. Or they've had to pay a bill, and it's a dreich Thursday night and there is nothing, not a penny, in the wee jar in the kitchen. Or they are one of the 4,750 young people aged 16-24 who were homeless in Scotland during 2012-3.

So they nip round to the corner store (the owner is little better off than they are) and steal a loaf of bread.

With luck they get caught in Maryhill. There they might get some sort of humanity shown to them, someone who listens to their story and who provides what they need; a food parcel, and a friendly ear. Place the same story somewhere else and the treatment might be rougher, more legal than social.

None of this should be happening. If Scotland held the economic reins - income and spend - then it could share its wealth much more fairly across its population than do the neoliberals in Westminster.

To understand how far the neoliberals have fallen consider an announcement also from yesterday: Mr Cameron proposes to introduce a scheme for unemployed young people under which they would be paid £1.91 per hour for a 30 hour week, working for 'voluntary' organisations. I hope that the charity sector, en masse, rejects this criminal abuse of the poor.

On £1.91 per hour, our young people would be justified in stealing all the food from chubby Cameron's table.

Monday, 16 February 2015

A new map for Scotland

This is the change that people are talking about. A new political map for Scotland, that is SNP-coloured, not Red Tory coloured:

Chris Hanretty, Reader in Politics at the University of East Anglia and one of the team behind Election Forecast UK, is interviewed in today's Financial Times blog. He reminds us that "party identification" ('I was born a Labour voter, and always will vote Labour') is still the strongest prediction of voting patterns. 

It appears that the SNP have broken that pattern in Scotland, but Hanretty is urging caution.

We still have to get every door chapped, every vote in.

The Theory of Change

How do we change the lives of people in Scotland, for the better?

The Theory of Change is a way of describing how change will happen. Viewed as a road map for change, it starts from where we are  now, aims at a better place in the future, and lays out the routes for getting there.

Where we are now is not good.

Whether you prefer the statistics and maps of the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, or to walk the streets of Glasgow, you'll see poverty, and increasing poverty.

So how do we make change, for the better?

The model provided by the Theory of Change starts with a series of data and assumptions about how things are now. It then lays out different routes - "interventions" - that lead to a better place. So we start with the data in the Scottish Government's Policy Briefing that there were 880,000 people living in absolute poverty in Scotland in 2012/3, and then work out what we are going to do about it.

Charities in Scotland are each applying their own Theory of  Change. Last Thursday's report from the Poverty Alliance showed charities such as the Trussell Trust are intervening with food banks. Their rationale is that we can relieve the most desperate effects of poverty by providing food, and while you are doing that, providing nutrition advice, cookery classes and emotional support. Seventy percent of Scotland's 167 food banks are providing emotional support for their clients.

Meanwhile, Save the Children in Scotland has a different Theory of Change. Their "Eat, Sleep, Learn, Play!" programme, launched in 2012, provides essential household items such as beds, cookers and pushchairs, to families with young children living on a low income. The rationale of Save the Children is that by meeting families needs during the important early stages of development, families can improve the quality of their children's' lives and help them fulfil their potential.

Save the Children also campaigns. So does the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, whose principal rationale is to "work to get a better life for low-income families in Scotland through campaigning and lobbying."

Risk is implicit in a Theory of Change. If your rationale for ending or at least reducing poverty is to provide food banks and emotional support then your downside risk of failure is going to be linked to delivery; how many people can we reach from our food bank? Upside, you know that if you get a package of food into the hands of a poor family then you have fed them for the day, or the week. 

If you campaign and lobby then your risk of failure is high. You are trying to get the system to change - to get politicians to listen to your message and to translate it into policy. That is very hard to achieve. Despite years of campaigning and lobbying, poverty is still endemic in Scotland. The Scottish Poverty Briefing shows that one in six families in Scotland lives on less than 60% of the average wage. There is a substantial, in fact demonstrable, risk that campaigning does not work - it does not translate into Government action.

So why bother with the politicians?

Because while the risk of failure is high, the outcome if you succeed is enormous. If you could persuade a future Government to give up Trident and spend the money on the poor, or, better, increase taxation on those on higher incomes to provide greater shares for those on low or no income, then you would dramatically transform the lives of almost a million people in Scotland. This,in Theory of Change, is "system change."

Politicians are just the pawns in this Theory of Change chess-game. We need them to move across the board in the right direction (not just to protect the Kings, Queens and Knights of our society.) So when you vote in May, vote for system  change. Vote for the party that will change the system in Scotland, for the better.

1.James, Cathy. Theory of Change Review. London: Comic Relief, September 2011.
2 Image from
3 Scottish Government, St Andrew’s House. “Poverty Briefing.” Website Section, December 18, 2014.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

A Poor Choice

In today’s FT Nick Pearce, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, makes the parallel between the “most successful minority government in modern British history”, and this year’s election.

In 1910 Herbert Asquith, a Liberal, led a minority government with support from a progressive alliance of Irish nationalists and a nascent Labour Party.  The Liberals won 272 seats, the Conservatives 271, and it was thus the Irish Parliamentary Party, with 74 seats and Labour (42) who could balance the powers of the two main parties. There are lots of Scottish connections - Asquith was MP for East Fife, and Labour was led by George Nicoll Barnes, MP for Glasgow Blackfriars and Hutchesontown. Nick Pearce notes that this reforming government created the national insurance system that was the basis of the modern welfare state, passed constitutional reforms that established the power of elected MPs over the House of Lords, reformed trade union law and passed an Irish Home Rule Act.

“Some…will seize the crisis of the established party system as an opportunity for realignment…” concludes Nick Pearce.

And that will be a healthy outcome for England as well as for Scotland. Especially for the poor of both countries because they – of all people – are the ones who suffer most from “the established party system.”

That’s what Jamie Livingstone, head of Oxfam Scotland argues: with 820,000 people living in poverty in Scotland in 2012-13 he says that "…we have a major opportunity - with the leaders of the two largest parties at the Scottish Parliament sharing a single objective - to seriously challenge inequality in Scotland."

And Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland lays out what a new Government – one that did not have to toe the Party line – could do: adequate social security benefits, affordable childcare, free school meals – the list is simple and well argued.

We thought that the September 2014 Referendum was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Now we have a second chance to make a good choice; a poor choice.