“It’s dreadful, isn’t it? It’s totally dreadful.”
Sitting in her Glenrothes office, Rhona Cunningham is talking about the impact of austerity in Fife. “The welfare reform and how that has rolled out has practically devastated some of the most vulnerable communities,” she says.
When she began working at Fife Gingerbread a decade and a half ago, child poverty was “not so much of an issue”.
That was five years before the 2008 global financial crash plunged Britain into recession, and an economic crisis that was followed by a decade of deep cuts to public spending by Tory-led governments.
Cunningham and colleagues at Fife Gingerbread help people living in some of the poorest parts of the county. They include former mining communities that have struggled since the pits closed in the 1980s: towns such as Cowdenbeath, Lochgelly, Leven, Methil and Buckhaven, where the charity provides meals, clothing and emotional support to people on low incomes.
Alleviating child poverty is an urgent priority for the charity. Over the last 12 months, it has helped 816 children and 328 adults. The 2019 Fife Gingerbread Christmas appeal Heat and Eat hopes to raise money for meter cards so families can put the heating on over the festive season. Most people seeking help are scraping by to survive, says Cunningham.
“There is no safety net,” she adds. “There is nothing at the back of them. The prospect of having £500 in the bank is like a lottery win. You’ve got whole communities who kind of feel like there’s no hope.”
Cunningham is Fife Gingerbread’s chief executive and has been involved in the social justice sector for almost 30 years. She has seen parents in tears.
One is Susan Price, 45, who lives in Methil.
“It’s absolutely horrendous having your daughter, or any kid of yours, coming up to you and going: ‘Are you going to afford this, mum?’ You know, your kids shouldn’t have to do that,” she says.
“And at times my kids have to wait six, seven, weeks for just shoes. You know, bare necessities.”
The statistics for child poverty in parts of Fife are stark. A report in 2018 by End Child Poverty said that across the region there were 17,667 children – 24.47% –growing up in poverty. In Buckhaven, Methil and Wemyss Villages, the figure was 36.62% of children, while in the Kirkcaldy East council ward it was 38.68%.
Reports out this year paint a similarly grim picture. Data released in June by the End Child Poverty Coalition revealed that 27% of children in the St Andrews ward were living in poverty – the highest in North East Fife, with East Neuk and Landward at 20 per cent.
Cunningham says child poverty can be measured in various ways but gauging the issue at Fife Gingerbread is straightforward.
“For us on the ground, it’s quite simple,” she explains. “It’s about families who have children, who don’t have enough income, and they have far too much expenditure.”
She talks about the poverty trap, and says people are struggling on zero hours contracts. They are paid the minimum wage. They struggle to pay high rents for homes in the private sector. The cost of food and travel rises, but pay doesn’t. Childcare is expensive.
Every single thing has kind of slowly chipped away at the bricks. They’ve already drained their resources as much as they can. Basically they don’t have anywhere else to go
She says the introduction of policies such as Universal Credit, sanctions and the bedroom tax have caused severe financial problems for families, making them reliant on charities for essentials.
“Every single thing has kind of slowly chipped away at the bricks,” she says. “They’ve already drained their resources as much as they can. Basically they don’t have anywhere else to go.”
Another effect of austerity, she adds, is that the benefit system has become “increasingly punitive”.
Universal Credit, which replaced six benefits with a single monthly payment, was rolled out to Fife in 2017, a fundamental change that affected the way Fife Gingerbread supported pregnant teenagers through its teen parent project.
Staff went from helping young mothers be good parents to counselling teenagers left without money from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) for five weeks.
“The workers were frustrated because they couldn’t tell the parents it would be all right, because they didn’t know it was going to be all right,” Rhona says. “They didn’t know if six weeks were going to turn into seven weeks, eight weeks, nine weeks, 10 weeks.
“They didn’t know how long they were going to be caught in this hellhole basically. It’s what it was. So we had teens at home with new babies and no money.”
Susan Price, who is supported by Fife Gingerbread, describes her experience of Universal Credit as “horrendous”.
Her family, including five children, of whom the youngest is eight, ended up homeless a few years ago and at one point she was housed in a bed and breakfast by Fife Council. For two weeks, Susan shared one bedroom with four of her children who were then 17, 14, 11 and two.
Price, who suffers from fibromyalgia, moved onto the benefits scheme last year. Her housing benefit was stopped and losing income for the statutory changeover period meant she racked up £600 in rent arrears. Price also says she had to forgo a nursing degree.
“I’m supposed to be in my second year at university just now, doing my nursing,” she explains, speaking in a local cafe. “I had to pass that up because the minute I accepted my SAAS [student] loan I wasn’t entitled to Universal Credit any more. I would have struggled to keep my house.”
In tears, Price says her financial problems have had an “enormous impact” on her children, who often go without basics, never mind luxuries. “Even just silly things like having a movie night and a munchy night with them – that’s all had to stop, because I just can’t do it.”
Kim Paton is a mother of three being supported by Fife Gingerbread. She’s lived in Methil for almost 18 years and has a 21-year-old daughter, Ashley, who lives away from home, and two sons: Liam, 17, and Aidan, 10.
Until 2015, Paton had nearly always been employed. She studied at college, worked as a hairdresser and was employed in a nursing home for 10 years, among other positions.
But after her marriage ended in 2015 she suffered health problems and lost a job. She has survived on benefits for nearly four years. Her monthly income is less than £600. Rising living costs and changes to the benefits system mean that life for Paton and her children is stressful.
“It’s a lot harder nowadays,” she says.
“You’ve got your food banks and stuff which is really good but I never ever thought I would have to use things like that, do you know what I mean? It’s like, children are in poverty. A lot of the houses [nearby] are living in poverty.”
Belt tightening to make ends meet includes her children wearing extra jerseys at home in winter, because she switches off the heating to keep fuel bills down. When shopping, she hunts for discounts and deals. She often cooks pasta dishes for her children because, she says, it’s cheap food that fills them up.
Christmas brings extra financial pressures. Last year Paton felt fortunate when local shops donated presents to her youngest son, Aidan. She also received a £20 voucher for a supermarket, enabling her to buy Christmas dinner. A rare trip to the cinema with Aidan means saving up money regularly for several weeks, she says, her budget is so tight.
Paton feels that poverty stigmatises children. Some kids attend school wearing designer clothes and flashing iPhones while others turn up in cheap coats and trainers. She often asks Aidan if he’s being bullied.
“Aidan’s a very polite, timid boy and that’s why I have to ask him these questions,” Paton says. “I just like to make sure that he’s not getting picked on or bullied because he’s got cheaper clothes on, cheaper trainers, cheaper coats.”
Holidays are a pipe dream but last year was an exception because the Salvation Army gave the family a free holiday in a caravan at Berwick. “It was brilliant. It was so good just to get away, do you know what I mean?” she says.
“They must have a few different caravans. They allocate certain families, so that families can get a holiday, because at the end of the day, you just get stressed like everybody else and it’s just nice. Instead of being stressed with the kids.”
Constantly struggling financially brings stress, as does dealing with the DWP. Paton says the system has changed and become depersonalised. “I don’t know, you walk in and it’s just like there’s a brick wall in front of you now,” she says.
She is about to move on to Universal Credit which will mean no income for five weeks, potentially resulting in rent and council tax arrears. A loan from the DWP may be possible but the money needs to be paid back.
“So you’re building up debts as well because your housing benefit gets stopped straight away. Your council tax benefit gets stopped straight away. So you’re panicking about all this money. You’re not getting money to survive, and then all these debts are piling up as well. It’s just horrible. Just the thought of it’s quite scary.”
Susan Price rails at politicians. She claims they “don’t have a clue” how policies impact people’s lives.
“They need to come and live like we do for a good six months,” she says, “on the money we get. And not have the bank account there just to be able to go: ‘Oh yeah, here you go and get it.’ We don’t have that, do you know what I mean?
“It’s fine for them to sit and drop this bill in, that bill, and the next bill in to the House of Commons, or wherever and say: ‘This is how people have to live. We think they can live on X amount a week.’ How can they think that? They’ve not had to do it.”
There has been scathing criticism of the UK government’s austerity policy. In May the United Nations’ special rapporteur on extreme poverty, Professor Phillip Alston, said “ideological” cuts to public services since 2010 have led to “tragic consequences”.
His report said that close to 40 per cent of children are likely to live in poverty by 2021, adding the DWP had been tasked with “designing a digital and sanitised version of the 19th century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens”.
The UK government responded then by saying Alston’s report was “barely believable”. The DWP told The Ferret more than £95bn each year is spent on working age benefits, and claimed children growing up in working households are five times less likely to be in relative poverty than children growing up in workless households.
By contrast, Alston praised the Scottish government. During a visit to Edinburgh in September, he said Scotland is on “a very different trajectory” from the rest of the UK regarding social security. He said the spirit of the welfare state was “alive and humming” north of the border.
In 2017, the Scottish government’s Child Poverty Bill introduced income-based child poverty targets – making Scotland the only nation in the UK to have these enshrined in law.
As part of a drive to reduce child poverty, the Scottish government announced this year it will introduce a new Scottish Child Payment, a plan to give money to low-income families, starting in early 2021.
But a report in October by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation urged the Scottish government to do more, arguing this plan alone will not be enough to reach its target of reducing child poverty to 10 per cent by 2030.
In reply, the Scottish government told The Ferret it was taking “concrete action” including the introduction of the new Scottish Child Payment. By the end of 2022 it will be worth £10 per week per child under 16 in eligible households.
A Scottish government spokesperson added: “Our range of measures to support families also includes almost doubling funded Early Learning and Childcare for all three- and four-year-olds and eligible two-year-olds to 1,140 hours by August 2020, delivering employability support through Fair Start Scotland, and promoting payment of the real Living Wage through our work to build a Living Wage nation.
“In 2018-19, we invested over £1.4bn on support targeted at low income households – including £100m to mitigate the worst impacts of UK government welfare cuts, estimated to reduce social security spending in Scotland by £3.7bn by 2021.”
Cunningham says she would prefer to focus on helping people such as Price and Paton and not get into the “political game of blaming”.
“I’m not particularly interested in that but there is at Westminster an agenda and it is kind of pushed up through the ranks in Scotland,” she said. “But the communities who have the least have been hit the hardest. There’s no two ways about it.”
Fife Gingerbread has also been affected by cuts. In January, Cunningham went public about its financial crisis and said the charity needed £600,000 to keep operating at its current level. External funding had ended.
At the time, Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon was urged to intervene after being warned the charity would be unable to serve two thirds of the 200 families it supports. “There was a fairly tricky time,” she says, “and it still is a tricky time. It’s not over.
“This is the world we live in. So it is a bit ironic that, at times, when the need is greater than ever, when poverty levels are way higher than they’ve ever been and show no signs whatsoever of reducing, that the services that support the most vulnerable, are the most vulnerable.”
The Austerity Era
Almost a decade ago the Conservative-led coalition government introduced a policy of austerity – a sustained reduction in public spending, welfare reform and tax rises – in response to the 2008 economic crash. Between 2010 and 2019 cuts of more than £30bn have been made to welfare, housing and social services, according to the United Nations. Cuts have been made to budgets from policing to health.
Poverty has risen dramatically over the decade. Almost one in five people in Scotland now live in poverty, and for children the situation is worse, with one in four in poverty. The use of food banks doubles when Universal Credit is rolled out. Homelessness has increased and crime rates are up, as well as hospital waiting lists.
A spokesperson said: “The UK government spends over £95bn a year on welfare, and we have simplified the benefits system through Universal Credit – making it easier for people to access support, including care leavers. Under personal independence payments, a higher proportion of disabled claimants are receiving the top rate of support.”