POSTED ON OCTOBER 28 2020 AT 10:14
We find ourselves in the most challenging of times. The collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic has called on us all to adapt how we live our individual lives – but it too, has ushered in changes to the services we provide at includem. Our team continues to work tirelessly to develop new, creative ways to engage with and support young people throughout ‘lockdown’ and we still provide vital financial and material support to families through our Young Person’s Fund.
Amongst the chaos of the pandemic, it is of paramount importance to us that the voices of our families are amplified and heard on the national stage. With many of the families we support amongst those facing the economic impact of the pandemic most harshly – having already been in poverty prior – their voices are of crucial importance in shaping Scotland’s economic recovery.
We recently released reports on digital exclusion and poverty highlighting key issues faced by our families, and we also spoke with young people on their experience of the criminal justice system, using their lived experience to inform our response to the Scottish Sentencing Council’s consultation on guidelines for sentencing of young people.
Our families told us they struggle to make ends meet. We have heard of families having to make devastating decisions between paying their heating bill and putting food on the table, and the pandemic has only increased this financial insecurity. While cash injections from our Young Person’s Fund, the Wellbeing Fund and Scottish Welfare Fund have provided vital lifelines, our poverty research highlights the need for wider structural changes to lift families out of poverty.
The pandemic has both exacerbated and created challenges. But there is a lot we can learn and advance from the pandemic response: we have seen innovative practice, increased collaboration from the third sector, and immediate government funding to support communities. With bold vision and a willingness to act with the requisite urgency, we can truly build back better.
With this in mind, we welcomed the opportunity to contribute to the Social Renewal Advisory Board’s call for ideas and evidence – considering how we can bring about a fairer Scotland in the future. Although recent times have been undoubtedly strenuous, we are also presented with a unique opportunity to reshape our society. We must dare to explore new methods of support and new ways of working as we rebuild and renew.
It’s simply not good enough that families are still not receiving a sufficient income to even cover the basics. As we look to building a fairer Scotland, includem’s experience of supporting our families is that such a Scotland can only be built by lifting families out of poverty – to do this, we must tackle household debt.
Even prior to the pandemic, we have seen worrying increases in council tax arrears – with StepChange reporting the proportion of their clients in council tax arrears had risen from 18% in 2010 to 42% in 2019. Citizen’s Advice have warned that at a UK-level, without government help, many households will be trapped in unfair, unaffordable debt for years to come as a result of the pandemic.
Indeed, debt is a concern we have heard directly from the families we support – 42% of those we surveyed for our poverty report told us their debt had increased over the course of the pandemic. This was a particularly sharp issue for our families reliant on social security, half of whom stated their debt had worsened. We heard from families that the five-week wait for Universal Credit is pushing them further into debt, and, for eligible families in rent arrears, the Tenant Hardship Loan will only move debt around.
Providing loans to families who cannot repay them simply plunges them into greater hardship – when all they want and need is help, support and financial certainty to use as a springboard out of poverty. Grants and debt write-offs where possible would give families a far stronger financial foundation.
In the earlier stages of the pandemic, Katharina Pistor, writing for The Guardian in March, called for governments to directly assume the debt of high-risk households to treat the economic fallout of coronavirus, stating ‘we urgently need debt relief – especially for households at the lower end of the income and wealth spectrum’. This is the sort of bold thinking that strongly resonates with me.
While Scotland does not have full economic levers at its disposal, as part of Scotland’s economic recovery from COVID-19, the Scottish Government should explore the feasibility of targeted debt write-off schemes which would support Scotland’s poorest families – utilising the full breadth of its powers and collective creativity to end the debt trap where possible. We must even the playing field to build a fairer Scotland, and a more just society.
During the peak of the pandemic, we saw third sector organisations coming together in true partnership in a way that traditional funding methods and mechanisms would not have allowed – and crucially, we were able to mobilise quickly in providing immediate assistance to families.
A move away from standard ‘competitive’ tendering models that often pit third sector organisations against each other is absolutely required. We must build on the learning from the pandemic and find new ways to enshrine collaboration and participation within tender design and application processes, where all key stakeholders (including local communities, and those who commission, deliver and receive services) are authentically involved.
Using ‘gainsharing’ principles could bring all sectors and major institutions together to share their budgeting process and look across other organisations for sharing savings and improving outcomes.
Incentivising all institutions to act in agreement with the best interests of the community instead of focusing on their own budgets, gainshare planning would allow organisations such as Local Authorities, Police, and charities to align their costs with their ability to contribute to the wellbeing of the economy and needs of their community.
This would require an integrated governmental economic policy combining public, private and third sector but at its heart would need to be openness from all major institutions as part of the planning process. Collaboration is the key to economic and social recovery.
Our ambitions should be bold, with both urgent action and long-term vision. ‘Building Back Better’ must not simply mean a return to our pre-pandemic society with minor improvements, it should usher in a wholesale reimagining of how our economy and society is structured. It should mean that families such as those we support will never again have to worry about putting food on the table.
Certainly, it is time to think ‘outside the box’. Conventional parameters and limits of ambition should no longer apply in these extraordinary times. It is time to embrace bold thinking, and act urgently.
Our families, communities, and Scotland, deserve nothing less.