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BLOG | Living at the Sharp End: clients in crisis

Author: Rhiannon Sims, CAS Policy Officer

On the day Britain welcomes its new Prime Minister, Citizens Advice Scotland has published new evidence exposing the experiences of those in poverty and destitution in Scotland.

The new CAS report, ‘Living at the Sharp End’, is based on Scottish CAB evidence over the last four years, as well as a survey of CAB clients, focus groups, and interviews with those who are living in severe poverty. It finds that the social security system is failing to provide the essential safety net that is meant to stop people falling into poverty.

Lost amid the flurry of post referendum media activity, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recently published a report, expressing their “serious concerns” about the rise in food bank use in the UK. The report found the UK Government’s austerity policies, including a host of welfare reforms, to be in breach of international human rights obligations. This highlights a failing on the part of Government to protect some of our most vulnerable citizens during some of their most challenging times. Closer to home, the Independent Working Group on Food Poverty in Scotland has highlighted the need to introduce a robust way of measuring  food insecurity and food poverty in Scotland, given that there are no official statistics on the scale of the issue.

But, the inability to afford food is just one symptom of a greater problem. If someone is unable to eat, they are also unable to afford other essentials including priority bills such as rent and Council Tax, gas, electricity, clothing, toiletries and transport. This is the ‘heat or eat’ dilemma in which people must choose between providing for one or another of their fundamental needs. Levels of fuel poverty and homelessness are other indicators of the inability to afford essentials and all of these can be seen as symptoms of both long term chronic income deprivation and shorter-term acute income crisis.

Recent changes to the benefits system, benefit rates not keeping pace with inflation, low pay, insecure work and rising costs of living all contribute to people’s decreasing resilience to income shocks. The causes of gaps in income are complex and various, and can include sudden, unexpected changes in personal circumstances, employment-related issues, health-related issues and debt-related issues. But Living at the Sharp End has shown that the main causes of gaps in income for CAB clients are related to the benefits system, and highlights five main causes:

  • Administrative errors
  • Transitions between benefits
  • Processing times and waiting days
  • No benefit during Mandatory reconsideration
  • Benefit sanctions

Based on the findings of this research, the report recommends fifteen changes that could increase people’s resilience to income shocks, help to prevent gaps in income and improve crisis assistance. But above all it is clear that food poverty and destitution are not going away overnight, and during this time of political change, these issues must remain a top priority for both the UK and Scottish Governments.