THE NEED for food parcels in an affluent community like Shetland is “absolutely disgusting” and demonstrates a widening gap between the haves and have-nots, says outgoing Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) manager Sylvia Jamieson.
She has spent the past two and a half years in the post working tirelessly along with 17 paid staff and 35 volunteers to help individuals – often among the most vulnerable – to claim benefits to which they are entitled and to help manage their debts.
It has been a challenging time for CAB, which is grappling with an uncertain funding climate when demand for its services – particularly to help those bearing the brunt of welfare reform and spending cuts by the UK Government – has never been higher.
Jamieson has been one of the most dogged champions of the need to tackle fuel poverty, which research suggests affects more than 40 per cent of isles households.
The candid, straightforward nature of the mild mannered Jamieson’s remarks about the growing need for the Salvation Army’s Lerwick food bank is striking.
Some 162 parcels were distributed in the first nine months of 2014, providing a deeply uncomfortable juxtaposition with the mega bucks sloshing around in the oil and gas industry.
“The rising demand for food parcels, the referrals to the Salvation Army… it saddens me, because we shouldn’t have that level of inequality,” Jamieson tells Shetland News.
“On the surface we have plenty of money and employment, but we have unequal dispersal and a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, and it’s absolutely disgusting that we have a need for food parcels in the UK, full stop, but especially in a Shetland that is relatively wealthy.”
A recent report suggested child poverty in Shetland, at 10 per cent, is the lowest anywhere in the UK. But, with unemployment close to one per cent, Jamieson says that demonstrates how assumptions that those on benefits must be out of work are severely misplaced.
Who is to blame? “Some of this… is bigger than here – Westminster, David Cameron and his ideas around reducing benefits, and he’s speaking about reducing benefits further,” Jamieson says.
“There is an argument that whenever they do that they’re passing that cost onto folk like the Salvation Army, Trussell Trust, churches that are filling in gaps.
“The Scottish Parliament has some responsibility as well. If some powers are devolved, maybe there are other decisions that they can take.
“A rise in the minimum wage and move towards a living wage [would help]. The public perception is, and they’ve done research, that around a third of benefits are claimed fraudulently when the actual figure is 0.7 per cent.
“A lot of public perception is down to how politicians and the media portray benefits recipients, and that’s something that could be made better.”
Local policymakers largely have their hands tied, but she believes a nationwide living wage would be the best single measure to reduce the need for in-work benefits and lift people out of poverty.
Because living costs are higher in Shetland, she argues the living wage would also need to be higher in the islands.
Lottery funding paying for five full time staff – debt and welfare rights advisers – runs out in March, leaving CAB “coming to the stage of issuing redundancy notices for some staff before Christmas”, but Jamieson hopes there will be news of funding from Holyrood shortly.
With the first Shetland claimants due to begin receiving the UK Government’s new universal credit – combining several different benefits into a single payment – from 2015, and the prospect of further welfare cuts, such uncertainty is a worry.
2013/14 saw a 40 per cent rise in demand for welfare benefit checks compared to 2012/13. There was a 39 per cent increase in the number of clients with debt problems, and a 33 per cent rise in people assisted with bankruptcies.
Jamieson says it would be a “shame” to lose all the good work achieved in a “hugely beneifical” partnership with the Shetland Credit Union, formed in 2012.
CAB seconds a project manager to the credit union, and the two organisations work in tandem to offer free money advice to Shetland folk.
The third most common reason for contacting CAB’s Shetland office is now in community care. Cuts to SIC provision and the introduction of charges are factors, along with a new bill enabling people to employ their own carer using government funding.
CAB has a part time direct payments adviser working 15 hours a week to help those who want more control over their care.
“Folk then have a chance to employ and see the same face every day,” Jamieson says. “[Adviser] Dorothy Jamieson assists them with recruitment and selection of staff, contracts, advertising, setting up insurance, rotas.
“They’re still the employer but she helps them through the bureaucracy minefield, and she’s there at the end of the phone [if anything goes awry].”
CAB has set up new computers in its Market Street offices ahead of universal credit being introduced, which staff members “await with baited breath”.
It also has an outreach office at Lerwick Health Centre. Jamieson says CAB is looking at starting a pilot project offering a service in rural health centres too “because we know there’s huge demand for our services, and particularly in the North Isles, there’s folk that can’t afford to travel into us”.
With fuel poverty a “champion cause of mine”, Jamieson says far too many people struggle to pay for their heating in the winter. She plans to go along to SSE’s recently launched consultation on finding a new energy source for Shetland to have her say.
The deadline for applications to replace Jamieson has just passed, and a new manager should be in place sometime in November.
She is off to work as a community support officer in Moray, and is looking forward to more “out in the community, face-to-face work” having decided to give living and working on the mainland a go “before I get o’er old!”
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