THE NEW manager of Shetland’s Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) has vowed to carry on her predecessor’s quest to alleviate the scourge of “hidden poverty” in the islands.
Karen Eunson was recently installed as the replacement for Sylvia Jamieson at the bureau’s Lerwick office. In the wake of swingeing UK Government welfare cuts, there has been a 40 per cent rise in the number of benefits checks it carries out.
Last year CAB helped islanders to claim over £1 million in welfare payments they were entitled to, and assisted individuals and firms in dealing with more than £2.5 million of debt.
During her time at CAB Jamieson was outspoken about the jarring level of inequality in Shetland amid an economic boom prompted by an upsurge in oil and gas activity. In October she described the presence of a busy food bank in such a wealthy community as “disgusting”.
Eunson, who previously worked at Shetland College for 20 years, took up the reins in January. While she is still getting to grips with the new post, she is already only too aware of the individual crises many people face.
Often such problems result from “something happening that tips them over into not being able to cope”, such as health problems which suddenly affect their income.
“I think there’s been a lot of awareness-raising through the press, so I think folk are increasingly aware of the problems,” she told Shetland News last week.
“Also Shetland is still a peerie place and it’s a problem of hidden poverty, but it’s always somebody’s sister or cousin or neighbour, so I think there is an awareness that even though the economy is booming, and housing prices are high and rents are high, that not everybody is thriving.”
She says that is reflected in the volume of donations the Salvation Army’s “very well stocked” food bank. CAB refers people there for assistance and vice-versa, but the requirement for any food parcels is “clearly an indictment”.
Demand is growing too, and Eunson points out that “folk aren’t needing just one [parcel] – it’s not a single crisis and then their lives are sorted, it’s folk having to come back repeatedly”.
Unemployment, at around one per cent, is as low as you could find anywhere in the UK. But in addition to poverty pay and the need for a living wage, Eunson says there is “an issue of underemployment” – with folk working in multiple part-time jobs, often low paid occupations such as cleaning and working in shops.
That can be a particular issue for those in dispersed rural areas: “Often it’s only part-time jobs that are available and you’re looking at increased costs if folk are having to travel, it’s a fine balance how much you spend in travel costs, childcare, the time cost of that”.
Research from Highlands and Islands Enterprise demonstrates that people in areas such as Shetland require between 10-40 per cent more income in order to meet basic minimum requirements.
In 2013 CAB research found that some 40 per cent of Shetland households were deemed to be in fuel poverty. Despite plummeting oil prices there is little sign of energy companies substantially reducing the cost of heating.
Jamieson attended an SSE conference last year and raised the issue of companies’ social responsibility. An application has been made to the energy giant for a post relating to energy advice and fuel poverty based within the Shetland Credit Union.
“Politicians both locally and nationally are aware that it’s an issue,” Eunson says. “Fuel bill prices haven’t dropped, so it’s not sorted by any manner of means, but the profile is raised.”
Another of CAB’s projects is a partnership with the NHS, which Eunson is keen to develop. Outreach services in Walls and Brae surgeries have been trialled after the health service discovered a “fairly high percentage” of GP appointments were prompted by underlying financial issues.
CAB receives annual core funding of around £130,000 from Shetland Charitable Trust, which is in the midst of reviewing its spending commitments. That sum should be secure for 2015/16, but beyond that the picture is unclear.
Lottery funding has enabled CAB to employ Jeff Goddard as project manager for Shetland’s credit union – with the aim being to help people manage their finances and, if they do need to borrow, do so without taking credit card or payday loans with punitive rates of interest.
Eunson makes a strong case for funders to continue backing the service. Welfare gains help not just individuals but the wider community too – every £1 clawed back translates into £7 circulating within the local economy.
“Because we are a volunteer-based service, the first people that anybody meets will be somebody that’s trained as a volunteer and then has given up their own time – that helps to bed us into the community.
“CAB is not just a nice thing to have. It’s good for individuals, good for the economy, good for the community.”
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