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A new insight into struggles suffered by those in poverty

What happens when you ask people in poverty how to improve their situation?

For a start, you get a new insight into issues many of us never properly think about, says Martin Johnstone, secretary to the Poverty Truth Commission (PTC).

Of the insights provided by the commission's work, he explains: "If you pay your fuel by direct debit, the companies tell you they give you money off. But you never actually think of how that looks the other way around. Those who have prepayment meters get money added on.

"How do you make sense of that? Those of us who might be able to afford fuel without any real problem get it for less than those for whom it is a real struggle," he says. "I think people do get really angry about that."

The PTC's new report, to be launched tomorrow, is called Turning Up the Volume on Poverty. The result of an 18-month process which involved pairing some of Scotland's most influential citizens with people who face the daily grind of poverty, it contains its fair share of anger. Take the verdict on the welfare agenda which has seen elements of the media and political classes conspiring to undermine public support for social security, by focusing on the minority who exploit it.

"The commission is appalled at the lack of moral courage of many within public life to stand alongside those who are unfairly caricatured," it says, pointing out that even honest claimants feel tarred by the terminology of scroungers, benefit cheats, the undeserving and the lazy.

One key aim of the report is to challenge those perceptions and instead involve people facing poverty in the political and social decisions which affect their lives.

"Unless the people who experience poverty are able to shape the solutions and not just be the recipients of the uninformed ideas of others, then nothing will really alter," the report says.

Mr Johnstone says this is a pragmatic point as well as a philosophical one. "Although a great deal that is positive has been done about tackling the problems in our poorest communities over 30 years, if we are honest we would still have to say that very little has changed."

"If you actually involve people who know about it from the inside rather than those who know about it academically and intellectually, we might make more progress," he says.

Pairing people like NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde's director of public health, Linda de Caestecker, the Big Lottery Fund in Scotland's Jackie Killeen and former chief medical officer for Scotland Harry Burns with other citizens facing poverty in their daily lives was about the 'experts' stopping to listen.

The group then formulated responses to the scale of poverty in Scotland - which the collaboratively written report describes as a scandal encompassing child poverty, food banks, and a low wage economy in which more than half of those in poverty are also in paid work.

A number of those sitting on the commission were on very high fuel tariffs and struggling to pay bills. "We want energy companies to offer pre-payment customers real choice and tariffs at the same rate as for direct debit users," is one of the ­recommendations or 'challenges' in the PTC report.

It also challenges central and local government to work with those in poverty to look at developing a not-for-profit energy company. "We believe that being able to afford to keep warm and eat a hot meal should be seen as basic rights," it says.

Some of the ­bitterest ire is reserved for benefit sanctions, which the report says "are breaking people's spirit and damaging their physical and mental health." Punishing people for breaches of jobcentre rules by taking away income for between four weeks and three years, it says, is often "the last straw for those whose cupboards are empty."

While the commission acknowledges the need for sanctions as a last resort it says "It is clear that they are currently being disproportionately and unfairly applied." The report calls on the Department for Work and Pensions to recognise that the current system is damaging and change its policy and practice.

Other demands include a plea to the public to look beyond stereotypes and join the campaign for a living wage, and for government to legislate to stop abuse of zero hours contracts. "We challenge all of us to look beyond the myth that work is always a route out of poverty," the commissioners add.

The report also says that people in poverty face countless barriers to improving their situation "but possess the resilience, determination and capability to do so".

But do they always? The report deliberately overlooks the often exaggerated cases of benefit fraud, Mr Johnstone says: "Of course there are people who cheat the system but they pale into insignificance by comparison to those who really want the best for themselves and their families.

The commission is saying actually we recognise the great majority of people living in poverty want to improve their life circumstances..

"The responsibility we have as a society is to try to expect the best of people. If you do, they will sometimes disappoint you, but if you expect the worst of people they will fulfil that."

The best way to engage those who feel marginalised in Society is to work alongside them, he adds. Kinship care is a good example, where families have called for any extra investment available to go into psychological services to help families.

"Rather than spending vast amounts on physical regeneration or big new facilities then being astonished when they don't actually make a difference to neighbourhoods, the commission is saying how about investing more slowly alongside people?

"People who struggle against poverty are very realistic that there isn't enough money to go around. So they can help work out where best the money should be spent".

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