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Photograph by Islay McLeod

20 August 2014
Down in Cadogan
Street, a reckoning
of human pain
David Donnison

Photograph by Islay McLeod

In a country where, despite promised recovery, many people are still going through very hard times we should all find opportunities for talking with those who have to depend on the state for survival.

What they are experiencing is being done in our name and at our expense. If we rely only on the rhetoric of our political leaders and the newspapers that support them for our understanding of what is happening at the underside of the British state, we shall be grossly misled.

We need the evidence of experts now researching that bleak landscape. I'm a regular attender at seminars and conferences where researchers present their findings. They have taught us that we have in Britain one of the most punitive social security systems in the western world, withdrawing benefits from many people who have no hope of finding a job.

They tell us that the bedroom tax, cutting the housing benefits of families judged to have one more bedroom than they need, does not work and never could. In most places we don't have enough smaller dwellings to enable these tenants to find smaller homes within reach of work they can do. These are among the families that resort to food banks to feed their children; and other researchers are telling us that food banks are now one of our main sources of malnutrition. Man-made malnutrition.

We also need to hear the voices of people living under the harrow of what is still called the 'welfare state': people with the expertise of experience. Long after I have forgotten the scientific data presented at conferences on poverty, I still recall these voices.

There was the woman who had to miss her regular interrogation about her struggles to find a job because her child had been badly bitten by a neighbour's dog and she had to take her to hospital. She found time to phone the office with this news. But when she reported there a few days later, her interrogator denied having received this message and told her that her benefits had been cut off. Appealing this decision, she eventually got them reinstated, but only after waiting many months for a hearing.

I recall another woman who sought help from a food bank after going through an experience of this kind. She gave up when she found that her bus fares to and from the bank and the electricity required to microwave the food she was given there would cost more than she could afford. It is the voices of these women, not the tables of figures, that ring in the heads of the audience as they leave such meetings.

My own most vivid glimpses of this system come when I accompany friends to interrogations about their capacity for work that are held each week in Glasgow's Corunna House in Cadogan Street. Nothing I say at these interviews is ever recorded. Things like: 'I've known him for 20 years and can tell you that on a good day he's capable of doing all the things you are asking him about (things like getting up and dressed, going to the shops, cooking and eating a meal...) But on a bad day he's not. And he gets a lot of bad days'. The computer programme the interrogator has to use is designed to exclude such evidence.

Most Scottish conferences on poverty now give a voice to those experiencing it. The Poverty Alliance and the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, on whose meetings I have reported in this magazine, do this very effectively. 'Nothing about us without us', is the principle they try to follow. But lest we forget that principle – as some still do – I offer you a poem I wrote some years ago after returning from a different kind of meeting.

The Poverty Trade

Turning out dutifully to a conference on poverty,
I find the hall filled with dark suits, brief-cases,
shiny shoes, laptops and well-groomed hair.

Overheads twinkle with pie-charts, figures,
statistical analyses of markets in meltdown,
unemployment, repossessions, debt and despair.

With bureaucrats'-speak – 'countrywide roll-out
of target-led programmes' – you can smell the MBAs,
know the poor won’t intrude in this technocrats' lair.

Down the road in Cadogan Street
another crowd in another hall,
tremulous with tics and smell of strain,

await interrogation by dismal doctors
who hide behind screens as they click their keyboards,
assembling a reckoning of human pain.

In the road outside, bedraggled folk
await their fate, worry about bills,
dragging on fags in the falling rain.

Who will be compelled to compete for jobs –
flotsam in the labour markets' falling tide –
to earn, at best, the minimum wage?

For every winner there will be more losers
stranded on the shore, hope destroyed,
struggling for sustenance and soured by rage.

Where is the anger? Who will brandish a banner?
Paint the posters? Drill the drummers?
Marshal the marchers? Raise a clamour?

Not a hope…
Just compute more equations,
call another conference. More graphs on the screen,
more dismal figures will suppress the anger.

So mobilise the lap-tops, write another paper,
send emails flickering to bring them together –
and make sure the poor are politely banned.

If you speak discreetly there's a living to be made,
promotion to be won, in the poverty trade.
Keep your nose clean. Publish.

…and be damned.

David Donnison is a professor emeritus in urban studies at Glasgow University. His books include 'The Politics of Poverty' and 'Speaking to Power'