Voice of dissent: poverty campaigners do challenge the Scottish Government
Third Force News, by Peter Kelly
A couple of months ago there was a widespread feeling of grievance in the voluntary sector when the Daily Mail carried a number of articles where leading figures and organisations were accused of being SNP sock puppets. This was a daft idea that didn’t stand up to any scrutiny. It’s unfortunate then that TFN appears to be feeding this idea in the article ‘The sound of silence: why won’t the third sector criticise the Scottish Government?’
This piece accuses the sector of having a "benign, lacklustre acceptance of pretty much everything" and of refusing to criticise the Scottish Government – particularly around the new social security powers.
Unfortunately, this view just doesn’t fit with the facts. It doesn’t reflect our experience, or that of the other third sector and civil society organisations we work with. It not only fails to recognise the significant amount of campaigning done by third sector organisations in Scotland, but also the methods of campaigning.
On social security we, alongside our colleagues in the Scottish Campaign on Welfare Reform, have been vocal campaigners for more than 10 years. Much of this has been focused on Westminster, but as new powers come to Scotland we have been increasingly pressing the Scottish Government to go further. So organisations like the Poverty Alliance and CPAG Scotland have been leading the call for the Government here to use its new powers to top up Child Benefit, lifting thousands of kids out of poverty. We could also point to the statement we issued just two weeks ago when the latest poverty statistics were released. In it we talked of Scotland’s poverty crisis and the need for Scottish Government to do more. Hardly the actions of "benign and lacklustre" campaigners!
The article also fails to recognise where progress is being made with respect to social security. Setting up the experience panels to enable people with direct experience of the social security to help shape the new system is a significant step forward. That kind of change should ensure that the future system in Scotland is more responsive to people’s needs, the kind of changes that many of us in the voluntary sector have been calling for many years. It would be churlish of us, at the very least, if we didn’t welcome it when the Scottish Government starts to implement some of the approaches we have called for.
Like most campaigning organisations, the Poverty Alliance works regularly with all political parties in Scotland, and at times this will mean working with opposition parties to table amendments to legislation or to call for questions in parliament. At other times we will work directly with the government, this is simply the reality of parliamentary work. We will always welcome political announcements that will result in an improvement of circumstances for people on low incomes, regardless of which party they come from.
Of course, we have to be realistic. There is little point in the sector wasting resources calling on the Scottish Government to do things that are outside of its control. This doesn’t mean we have been silenced but it means we are targeting resources in a way to be most effective.
Are there organisations who are reluctant to campaign in a public way for fear of losing funding? Of course, but it is our experience is that it is often those who are service-delivery focused, dependent on local-authority funding. Rather than criticising campaigning civil society organisations, TFN would do better to continue to highlight where local organisations are being stymied because of unsustainable funding levels and practices.
There are many people who believe in an all or nothing approach to campaigning – if you’re not chaining yourself to railings or camping outside parliament, then you’re clearly not serious about change. Civil society organisations relationship with the state in Scotland is a bit more complex than this. No doubt there are some areas we don’t get right, and there is no question we need more significant change in the face of growing poverty and inequality. But criticising us for not mounting a real challenge to all of those who can make change, in the Scottish Government, is not only mistaken, but feeds an unjustified cynicism about the voluntary sector and about the possibility of real change. As the voice of the third sector, we expect far better.