Althing considers the poor

Around 20 folk visited the Tingwall hall last night for the Althing debate, which had its focus on being out of pocket.

Martin Tregonning was supported in his motion that Shetland is a bad place to be poor by Chris Brown.

Opposing them was Genevieve White, who was aided by Mr Brown’s other half, Pat Brown.

An initial straw-poll saw six audience members throw up their hands in favour of the motion. Two were against and eight were undecided.

By the end of the night the vote was nine-eight against, with no undecideds – the additional spectator having apparently sneaked in after the first vote was cast.

The shared consensus was that no-where, truth be told, was a good place to be poor. Mr Tregonning wondered whether, if Shetland was not a bad place to be poor, then what was it? And did it boil down to being a “not-too-bad-if-you-don’t-mind-that-sort-of-thing” place to be poor?

Fuel poverty, food prices, a lack of mobility and access to services were among the things listed as counting against the poor. Stories from several years back, of people feeling compelled to search through Tesco’s skips for discarded, nominally out-dated food-stuffs showed a certain injustice. Questions were raised about whether poverty here was hidden, and if Shetland was “complacent” about its sense of inclusion.

Poverty, said Mr Brown, was not the same as temporary hardships faced by students who had prospects.

He highlighted unfairness in the benefit system, which offered £57 a week for a single person.

“A single-parent gets £72.40 – even less if you are under 18. Presumably things in the shops are cheaper if you are under 18,” he said.

All this came against a backdrop of media-spun tales painting a false picture of “rich, indolent benefit scroungers”.

Things here, he said, cost more, with no budget supermarkets, and people forced into buying cheap shoes or clothes.
He added there were few low-paid jobs available. And the ones that did exist were so badly paid they were little better than being on benefits, if at all. Those who were tempted to cheat the system stood a greater chance of getting caught.

Mr Brown also poked an accusatory finger at Shetland for mixing up its priorities, and offering subsidies to sports enthusiasts who could well afford to pay for their own squash racquet.

“Better by far to spend the money on meals and shoes for the relatively small number who need them.”

For Genevieve White, however, Shetland ranked pretty well compared with the USA, where the unemployed and people on low wages struggle to pay for health insurance.

Niger had oil wealth, but the lowest education level in the world. Then there was Russia, where the wealthy elite had doubled their wealth in the last 20 years, and the poorest went without.

“While it would be flippant and tasteless to suggest that anywhere is a good place to be poor, I think that your average poor Shetlander would rather live in poverty here than go and take their chances in any of the places I’ve just mentioned.”

She said public services here were streets ahead of many of those down south.

“It only takes a visit to the mainland to realise how lucky we all are. Maternity wards south are a different story. All too often, women and babies are discharged from over-crowded wards after 24 hours regardless of how much they might need extra support, time and care.

“Go to a town with a population equivalent to Shetland’s and check out the library opening times. You’ll be lucky to find one open five days a week and with half the level of service we get here. Or try speaking to parents who are desperately trying to get their child a free, local nursery place. These free services – services which are so important for people on low incomes and benefits – are infinitely better here in Shetland.”

For Mrs Brown, it was a question of kith, kin and caritas. Shetland, she said, knew all about kinship, which had developed out of Shetland’s pre-oil poverty.

“When there is so little land to farm, your kith faced the same problems if the harvest failed. If you have hurt your back or become too infirm, there must have been a comfort in knowing that your kin would cut your peats for you.”

Even today, she said, the spirit of kinship reaches out to people. She had seen evidence of support for neighbours that characterised the kinship bonds of pre-60s Shetland.

“You don’t see Big Issue vendors on the street. There are no beggars at the Market Cross, no homeless queuing for hand-outs of soup and blankets. Folk … Be they Shetlanders or Soothmoothers, would make sure their neighbour had support in time of need,” she said, although bad-back sufferer, Mr Tregonning, was still waiting on someone to cut his lawn.

Caritas, meanwhile, was “charity”. And despite its “present disarray” there were still vast sums of money raised by the charitable trust for good causes.

“Charity does not expect a ‘thank-you’, and Shetland is a most charitable place.”

The next Althing will be held on March 14th, when the question at had will be whether Lerwick is too big for its boots.


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