Last week, towards the end of a long debate on In-Work Poverty – sometimes constructive, sometimes grandiose – Deputy Barry Brehaut said that long-serving States Members, term after term, have tried to bring policies which would allow poorer islanders to enjoy a decent quality of life. Those have been batted back by other politicians who turn up their nose at the cost, or even the concept, of doing so.
He’s right: I was a fledgling civil servant when Deputy Mark Dorey’s Social Security Department proposed reforms to the welfare system that would have made real strides in tackling islanders’ financial hardship. They lost by one vote. It’s taken three terms, a string of rejections by the States, and nearly ten years, before the Employment & Social Security committee I now sit on has been able to put in place similar improvements, in the form of the new Income Support system. Even now, a lot has been left undone, for future generations of politicians to resolve while today’s low-income households struggle on. Change for the better is a slow grind, requiring a lot of unremarked effort by campaigners, civil servants and politicians over years; and a willingness to keep trying new approaches when the old ones fail.
You’d have to be a close observer of the States to really understand the track record of its individual members. But the easy line that “the States” doesn’t care about in-work poverty (or else why would it still exist?) over-simplifies a far more fluid reality. Within the States, for every Deputy Dorey with a long history of trying to make life better for low-income households, you have a Deputy de Lisle who believes we shouldn’t spend a single penny more on welfare for the poorest. You find the same diversity of views inside the States as you do across the island. So when it comes to the vote, we often balance each other out – creating a stability that is often Guernsey’s selling-point, but sometimes a stasis that is our scourge.
Scrutiny‘s In-Work Poverty Report, the product of over two years of research and engagement, disappointed States Members who have been working hard to tackle the causes and consequences of poverty in Guernsey. It seemed to have been written in a bubble; its propositions directing Committees to get on with work they’re already doing. No wonder Deputy Michelle Le Clerc and Deputy Heidi Soulsby, responsible for welfare and health respectively, gave such excellent speeches in response: punchy, practical, positive accounts of the work their Committees are doing to address the very issues set out in the report.
The frustration is understandable: the way our government works, the Committees who are doing the hard work – whatever the subject may be – are regularly called to answer for not doing enough of it. While those who don’t get stuck in, or who block progress by their votes in the States, can wheel out their soapbox whenever it suits them, and are not called to account for the gap between their words and their deeds. The actions of the States are a result of the choices of all 40 of us, but too often the choices of those not on the lead Committee are much like dark matter – unseen, poorly understood, but powerfully determinative of the end result.
Deputy Peter Roffey gave us the key to the debate early on: “I used to think poverty was about income – about not having enough income to meet your needs.” But it’s not just about benefits or decent wages, he said: “This review has shown that it’s about outgoings – unavoidable outgoings – that keep some households trapped in poverty.” That’s why the report addressed issues like the cost of GP visits and the unaffordability of housing, as well as the effect of benefits and tax allowances and the impact of low wages.
That took me straight back to the time I worked in the voluntary sector and did some research for the GDA on the extra costs of living for disabled people. (Take a look at Scope’s work to find out more.) If you’re disabled, you’ll often face extra costs in at least two ways: you’ll have specialist costs linked to your condition – equipment, home adaptations, frequent GP visits, and the rest. And you’ll find that the ordinary costs of day-to-day living escalate – if you can’t drive, and the buses are inaccessible, then you may have to take a taxi to and from work every day. Or you may need to spend more energy heating your home; or your choices for shopping or eating out may be limited to a few accessible places; and so on.
But these costs vary hugely depending on your situation – someone who is blind won’t have the same costs, or for the same reasons, as someone who uses a wheelchair. So it’s almost impossible to create a single ‘cost of living’ benefit that’ll meet the needs of all disabled people. On the other hand, if we can make specialist services, and things like aids and adaptations, free or affordable for people with disabilities, we can make huge inroads into the additional costs of living, in an effective and targeted way.
The Scrutiny report did not specifically address the extra costs of disability – but Deputy Sarah Hansmann-Rouxel did so, in one of the most well-researched and thoughtful contributions to the debate.
And there was one other speech which used Deputy Roffey’s key – the cost of unavoidable outgoings – to unlock an area that the Scrutiny report had left almost untouched: the cost of starting a family.
The report did address the costs of housing in Guernsey, which are still sky-high and without doubt a barrier to people settling down here, or feeling secure enough to start a family. (Although we should be careful how we talk ourselves down. If Guernsey has worse housing prospects for young adults than the UK, employment prospects are often much better. And it’s a kick in the teeth to all the young people who stay home, or come home, to endlessly mourn the loss of ‘our brightest and best’. From what I’ve seen of the generation younger than me, Guernsey is still keeping and attracting smart, hard-working, committed and serious young adults who are doing our island proud.)
But for those who do decide to begin a family here, with or without affordable accommodation, the environment is not welcoming. As Deputy Lindsay de Sausmarez laid out in her speech, childcare costs are prohibitive, and it’s often just as worthwhile for a parent – all too often the mother – to drop out of the workforce, with the loss of their talents and knowledge to our economy. Parental leave and benefits are limited and, despite our commitments in the In-Work Poverty report engaged all of us, and began to shift our conversation from a purely financial one (although the question of how much money you need for the basics of a decent life is still essential) to one that looks at the practical realities of getting by as a family on a low income in Guernsey.
It has also forced us to own the issue as a whole States. When HSC started developing our Partnership of Purpose plans, my worry was that States Members wouldn’t care enough to address the affordability and accessibility of healthcare. Now, if anything, I’m worried that when we come back with proposals later this year, they’ll tell us we aren’t doing enough. In a way, it’s a nice problem to have.
Despite their frustration at P&R’s amendment, Scrutiny can take credit for raising the profile of persistent and demoralising in-work poverty within our community. Debates like this can run the risk of making it sound like there’s a ‘silver bullet’ out there and the government is simply choosing not to use it. This one sailed dangerously close to that at first, but it corrected course with the input of Presidents – who reminded us that most change actually happens behind the scenes, in the gradual, patient work of Committees – and of thoughtful States Members, who used the debate to open up new avenues for that work in future.
I don’t want to gloss over one of the signal difficulties that affects all States policy-making. When it comes to critical policy decisions, especially around how we raise taxes and where we spend them, our focus is too often on what we can’t do in case well-off residents flee the island, rather than what we can do so that islanders who are struggling can flourish. That will have a consistent, dampening effect on any efforts by the States to tackle the causes and consequences of poverty; and it needs to be seen and acknowledged for what it is.
Part of the way the debate played out at first was due to a failure to know our own history; to see the effects of dark matter; to properly understand why things don’t happen within the States as well as why they do. I’ve chosen to spend some time unpacking this one, not only because it ties in with my priorities (especially those relating to fairness, to health, and to equality) but because it’s an interesting case study in the dynamics of the States and because, on balance, it was (to borrow a phrase from Deputy Hansmann-Rouxel) a way of “moving the story forward” – not an end in itself, but part of a chain of events leading over time to changes, hopefully improvements, in islanders’ lives.