GLASGOW’S great extremes of rich and poor are, at this time of year, thrown into even sharper relief, just as the Christmas lights deepen the shadows around George Square.
Since 1939, when it became the first to open in the UK, the city centre branch of the Citizens Advice Bureau has been dedicated to alleviating some of the misery of poverty. By 9.30am, it is not unusual for there to be up to 25 people waiting outside 88 Bell Street, one of eight CAB offices in Glasgow and 81 across Scotland. The queue can begin as early as 6.30am. In the waiting room, discoloured patches on the walls show where decades of heads have leaned back, willing the time to pass. The faces of those waiting their turn soon settle into a mixture of boredom and worry. Tears at this stage are unusual; it’s on the way out, feeling relief, when people break down. Most, for now, sit calmly.
But some do not. The reception area still has holes in the wall where one man threw a fire extinguisher and a chair before announcing that he would pray for the place to be bombed. “He was a wee man but he made a helluva noise,” says Vincent Chudy, who has been manager here since Christmas 1978 and gives a strong impression of having seen it all.
The CAB deals with all sorts. Problems to do with benefits, employment, eviction and so on. The most common issue by far is personal debt. Cases to do with debt are kept in red folders. The giant filing cabinets which line one of the rooms appear to be wall-to-wall red. Each thick file contains the final demands and court summons, the fearful bureaucracy which, most likely, has been ignored and ignored until the threat of losing the family home grew too pressing to be ignored any longer. It is quite common for clients to turn up at the bureau with shopping bags stuffed full of unopened envelopes retrieved from beneath the couch. “One man’s idea of filing was to buy a shredder,” an adviser sighs.
We hear a lot about the economic crisis and the credit crunch. These terms have worn thin. It is only when you visit a place like this that you understand what economic crisis means. It means losing your job or – at best – having your hours cut. It means no new shoes for the weans. It means rows with your partner. It means loan sharks who threaten to break your legs, or your children’s legs, and sometimes do.
The Citizens Advice Bureau was set up in 1939 to help the public cope with wartime issues including evacuation, bomb damage and deaths during air-raids. The first people using the service must have been traumatised by their experiences, and those visiting the bureau today feel similarly “blitzed”. Their experiences of economic hardship – of, let’s speak plainly, being poor – feel almost like physical pain, a heavy weight pressing down on them.
Susan, a woman in her forties with debts running into the thousands, tells me she feels suicidal, that she can hardly bear to get out of bed in the morning. Her voice is quiet and trembling, hard to hear over David Cameron braying about the “difficult economic environment” on the waiting room television. “That man,” she says, “has no idea.” Susan wants her house to be repossessed and to go bankrupt; anything to get out from under the debts. People on low incomes who find it difficult to get credit from high street banks are increasingly turning to businesses offering so-called “pay-day loans” with astronomical interest rates which can leave the borrower without enough money to get through the week.
It would be wrong, however, to suggest that everyone who visits the CAB is poorly paid or unemployed. Joan, a woman in her early forties, works in a middle-class profession and earns more than £30,000. However, she owes a similar sum. When her marriage ended, she was left to raise a child without financial support from her ex-husband. “I was living in debt to pay debt,” she says. “You feel as if you’re sinking.” She first visited the bureau a few weeks ago, frightened and ashamed. She’d been keeping it all bottled up. Even her close family and friends had no idea what was going on. Now, with the help of the CAB, she has stablilised her finances and is paying back what she owes at a manageable rate. You can see the relief in her eyes.
The day wears on. Stevie, a man in early middle age, with silvery hair and a lived-in face, sits down in one of the interview rooms. He had been walking around for an hour in the rain, not sure what to do, before deciding to ask for help here. He has had his benefits stopped, he explains, because he lost his house and therefore did not receive an official letter asking him to come for a work capability assessment which would determine whether he should receive employment support allowance (ESA), the replacement for incapacity benefit. At present, he is living in a hostel for detoxing alcoholics.
He presses his palms on the table. “Basically, I haven’t got any food.”
Margaret, a bureau adviser, gives him the address of a homeless centre where he will be able to get meals. He accepts this graciously. Stevie seems in surprisingly good humour. But in fact he is desperate, and desperately trying not to let his fear and anger get the better of him.
“I’m trying no’ to lose the rag,” he explains while Margaret is out the room. “If it all kicks off, I’ll end up back in jail.”
He has spent the past two Christmases in Barlinnie and has no desire for a third. The prison, he says, is particularly overcrowded at this time of year as shoplifters get caught stealing goods they intend to give as gifts or sell on. “I can understand why people thieve,” he says. “The junkies have to feed their habit, but there’s others do it just to get by.”
Stevie shakes his head, as if to rid himself of the temptation to commit crime. “I’ve been down before,” he says, “but never this low.”
Margaret tells me they see a lot of people like Stevie – men and women with long-term alcohol and drug problems who, for a long period, would have been “on the sick” – receiving benefits because their addictions were making them physically and mentally unable to work. Now, a great many people with those sorts of problems are being told they will be expected to seek jobs.
Well, one might say, quite right too. We shouldn’t be funding addiction. But Margaret takes a more forgiving view. “Yes, because they are sitting there in tears and they are saying to me, ‘What am I going to do?’ We are at the sharp end of it. We know what welfare reform means. It means there’s someone sitting there with nothing to eat.”
This is what the CAB is all about – pragmatic pity. They feel compassion for those who come with empty bellies and heads full of trouble, and then they direct that compassion into guiding their clients through the paperwork and legislative complexities.
One issue taking up an enormous amount of time is helping clients appeal against the decisions of Atos, the company which administers the work capability assessments on behalf of the Department of Work and Pensions. And it is not just those, like Stevie, with addiction problems who are being judged fit for work. It is thought that, by the end of next year, almost a quarter of a million people across the UK will have begun appeals. People suffering from poor physical and mental health complain that the computer-based assessment process is humiliating and impersonal, that it is a box-ticking exercise which is unable to take into account the subtleties and complexities of illness, in particular mental health problems such as depression and panic attacks.
“We are finding that 90 per cent of people are failing at the first hurdle. They don’t get through the medical assessment,” says Martyn, a bureau adviser who specialises in benefits. “The media likes to focus on benefit cheats, but the vast majority are genuinely ill and don’t want to be on these benefits. About 70 per cent of our appeals are successful at tribunal, which shows you that the decisions that people are fit to work are not being well made. We refer to the assessment centre on Cadogan Street as Lourdes because people go in ill and come out miraculously cured.”
I have some personal experience of this issue. My mother, who is in poor physical health, underwent the medical assessment and was informed that she would no longer receive employment support allowance as she was fit to work. She subsequently won an appeal against this decision, and little wonder. The idea that this 60-year-old woman who struggles to climb stairs, has problems with her eyesight, hearing and balance, and sometimes suffers from headaches so painful she must be given morphine injections could find and hold down a job would be laughable if it were not such a disgrace. “The doctor barely even looked at me, he just stared at the computer screen,” she told me one night, angry and upset. “As part of the test, I had to crouch down and he didn’t help me get back up. I had to pull myself back up using the bed. You are made to feel like an outcast and a cheat.”
This is the system now. This is the red tape that cuts into the flesh. It is the role of the Citizens Advice Bureau – staffed mainly by volunteers – to help people untangle the complex knots of bureaucracy and their own financial situations. This they do with a sense that they are on the side of natural justice, and out of simple, admirable human kindness. Vincent Chudy puts it best: “If someone arrives in distress and leaves with a smile on their face then that’s a result.”