By Alan McIntosh

One way name calling is inherently unequal. By reducing someone to a name we turn a person into a one dimensional character and deny ourselves the wisdom that comes with seeing them as human beings. You only need to think of  the ways people have  referred to others over the years: the wife, the servant, the child, and that is even without degrading myself and quoting the more offensive racist and sexist names that exist.

This is something I have been thinking about recently and particularly how I have fallen into this trap with regards consumers (which is another name) or as I commonly refer to those who are experiencing financial difficulties, debtors. As someone who trained as a money adviser, my everyday terminology when speaking about clients is that they are debtors. This is something I have gradually become uncomfortable with in my role as a social policy officer and trainer for Money Advice Scotland.

When in the company of other money advisers, such terminology rolls off the tongue with ease, but when I am in the company of others, as I more often find myself now, it has gradually dawned on me I am the only person using such derogatory terminology. I say derogatory as its interesting how in Scottish society when you pay your debts you are viewed as a consumer, which denotes you having certain rights and a certain status and more importantly the right to choose between services; but when you become a debtor you lose the privileged of this status and everything that flows from it. This is the terminology that prevails in all those well-intentioned money advice service across Scotland, whether it’s Citizen Advice Bureaux or local authority money advice services (at best you may be referred, officially at least, as a client).

This in itself would be bad enough if it didn’t have serious implications. As, can be seen in more extreme examples such as Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa, name calling and the characterisation of people in a negative vein, is part of that initial process which ultimately allows those people and their families to be dehumanised and have their rights infringed.

It is, therefore, not unusual in Scotland to hear politicians, when speaking about debtors and the legislation that  relates to them as cheats charters or chancer’s charter (most famously Donald Dewar called Tommy Sheridan’s Abolition of Poinding and Warrant Sales Bill as a “cheats charter” – which has with the passage of time shown to be completely unjustified). In another context I remember speaking at a Credit Today conference held in Edinburgh and listening to Gillian Thompson, the former Accountant in Bankruptcy, stating how low income debtors applying for bankruptcy were money adviser’s dead who were being brought out. She also controversially labelled the Scottish Parliament as being “debtor friendly”, which in the context of that conference could only be interpreted as a criticism: quite arrogant for a civil servant. Interestingly she did not say the Parliament was consumer friendly (she retired shortly after, possibly after some encouragement as has been suggested).

This is important, as it has effects. One of these I touched on in my last blog (Why the poor pay for the poor in modern Scotland) is that debtors will be denied a choice of whose service they use to help manage their debts – despite the fact they will be expected to pay for such services. This would never be acceptable if debtors were considered consumers, which they are. However, if we stigmatise these consumers and dehumanise them with names, call them cheats and chancers, then we can deny them the choices that the rest of us take for granted. Instead they will be landed with second class state providers of services who can do a good job or a bad one and who can increase their prices year on year, safe in the knowledge their customers cannot walk away.

This is the fate that can befall all of us, for these debtors are us, they are unfortunate consumers. Many of whom have just had the misfortune of suffering illness or bereavement in their families or have been downsized or streamlined in response to the current economic crisis.

Unlike in the past, however, you will no longer find yourself in a debtor’s prison, but you will be stripped of much of the dignity and status of being a consumer and reduced to a debtor, someone who should be treated with suspicion and should be denied the rights and choices the rest of us take for granted.  You and your family might even lose your home, a outcome more acceptable if your viewed as a debtor or a cheat, as you can’t be allowed to get away with repaying your debts: even if you don’t feel like your getting away with anything.

As we work to building a modern Scotland, we need to move away from this culture. In a modern consumer society, if we expect people to go out there and spend and take the risks that we need consumers to take to grow the economy, we must ensure that there are safety nets to protect those who fall. Consumer rights and protections shouldn’t just apply when things are good, but also when they are not. Consumers deserve to be protected from stigmatisation, especially from those that try to help them and choice shouldn’t disappear when things go wrong.

We need a respect agenda for consumers.