Mandy Rhodes: It is the time of the year to think of those having a harder time than ourselves. There are far, far too many

Jeanne Freeman, from the SPA
Jeanne Freeman, from the SPA

AT Christmas, a time of goodwill, thoughts naturally turn to those who are less well off.

Donations to food banks soar, volunteers unseen for the rest of the year suddenly turn up and shoppers are just that wee bit more generous to the beggars on the street.

But one day of largesse – a few pounds here, a food box there – cannot disguise the reality that the UK is in the grip of biting and entrenched poverty exacerbated, if not created, by swingeing welfare cuts.

We are living in the 21st Century yet we are talking about destitution.

GPs are treating rickets, children are going hungry, teenagers are on the streets, families are living in B&Bs and women are begging for sanitary towels.

Poverty is on the rise. And we don’t need official statistics to prove that when you are poor, it affects every part of your life.

Your physical and mental health suffers, you don’t achieve, and you die sooner.

At Christmas, when you’re surrounded by the glitz of overconsumption and rabid materialism while fretting about how you can make ends meet, never mind treat your kids, the misery can be too much to bear.

Last week, Frank Field, the veteran Labour MP and chair of the Commons’ work and pensions committee, highlighted the case of a young mother-of-two who he said had “hit rock bottom”.

A mum who turned up in tears at a food bank, facing the festive season without any money because of a move on to universal credit and unable to secure an appointment at the job centre to apply for an advance payment.

What followed was a depressingly familiar political exchange of claim and counter-claim between Field and David Gauke, the Secretary of State for work and Pensions. Gauke, a staunch defender of the universal credit roll-out, later said his party must “not desert the battlefield” in defending policy in areas such as health and welfare, but instead be prepared to embark on Twitter spats with critics.

He suggested his decision to use social media to challenge Field’s claims were part of a concerted Tory effort to respond more robustly, arguing that “bogus” accusations by Labour and the media had resulted in a spike in the number of claimants turning up to job centres with unfounded anxieties.

But the fact is, the controversial roll-out of universal credit has caused untold anxiety and has left claimants without money.

Arguing about the finer details of who said what to whom and when, while ignoring the reality that a desperate mother of two had turned up at a food bank in the first place, is just morally bankrupt.

And as Gauke took to Twitter to defend his approach to welfare, the Scottish Parliament voted through the general principles of Scotland’s new social security system.

It will, says Jeane Freeman, the social security minister, have dignity, respect and fairness at its core.

But with control of just 15% of the overall UK welfare spend in Scotland, it will also have its limitations.

It remains to be seen whether a uniquely Scottish approach can do much to lift Scots out of what, for many, will feel like a very Dickensian Christmas.

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