The poor deserve more than just compassion at Christmas
Kevin McKenna, The Observer
At a fire station in Calton in Glasgow’s East End on Friday, a day of grace will dawn and something special will occur. Around 200 children and some of their parents will attend a Christmas party where they can sample what it means to be blissfully ordinary.
For a few hours anyway, they will not need to fret over where the food is coming from or who is paying for the electricity.
They will encounter love and kindness with none of the strings with which these commodities come attached during the rest of the year. For a day, they will be equal. At their Christmas celebration, they will each receive a gift and they will discover why the rest of us get carried away during this period. For some, this will be the first time that Santa Claus, who mysteriously keeps missing their chimney in every other year, has stopped at their home.
The party is organised by a beautiful group called With Kids which works with some of the most vulnerable and deprived children in Scotland. Daily, they must endure the effects of grinding and overwhelming poverty which themselves breed alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic violence. The charity workers simply try to love these children a little through various simple therapies so that they may have a chance of gaining something from their early education.
The firefighters, for whom this can be the busiest and most perilous time of the year, will adopt these children for a day and put themselves and, more importantly, their fire engines at their disposal (never tell a child, or me, that it is a mere fire appliance). With Kids collects donations of money and gifts. Its drop-in centre is hoaching with toys at this time of the year and you can imagine that when the last person leaves for the day then the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Nutcracker Prince come out for a wee waltz.
One of the main reasons why children in deprived urban areas have to do without Christmas presents is fuel poverty. You will find that when a poor family is confronted with the prospect of severe cold they will go without food to keep warm. Presents are not an option. A mother’s £10 electricity token will only purchase for her £3 of fuel. This is because the energy companies seize back 70% of the fuel token to pay off a family’s previous debt. Four out of the UK’s six biggest energy suppliers which provide 97% of Britain’s needs have drastically increased their prices this winter.
In the private sector, this would be called cartelism and each would be subject to massive fines. Yet there was never a political will from the last Labour government to rein in their greed. And you certainly won’t find the current rich boys’ Bullingdon administration doing anything about it.
For fear of falling any further into debt, many will simply huddle together in one room. Charles Dickens wrote about these conditions and his prose excoriated political leaders for allowing it to happen. One hundred and fifty years later, hundreds of thousands of Britons are still living like that. The reason why the democratically elected governments at Holyrood and Westminster are allowing this to happen is because the rest of us obviously do not think it is important enough.
The National Centre for Social Research recently published figures which show what insidious Thatcherism has done to many of us. The research was carried out last year and found that only around 25% of us think that we should be spending money on social security benefits. Most of us believe that the reasons for social inequality are that the poor are lazy and feckless and that the affluent are hard-working and responsible.
These must be the same people who think that David Cameron, Nick Clegg and half their cabinet colleagues all got to their position in life with no advantage whatsoever. Or that all of Britain’s richest people meet their full tax obligations. Or that Aiken Drum’s hat is made of Philadelphia cheese.
The vast majority of people who live in Britain’s sink estates and deprived inner-city communities do not choose to be poor, nor do they deserve to be. A number of historical factors conspired to create poverty among working-class people in the 21st century. Land grabs by tyrannical aristocrats at a time when there was no law to stop them; British kings rewarding rapacious lords and barons with yet more estates in return for support in kicking hell out of the French – and looking the other way when they raised taxes and forced the rural poor out of their homes.
Two world wars ravaged urban and rural communities so much that they were never able to recover. No one gave their families war reparations. It is only recently that working people could afford to take a holiday, when the government forced employers to provide a fortnight’s paid leave. Indeed, the very limited early 20th-century Liberal welfare reforms owed a lot to the political realisation that our soldiers had performed badly in the Boer War.
To put it bluntly: "Our working-class scum are not very fit and look a bit peely-wally. So we had better start treating them a bit better or the natives will take our empire away."
Before the party at Calton fire station, every effort will have been made to ensure that each child is given the gift that they had asked for in their letters to Santa. Curiously, in view of the fact that they never usually get any presents, their faith in Santa never wavers from one Christmas to the next.
Patricia Hughes, founder of With Kids says: "If sufficient numbers of ordinary people care enough about poverty to work directly with deprived people, then we can put an end to it. The government, though, needs to give them the freedom to apply local solutions without having to ensure that everything fits global strategies and civil service outcomes."
There is no justification for so many people living in poverty in the UK. We have enough resources to ensure that no child need go hungry or without a warm bed on which to lay his head. That so many will go without these basics this Christmas is an obscenity. Yet George Osborne, the chancellor, has other priorities. He wants to address the trauma that we all feel when we encounter those lazy, unemployed types: "If you get up early in the morning to go to work, you shouldn’t have to look at your next-door neighbour’s house, with the blinds drawn down because they’re living a life on out-of-work benefits."
Even more curiously, not enough of us are distressed by that nor want to discover why. Instead, we get more exercised by Pink Floyd’s laddie swinging on the Cenotaph and his nice but dim chums giving the police a right good run for their early, index-linked pensions.