THE BLOG

A Contemporary Christmas Carol

23/12/2013 16:24 GMT | Updated 22/02/2014 10:59 GMT

Christmas is a time when we are exhorted to engage in altruistic acts such as giving to the poor.

As anyone who has seen Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol will know, the moral of the tale is that Ebenezer Scrooge is so besotted by wealth that he has, until visited by the 'ghosts' of Christmas, no sympathy for those unable to fend for themselves.

As the fictional Scrooge is made to realise, there is more joy in giving than having a vast fortune but no-one in whom to find love and friendship.

Perhaps we should hope that something similar happens to Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative MP and the government's work and pensions secretary who, apparently, believes that a charity set up to distribute food is engaged in "scaremongering" and being too political in drawing attention to the levels of poverty currently being experienced, it is argued, by cuts in the welfare budget and the standard of living crisis for those on low incomes.

The charity, the Trussell Trust, was originally set up in 1997 by husband and wife Paddy and Carol Henderson onto assist hungry children in Bulgaria where they were working on a United Nations feeding using a legacy bequeathed by her mother Betty Trussell; hence the eponymous name.

Back in the late 1990s there was a belief that we had banished poverty. However, as anyone working in the voluntary sector will tell you, it never went away and there have always been those who find paying for food a struggle. So when Paddy Henderson was contacted a mother from Salisbury in 2000 asking for urgent assistance to feed her children he recognised that it was not only in former communist countries that people were going hungry, but also here too in the UK; an advanced industrialised society.

As a result of the desperate mother in Salisbury Paddy Henderson set a food bank in his garden shed to give urgent assistance to the local poor of Salisbury and in 2004 extended to other areas.

It is easy to forget that in the 'booming years' of the early 2000s the future looked bright and we all felt better off. However, as we now know, the wealth was illusory and based on a noxious cocktail of property speculation and the financial derivatives so loved by those running the 'Casino banks'.

The financial crisis has shown just how fragile wealth can be and, sadly, The Trussell Trust now has more than 400 food banks across the country providing food to over half a million people who cannot afford to eat (a third of whom are children).

Given that in 2010 when the coalition came to power the figure was 41,000 you can see that poverty and hunger in this country has increased over ten-fold in the last three years.

Some have suggested that there is a connection between the two and, apparently, what has annoyed Duncan Smith is his belief that those behind The Trussell Trust are unfairly making a link between welfare reform and increased poverty.

In June the chair of the Trussell Trust, Chris Mould, asked to meet Duncan Smith to discuss the growing crisis which Mould suggested was being exacerbated by government reforms to the welfare budget.

Duncan Smith responded by refusing such a meeting and, indeed, strongly "refuted" (his word) that there was any connection, and made the accusation that they were unnecessarily "scaremongering":

"I understand that a feature of your business model must require you to continuously achieve publicity, but I'm concerned that you are now seeking to do this by making your political opposition to welfare reform overtly clear."

Well, that is all very well but there is surely something wrong for a country like ours where there are over half a million people dependent on hand-outs from food banks.

Indeed, Frank Field who was the welfare minister under the last Labour government and because he is seen as honest is the so called "poverty tsar" has warned that there is a danger that food banks become a permanent feature of the welfare state.

As Field asserts, food banks may be seen as a "thermometer" of what is being experience by the least well off families:

"Clearly something very serious is happening to people at the bottom of society which isn't picked up in the official data."

Given that it has been reported that the coalition government has refused potential funding by the EU of some £22million for food banks, there is a curious - if not downright disgraceful - irony.

Duncan Smith is well-known for his Christian beliefs (he is a Catholic).

He might want to have a look at the website of the Trussell Trust which, as well as making explicit its Christian values espoused by Jesus' teaching on poverty and injustice, makes clear that it works for the benefit of all people "regardless of backgrounds or beliefs."

The coalition government came to power with a promise to repair the damage caused by the financial crisis and to provide opportunity for all. David Cameron, a Prime Minister in a cabinet of millionaires, stated that "we are all in it together."

The next election will be fought on the basis of which party the electorate trusts to run the economy.

Under this government there seems to have been a trend for the rich to get richer and the poor to become poorer; a cliché I fully accept.

In the meantime those at the "bottom of society" and expression used by Frank Field, cannot afford to feed themselves or their children.

A visit by the ghost of 'Christmas present' to Cameron, Osborn and Duncan Smith is urgently needed to shock them into recognising the awful - and rapidly increasing - poverty crisis that currently exists in this country and that no matter how much they may wish to believe, exhorting those on low income to try harder is simply patronising and shows contempt.