Christmas – a time for giving
Christmas traditionally is a time when families come together and have fun. They sit round the table, carve up the turkey, pull Christmas crackers and overindulge. At least that is the image we see on TV and in glossy magazines – but sadly for many families the reality is quite different.
For years now, we’ve had cuts in public spending and benefit changes which combined together have had a devastating effect on millions of families up and down the country. Research shows that the poorest have borne the brunt of these cuts – as is often the case. This has been independently verified by respected bodies such as the Audit Commission and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
To counteract the effects of austerity, the council has decided to focus more assistance on the people who need it most – in line with our principles of fairness. We’ve invested heavily in credit unions that provide low cost forms of credit, taken a stance against costly pay day lenders and loan sharks and work closely with partners like the CAB to help people get the benefits to which they are entitled to.
Another such initiative is our Christmas Support Scheme. We have sent gift cards to 600 of the neediest families in the city to use in a supermarket. Up to £70 of food will not feed a family for long, but it helps – and it’s a gesture that shows that we care, and that families who struggle are not forgotten at this time of celebration. As a civilised society, showing that we care is just as important as the act of kindness itself. It gives the recipient a sense of worth and belonging which we all want.
The experience of our debt advisers is that many families have not accepted help because of the stigma attached to living off benefits. I can sympathise, but there is nothing to be ashamed of. Many of us are only ever one accident or pay packet away from a crisis. Due to the reluctance to come forward we’ve decided to send the cards direct to families this time.
The council has been very careful with the money that Government gave us for welfare assistance, and rather than hold onto it, we have decided to use it to help the poorest families at this time of year when people are under greater financial pressure and more inclined to get deeper into debt.
The gift cards have been carefully targeted – sent to families with children aged five to 16 in receipt of school meals in this school term, who have had their housing benefit reduced due to the bedroom tax or benefit cap, and are paying council tax for the first time as a result of Government cuts in council tax benefit introduced in April.
It has won us applause from some, and doubtless criticism from others, but we make no apologies. As much as we would like to, we can’t help every family in hardship but that is no reason to help no one.
Sadly, research tells us we are becoming a more divided society – but we don’t have to accept that. As a council we have set our face against division to help create a city that tackles inequality, makes decisions fairly and is more at peace with itself. With our partners, we will do all that we can to help the poorest – in work and out of work – because it is the right thing to do.
Merry Christmas, and may I wish you a happy, healthy and peaceful New Year.