Striving for Christmas - the Holyrood baby

Written by Tom Freeman on 24 December 2016 in Inside Politics

For struggling families like Kirsty’s, the festive period can be a challenge

Kirsty at Christmas - istock

'Christmas is for children’, they say. It’s even the title of a song. 

It’s also backed up by science. Whether they believe in Santa or not, higher levels of the chemical dopamine in the brain mean that children are far more excited about receiving presents than adults.

For any parent, ensuring your child’s excitement doesn’t lead to let down can cause anxiety, and for those families who don’t celebrate Christmas, the challenge is about explaining to young children how they fit in to a society that covers itself in lights at this time of year.

For people on a very tight budget, Christmas can be even more of a challenge, and Kirsty’s mother Caley is no different. Her budget can tip into crisis at any point.


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Kirsty is a fictional baby, born into one of Scotland’s most deprived communities. But as a conduit through which we can hold choices by government to account over the course of this parliament, she isn’t immune to the biggest festive period of the year.

At seven months old, Kirsty doesn’t really understand Christmas yet. As her brain develops its insatiable curiosity and her awareness grows, she enjoys the twinkly lights and playing with scrunched up wrapping paper.

People will tell parents like Kirsty’s that they shouldn’t bother about making Christmas special for such a young baby, but like many parents, mum Caley looks forward to the feeling of Christmas Day: a full dinner, presents under the tree. 

Although he doesn’t live with them, Kirsty’s father Scott will see them on Christmas Day. No matter how involved he is, there will be times when they both will feel isolated, according to One Parent Families Scotland (OPFS). Especially as during the first Christmas as a parent “loneliness can be acute”.

Budgeting, making potentially fraught arrangements with a child’s other parent and perhaps coping with being apart from your children for part of the holiday period can all be a challenge, according to the charity. 

Satwat Rehman, director of OPFS, tells Holyrood: “Christmas is a great time for families to celebrate and have extra time together but it can also bring real pressure and feelings of isolation for parents who are on their own and with little money. 

“Christmas can be really hard for some single parents who can’t afford the luxuries for their children that others can. When parents call our helpline around the Christmas period, they often feel lonely, sad and sometimes desperate. 

“OPFS works hard to fundraise to ensure we can help as many families as we can to give their children a Christmas present or even to afford a special meal for Christmas day.”
It is likely that Caley and Scott’s Christmas budget will come from a combination of wages and benefits. 

Even if they both work, a recent report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) exposed the myth that work is a route out of poverty. One in eight workers in the UK now lives in poverty, according to the report, with over two million children affected. 

Talk of economic recovery will mean little to people like Caley and Scott, caught up in what Bank of England Governor Mark Carney called “the first lost decade since the 1860s”.

Speaking at Liverpool John Moores University, Carney said: “The combination of open markets and technology means that returns in a globalised world amplifies the rewards of the superstar and the lucky. 

“Now may be the time of the famous or fortunate, but what of the frustrated and frightened?”

Whether it is through wages or benefits, if that money doesn’t cover the costs of Christmas, Caley and Scott may seek outside help from their family, community and possibly a foodbank.

Foodbank charity the Trussell Trust is expecting a busy festive period, having seen numbers of referrals continue to rise.

Between April and September 2016, foodbanks run by the charity across the UK distributed 519,342 three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis compared to 506,369 during the same period last year. 188,584 of these were to children. In December, the numbers traditionally peak.

Last December, the Trussell Trust gave out 60,000 three-day emergency food parcels to children alone. In Scotland, it gave out 14,763 three-day packs during the month, a 37 per cent rise on the monthly average north of the border. 

The charity expects this December to be its busiest yet. 

Across Scotland communities will mobilise to support vulnerable families. Kirsty’s family might reach out to somewhere like the Cottage Family Centre in Kirkcaldy which provides support, particularly in the early years, all the year round.

Six years ago, the Cottage Family Centre began a Christmas appeal after service manager Pauline Buchan noticed a “whole negativity around Christmas” as families got into debt and attendance at appointments in the winter months dropped.

What started as an appeal for around 90 families now supports more than 750 families over Christmas.

“In my head, I thought, ‘this is a one-off thing, it’s just this block of families I’ve got now, and things are going to get better out there and next year we won’t have to do this.’ Six years on, I’m doing seven times what I did, and there’s no let-up,” she tells Holyrood.  

The appeal started with providing a full nutritious Christmas dinner and now includes warm clothes and toys, and is pulled together using community and business donations. It is not part of a service level agreement or grant funding.

This year’s hamper will include steak pie, fresh fruit and vegetables, bacon for breakfast and trifle – provided the local supermarket can meet the order by gathering the desserts from a number of stores. There will also be wrapping paper for presents.

“This is about allowing those parents to have Christmas with their family, [to] be part of that,” says Buchan. “It’s about the feeling.”

Buchan tells of a young mother who found herself without gas for three months despite having two young children. 

“That lassie knew there were services out there that would put the gas back on, because she was in a council property. She knew the phone number, but she chose not to do it. That’s about having the confidence to pick up that phone and say, ‘I’m sorry I wasn’t in’. It’s self-worth. It’s about how you’re viewed, about how you feel about yourself.”

Shifting expectations and media portrayals has led to people feeling like bad parents, Buchan suggests, which in turn has a knock-on effect on their children. 

“We had that in here the other day, when a bairn came in to drop off toy donations. ‘Why does Santa not take presents to those children? Why does he bring me presents and not those children?’ What a great question. That is what we’re creating here. We’re creating a society where if you meet this perfect picture, you belong. And if you don’t, you don’t.”

This obscures those living in poverty into being hidden, she suggests, “like you’re saying a bad word”.

“The very first year I ever did this there was a company had come to help me, based in Kirkcaldy. The guy who owned the company said to me, ‘I’ll give you money, but I’m not going out to deliver’,” she remembers.

“Anyway, it snowed. We only had cars and he had vans, so I ran up the car park because I saw his van turning in up there. I ran and I said, ‘I need your van’, and he was like, ‘oh no’. 

“It wasn’t that he didn’t want to see it, it was that he didn’t know what he was going to see. The fear of the unknown. You build up a picture of what you think a vulnerable family must look like, and everyone’s picture will be different. 

“Anyway, he went out delivering. I was going out on my second last delivery and when I went out the front doors of the building he was standing out against the wall, crying. A big burly bloke, and he was in bits. I said, ‘why are you crying?’ He said to me, ‘that was bloody awful. I’ve lived here all my life and I didn’t think people lived like that.’ 

“‘What are we doing?’ he says. I said, ‘what are we doing? We’re doing something, at least we’re trying.’ He’s never looked back from that. He’s always helped us.”

The businessman had told her he had walked around the local shops in Templehall and been oblivious.

“I said; ‘You only see what you want to see. I notice there’s a security guard at the chemist and in the Co-op. I notice there are bairns sitting in buggies outside the tavern and across the road. Every day they’re there, and every day I see them with a sausage roll, rain, hail or shine. I notice there’s a wall of men, 40 plus, drinking, that there’s six betting offices in the vicinity, four bakers, a very expensive Co-op.’ You only see what you want to see.”

The responsibility, Buchan suggests, is everybody’s.

“Are people too ashamed to be honest about it? It’s like they are ashamed. Although people are ashamed, it’s people who create it. If you’re going to create something, own it. Take responsibility.” 

Buchan says she sympathises with David Cameron’s much criticised ‘Big Society’ when it comes to communities taking responsibility for their most vulnerable members.

“Although it didn’t go down well, I get what he was trying to do. Part of what he said was right. I can’t believe I’m actually agreeing with him!” she says.

However, Buchan clearly isn’t letting politicians off the hook either, challenging them to recognise the human being behind terms like ‘poverty’ and ‘austerity’ or a person’s postcode or SIMD number.

Policy is only worth pursuing when it’s already working, she adds, pointing out welfare reform has proved costly and councils chase council tax arrears in the courts when the person has “no money to pay for it”.

“It’s the whole argument about how we get back from crisis intervention to early intervention and prevention. You stop the wheel and you get off. Folk will say you can’t. You can. 

“There’s a fear factor here, where people don’t want to take risks. Staying doing something that you know isn’t working and is making life miserable is worse than stopping the wheel, getting off and trying something different. The whole benefit sanctions thing proves that.”

At Holyrood’s recent child poverty event, John Carnochan, retired police officer and former head of the Violence Reduction Unit, recalled previous Labour Finance Secretary Tom McCabe describing politicians as being ‘stuck’ when it came to tackling poverty. 

“We seem to be stuck in the idea we need big systems and a plan and a strategy to get out of this, and we forget about people and attitudes,” Carnochan told delegates, adding that politicians and services remain “too tribal” to make a difference.

“I’m really fed up defending the same evidence that’s been there a long time. Scotland has got the economy of scale. We’ve lost our bottle,” he said.

Meanwhile, Christmas only serves to reinforce what people don’t have, according to Buchan.

“You are taking away their self-worth. You’re not getting a functioning human being out of somebody who has no self-worth. They can’t function.”

This is evident in the number of children attending the Cottage Family Centre’s therapy service with mental health problems, Buchan says.

“We have a mental health epidemic on our hands in this country. This is what I’m trying to say. We need to stop focusing only on what we can see. 

“When I go out on delivery day, people stand there and see five crates of food going to that family unit. They’ll see five black bags for the five kids in there. That food in those green crates is not food. It’s a family. And those black bags are kids. Somebody needs to take responsibility for that.”

After all, isn’t putting a human face on statistics exactly what the Holyrood baby is all about?  

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