Towards the end of 2018, I found myself begging mums and grannies in my parish in Argyll and the Isles to be photographed with a laminated poster reading ‘Families can’t wait’. Not surprisingly, everyone I approached was only too eager to pose with the poster – because they understood how much our Justice and Peace Scotland ‘Give Me Five’ campaign is needed.
They weren’t alone in wanting to speed up the Scottish Government’s response to our call for an extra £5 a week to help lift thousands of children out of poverty. Justice and Peace Scotland commissioners in every diocese collected dozens of pictures like mine to remind the decision makers in Holyrood of the urgency that the 2019/20 budget and Scottish Government spending plans include that top-up to child benefit.
We’ve been campaigning with the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland for this top-up for too long, and that’s why we added this rider that ‘families can’t wait’.
And they can’t. Poverty affects one in four children in Scotland. To put that into context, count the children in your street, up your close, in your children’s class at school - the children preparing for Confirmation in your parish. Now imagine that one in every four of those children may lack a full school uniform, a pair of winter shoes, breakfast. That’s why we’re campaigning.
Our parish is involved with a local charity that provides emergency packs for individuals and families in crisis. Your parish probably has something similar going on.
I helped pack up ‘special’ Christmas parcels for that charity. The only information we were given was an identification number and whether the pack was for an individual or a family. A big percentage of the 25 packs were for families. We are a rural area – your parish is probably donating on a much bigger scale. But let’s think of the people, not the number of packs. What we included in packs for our social work department that day meant that on Christmas Day, the children would be able to pig out (!) on tinned steak and kidney pie, tinned peas, tinned fruit and ‘special’ chocolate biscuits. As we finished the packing, social workers asked for two more emergency packs for families. I went home and wept.
This week Derek Mackay MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work, told Give Me Five campaigners that the Scottish Government shares our commitment to ensure it does ‘all we can to tackle the deep seated inequalities in our society’ but that it is a complex task to change a reserved benefit and so it will be taking its time to consider the issue of giving that extra fiver in benefit.
I can only pray that children who relied on charity for something vaguely resembling a ‘good meal’ at Christmas 2018 will literally get a bigger share of the cake at Christmas 2019. And that Mr Mackay and his colleagues come to understand that families really can’t wait because children’s lives are dribbling away in Dickensian misery.