Margo MacDonald: Who benefits from the growth of food banks?

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Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury and number two to Alistair Darling in the ironically-named Better Together campaign, either knows something we don’t or is too laid back (complacent) to be left in charge of the country’s money.

Recently, opening a food bank in his constituency, he said “Food banks are a superb example of Highland generosity and community spirit, helping many people who are in short-term need for a range of reasons.”

True, the food bank was only made possible by the charitable and communal reactions of his Inverness constituents, but for what reason had this venture come about? And exactly what was Danny Alexander, below, celebrating by his presence at its opening? It was hardly a manifestation of a successful economy, but rather the proof, if any is needed, of the failure of the UK economy to properly support its citizens.

Let’s hope he has an as yet secret plans to deal with these “short-term needs for various reasons” because every week more food banks open to help the increasing number of “working poor” who can only feed themselves and their children thanks to a food bank. Let’s hope he was not reflecting the view of an unknown number of backbench coalition MPs who see the food banks as being firm but fair. They see them as a way of showing charity, outside the benefits system, to the deserving poor, and not the undeserving scroungers who are feather-bedded by charities and public agencies alike.

To the best of my knowledge, thankfully, food banks don’t operate according to that principle. The volunteers helping to distribute food bags may well have been helped by the food bank when they, themselves, were temporarily out of funds. But there has been a huge increase in the number of food banks and in the number of people depending on them.

I have no wish to inhibit the generosity of food bank contributors and volunteers, but it seems sensible for the Government to investigate how much they are being expected to do. Certainly, in our perhaps over-computerised age, increasingly more people appear to experience a gap when starting or changing their benefits. But food banks should be seen as emergency cover, not part of the benefits due to someone who is either unable to work, or who is on such a low wage that a decent life style is unattainable.

However the position regarding food banks and welfare is analysed, Better Together have a nerve asking us to stick with the strong UK economy because it is the better way for Scotland. Food banks are a sign of failure on the part of the economy to support equitably the people who are part of it. Better Together? Don’t make me weep.

Ace Andy is a worthy winner

Our house cheered when Andy Murray was presented with the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award by Martina Navratilova. The unbidden, and probably unworthy, thought crossed my mind that the world’s greatest ever female tennis player had been caught out by the time difference between London and Miami, and had forgotten to change out of her pale blue satin pyjama top.

But Andy Murray seemed genuinely overwhelmed by the support he had received. Thanks to the satellite time pauses his rather gracious and self-effacing response to the award was to some extent lost. Nevertheless he is a credit to his family, his trainers and his own indefatigability.

Frankly speaking, when’s Christmas?

There is an air of mystery about the sudden decision of the Lord Advocate, Frank Mulholland, below, and police to ramp up the custodial sentences for housebreaking. Or have they? The current situation is that most “ordinary” housebreakers are sentenced to a maximum of one year. This new proposal might have the same criminals found guilty of the same crime jailed for up to five years – if the crime is committed at Christmas.

Firstly, when does Christmas begin for the purposes of this change in prosecution practice? Should it start when the shops start displaying their Christmas goodies? Police Scotland said housebreaking was particularly bad at this time of year when there were presents to be snapped up. Or does Christmas begin according to the advent calendars, from December 1? Or is it simply up to the Lord Advocate to decide when his and the housebreakers’ official Christmas begins?

OK, so I’ve enjoyed a few giggles about some possible scenarios as I anticipate learned counsels arguing that Christmas is really only Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. And why not New Year? Surely all the extra whisky and other spirits lying unattended would prove as big an attraction as toys under a tree.

This might be a popular response to genuine community anger and distress – because housebreaking can cause all sorts of heartbreak apart from the loss of property – but this is the wrong way to do it.