WHAT, in the modern world with its welfare state and the ideal of there being a safety net to stop those less fortunate in society sinking below a certain standard of living, is the least we would wish for our fellow citizens?
The answer lies in an oft-repeated idiom: the basic requirement of a civilised society is to provide a roof over people’s heads and food for their stomachs. Without shelter and sustenance, humans lose their basic dignity. They become almost inhuman.
It is possible, though not comfortable, to live without money, or perhaps without much money. It is possible to live without many of the things we today take for granted – everything from cars to smartphones to washing machines – though whether it is desirable to do so, or reasonable to expect people to go without such “luxuries”, is another matter.
Yet if food and shelter are sine qua non for a civilised society, it is deeply troubling to find, as we report today, that families are being forced to ration food as shrinking wage packets and benefits cuts take their toll on households. According to new figures, food sales have suffered their biggest monthly drop in almost two years. Anti-poverty campaigners claim that one reason is that the poorest families are skipping meals to make ends meet.
It would be easy to be suspicious of such claims, dismissing them an anecdotal. For is not the welfare state, even the version which is being pruned back by the current UK government, there to ensure that everyone has enough to live on? Well, yes it is, but if the welfare state is doing the job it is supposed to do, why then are there now parts of this country where our fellow citizens have to rely on food parcels to live?
It might also be argued that there are some who are in receipt of welfare benefits who do not use the money they receive to pay for those basic requirements of living – housing and food – but squander what they are given on alcohol, or cigarettes, or satellite television. While there will be some who do this, there are many more who are simply doing their best to make ends meet.
What then are the consequences of this state of affairs and what might be done? First, a society which cannot ensure that people are properly housed and fed is likely to become a fractured and divided society in danger of collapse. We cannot allow that to happen and we must, therefore, look to our leaders, the politicians, to act.
There is, of course, a case for welfare reform. There is, of course, a case for helping people to help themselves, giving them a hand up not a hand out, to use a cliché that nonetheless retains some validity. But politicians must make sure that these reforms must not result in the poorest suffering the most. We must, as a society, ensure all of our citizens have, at the very least, that roof over their heads and food in their stomachs.
Freedom to roam hills is everyone’s right
Scotland’s hills are stunningly beautiful at this time of year. On a clear winter day, the view of snow-capped mountains as far as the eye can see from any one of hundreds of Highland peaks will take the breath away.
But Scotland’s hills are not just beautiful. They can also be incredibly dangerous, as a number of climbers and hill walkers have found to their cost over the past few weeks. It is a harsh reality but people die in the hills every year.
The most recent deaths have led to calls for there to be curbs on access to the hills when weather conditions become particularly dangerous. Restrictions, it is argued, would save lives and cut the cost of deploying publicly-funded services such as RAF rescue helicopters.
Such calls, while understandable given the recent death toll, are misguided. There has always been a risk in taking to the hills in Scotland. Most people who enjoy climbing or walking know that. For many, the risk is part of the challenge as they test their skills against terrain and the elements.
What is important is that people know the level of risk and in recent years the forecasting of both the general weather conditions in the hills and the risk of avalanches has become more detailed and easily accessible on line.
We should not, of course, encourage recklessness on the hills and the more widely this information is disseminated – to experienced walkers and climbers and to the general public – the better.
However, it would be a sad day if, as a society, we were to try to limit people’s freedom to choose to take to our hills to enjoy their savage beauty and to confront, sensibly, the risks they undoubtedly pose.