UK is world’s 5th richest country but it’s far from fair – Christine Jardine

Every child should have the opportunity to fulfill their potential and it’s up to those of us who have managed to do that to make sure it happens, writes Christine Jardine.

As a girl, Christine didnt understand why so many classmates asked Santa for boring presents (Picture: Stan Warburton)

There is a childhood Christmas that I view very differently now than I did then.

Santa had brought me a bike. It was a beautiful thing and I cherished it for years. But I remember one of the strange things about that Christmas was going back to school.

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It must have been primary 4 or 5, and we had a group discussion in class about what Santa had brought us all.

At the time, I wondered why so many of my classmates had asked for what I innocently termed “boring” things, like a new coat.

Years later however, when Christmas began to bite into my own budget, I realised that my child’s vision of the world had not seen the real significance of the gifts.

I do not come from a particularly well-off background.

For the first decade and a half of my life we lived in a house rented from the housing association.

We didn’t have a lot but I had both a new coat and a bike that year.

I’m not sure but I think that memory had a lot to do with my recent determination to be my party’s spokesperson on the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).

Oh some witty person – probably one of my sisters – will say it’s more to do with me getting closer to my pension.

But as any WASPI woman will tell you, that’s not as close as it used to be, which is an argument for another day.

No. Every week constituents come to me who have been given what can best be termed as “the run around” by some section of the DWP.

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It could be pensions, it could be Universal Credit or it could be the system of Personal Independence Payments for those with a disability which, as assessment systems go, is not fit for purpose.

In every one of them, I see someone who deserves to be treated better.

In each case I’m reminded that in this, the fifth richest nation on earth, there are still people for whom life is a daily economic challenge.

And what we often overlook is that the majority of those who find themselves facing an uphill financial struggle are already working for a living – the ‘just about managing’ to whom Theresa May promised so much in her first speech as Prime Minister.

In a meeting this week with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, I was stunned to hear that of the already unacceptable number of children living in poverty in this country, two-thirds are from working households.

How are we getting it so wrong in this country?

I have written in this newspaper before about my frustrations at the problem in our country’s welfare system, of which we were once so proud.

I have criticised the management of the changes in state pension age for women.

And I have railed at the issues with the well-intentioned but fatally underfunded Universal Credit.

Only this week the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd, admitted that its failings have been responsible for sending so many people to food banks.

But the crux of my gripe is that I realise that we have slipped very far from the fair society, backed by a strong economy, we aim to be.

One half of that, the former, we have managed to achieve. The other still seems to be tantalisingly out of our reach. And it needn’t be.

I am not in Government. But if I were, the first thing I would do in my new post would be to act on that recognition which Amber Rudd is the first in the Cabinet to publicly acknowledge.

I would put back the £3 billion which George Osborne took out of the budget for Universal Credit.

Then I would pause the roll-out and migration from legacy benefits and fix the obvious problems that are leaving families with nothing to live on for more than a month, causing people to fall into rent arrears and adding stress to an already intolerable burden.

After that, I would address the issues which still allow situations where the benefits of getting a job are undermined.

But, more than anything else, I would want to do something about those children in poverty.

I thought about them this week and I thought about that Christmas when I was no more than eight or nine years old.

At that time, life was simple for me.

I had a big loving family and any financial challenges my parents might have faced were well hidden from us.

For my younger sisters, it was slightly different.

When my dad died at the age of 44, we went overnight from being relatively well off and living in a home we owned to a single-parent family with no income. My mum went back out to work and somehow managed to give my sisters everything I had known.

But, at the age of 20, I realised how easy it is to fall through the cracks.

Then, like now, I thought about those kids in my class that Christmas.

Most of them had at least as much potential as I did, but not all of them got to fulfill it.

Today that thought as much as, if not more than, any political principle I have is what drives my daily life. I have been lucky. I have been able to give my daughter the start in life my parents were able to give me.

Maybe because of that I want every child to have the opportunity to fulfill their potential, and feel it’s up to those of us who have to make sure it happens.

No family should have to choose between Christmas presents and keeping warm.