Choice is something that most of us exercise every day.
I choose what to have for breakfast in the morning; I choose which way to walk to work. I choose what, from my wardrobe, I would like to put on.
It is these tiny, every day choices which allow us to feel like adults. We can also make much bigger choices: where we work; where we live; how we spend time with.
Lack of choice makes us feel stifled and trapped. Lack of choice is the main reason that toddlers become angsty. Every aspect of their lives is controlled – from refusing to let them eat an entire tubful of ice cream to letting them wear a princess dress to climb trees. We stop them for good reason, but to them, it is the most frustrating thing in the world.
Yet, while we acknowledge the freedom our ability to choose gives us, as a society, we are allowing others less fortunate than ourselves to have less and less choice.
When I visited refugees from the Middle East in camps in Serbia earlier this year, a local charity, Philanthropy, had partnered with Christian Aid to launch a cash card scheme which gave the camp’s residents the chance to spend money in the local town.
In the UK, this scheme, and others like it in other camps elsewhere, had caused a bit of a media storm. People were incensed to hear that refugees had been given cash – on a debit card, a bit like the one they, themselves, use every day – to buy “unnecessary items”. They were horrified.
For starters, very few of the refugees were buying “unnecessary items”. They were buying food to supplement their limited diets. Fruit, bread, milk. Often foods for their children, who were, like all young children, more picky than the adults in the group.
While this amount of money was tiny, it gave refugees the chance to feel they were making their own choices. They were doing something normal, something you probably did five times yesterday – buying something in a shop with your debit card. The impact the cards had on these people – and their mental health – was enormous.
But even here, in Scotland, where we are not living in refugee camps, we are prohibiting people from making choices. There are people here, living among us, just a few metres, yards or miles from where you are sitting right now, who cannot make a choice, for example, to buy this paper. They do not have a single penny in their pockets. They simply could not afford it.
Their only option is to ask for help: a food bank referral from a doctor, or their local Citizens Advice Bureau, or a health visitor. Foodbanks are fantastic. They help people out when they desperately need help, just to survive, or put a meal on the table for their family.
Yet, in turn, they stop people from being able to make a choice. One charity, Oxfam, wants to give people in need back their dignity, their right to choose.
Instead of going to a foodbank to get essential supplies, they want people to have access to the equivalent amount in cash. That cash is, they believe, available, such as through the Scottish Welfare Fund, but often people do not realise that the fund exists or that they are able to use it. We do not give people the choice of doing so.
The charity gave me the example of one particular family, which included a child with a food allergy.
We’ve all donated to food banks, popped a tin of beans or a packet of pasta in that trolley parked in the aisle as we leave Tesco. But when was the last time we splashed out on gluten free pasta? Or made sure the sauce we chose was nut-free? Or checked the label on the digestive biscuits we put in there?
The very nature of foodbanks means that fresh food cannot be donated.
It perishes too quickly and foodbanks never know exactly when – and how many – clients are going to turn up. Therefore, the healthy fruit and veg that the allergic child – and any child – needs to live a healthy life, is just not available.
That family talked of the problems they had finding food in a foodbank that their allergic daughter could eat. With cash, they could have made their own food choices, ones which would have suited her and the rest of them. Without it, they were tied to a system which didn’t work for them.
Oxfam’s argument is simple: the people who run foodbanks have done amazing work. But we should not need them. They do not, they say, want foodbanks to become a “permanent part of Scotland’s social safety net”. And they are right.
Their project – A Menu for Change – is focused on tackling the root causes of food insecurity in Scotland.
They say that foodbank use has become “worryingly normal”, something which came to light when it emerged earlier this year that even people in full-time professional jobs, such as nurses, were having to visit foodbanks to make ends meet.
Recent figures showed that while almost 70 per cent of food bank users were on out-of-work benefits, 30 per cent were not.
Foodbanks are not the answer. They have been a useful stopgap, but people cannot go on living on cans of tinned food and dry biscuits. For short-term problems, such as those awaiting benefit payments or experiencing benefit sanctions, there are cash supports available.
People are just not being directed to the right place.
The funds are already there, Oxfam argues. They are just not being accessed properly.
By not being given their options, people in Scotland, like the refugees I met in Serbia, do not have choice or autonomy over their own lives.
And without choice, people’s basic human rights are seriously compromised.