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This Christmas let us all click with compassion

WELL, did we?

Did we spend £50,000 a minute yesterday Christmas shopping on-line? Web outlets were expecting £45m in sales from Scotland. That's £5m up on last year. I hate to be a curmudgeon but I'd be pleased if we let them down.

I hope we kept something back – spare cash in the purse – because there is a parallel Scotland and it needs our help. Its population breathes the same air and walks the same streets but its members won't be splashing out on Christmas. They'll be trying to survive.

On Christmas morning 10,500 households with 5300 children will wake up in homeless accommodation, according to Shelter Scotland. They're the tip of the deprivation berg.

The Trussell Trust, which hands out food parcels, must be among the fastest-growing enterprises we have. This year it has expanded from six outlets to 11 with another 10 about to open their doors. In the months of October and November they fed more than 2000 people across Scotland, many of them in work but on low wages. Other families were struggling in the gap between their last welfare cheque and their first salary. It's four weeks with no income.

Let me explain a bit further. The figure of 2000 is nowhere near the total who need extra food. It's just those who are able to access it. To get a food parcel you have to be referred by a social work or welfare advice agency. People can't just walk in when they haven't enough money to feed the family. And you can claim only three parcels in any six-month period. So how many people are short of food? What would the numbers of the hungry be like if food parcels were universally and constantly available?

Growing demand for food parcels as online shopping booms? It makes me think there's a time lag between our spending patterns and the new reality.

I heard a nervous tremor in George Osborne's voice on Sunday morning when he answered Andrew Marr's questions about how long this period of austerity will last. Don't hold your breath, was my non-politician take on his answer.

2018 keeps being mentioned. That's six years hence – longer than a child spends in secondary school. And we are splashing out £50,000 a minute on Christmas?

Are we wise?

It's a dilemma. We know spending keeps the wheels of the economy turning. What leaves our pockets goes into the retailer's, who in turn employs people and pays taxes.

But thereby hangs another tale. I heard Alex Salmond deliver a lecture last Tuesday at a Shelter event. During questions and answers afterwards a woman asked him about Amazon. You welcome these big companies to Scotland, she said. But did he know they pay some staff the minimum wage by the hour? She said that if there isn't enough work for a full day, they can send workers home.

To me it sounded like a throwback to the bad old days. In those conditions how can anyone predict their weekly wage? How can they apply for a mortgage or even know they can pay rent?

We know that Amazon pays almost no tax here: Amazon whose large shadow falls across small local businesses who pay their taxes and might employ people on a civilised basis. It's us, the consumers, who have brought it here. It's our clicks of the mouse that will keep it thriving. It's a big and efficient company that provides a great service. But if we are to stimulate the economy by spending, should we ensure that we support those who pay their share of taxes and treat all their staff well?

Particularly with so much hardship around. Margaret Lynch, chief executive of Citizens Advice Scotland fears families are facing "their most difficult Christmas yet".

"The economic equation is simple enough," she said. "The slow job market and welfare reforms are hitting the pockets of the most vulnerable. Their incomes are frozen or falling, but at the same time prices continue to rise – including the cost of the most basic essentials like food and fuel.

"In that situation, people will struggle to cope. And many are feeling forced to turn to high-interest credit, like payday loans, which makes the situation even worse."

So there we are. The haves are embarking on a spend, spend, spend Christmas. When they finish the turkey they will relax with a glass of something warming, surrounded by the gadgets and gizmos they maybe half-want. They may even sit down to watch Dickens's Christmas Carol and shed a sentimental tear over the plight of impoverished Tiny Tim.

Meanwhile the have nots-

It needn't be that way. Some people give up that kind of Christmas Day to work in a homeless hostel. They're at the saintly end of the spectrum. But surely we can all reach out and if we do, between us we can go some way to make a small difference.

One extended family I know has made a pact. They will exchange one small present each with the intention of diverting much of what would normally be spent to charities helping children.

Instead of clicking on a gift that is neither really wanted nor really needed, I'll be clicking on The Herald Appeal and donating to Aberlour, Scotland's largest children's charity.

Aberlour provides a safety net for children in multiple ways. It is there for the 9000 young people who run away from abuse or neglect every year. It helps children whose parents have become dependent on alcohol or drugs and it supports those leaving care to help them into further education. It keeps youngsters out of gangs and runs good parenting centres.

It's easy to imagine that the parallel Scotland I spoke of is populated by "them", by people who are somehow different from "us".

I know three middle-class families who have financially crashed and burned in the last year. I know a businesswoman who, unable to sell her premises or to maintain her customer base, is near destitution. Last week I met a young working mother who was made homeless when her marriage broke down and she couldn't afford the mortgage alone.

No-one is immune and none of us can predict where this ongoing austerity will lead us. But we all hope that in this still relatively affluent and caring country, there would be a helping hand to get us back on our feet were we to fall through the net. That would especially be so at Christmas.

Just think, for £10 you can help a family or individual through Shelter Scotland's free national helpline. The £50,000 spend per minute yesterday could help 5000 households (or more specifically almost every homeless child in Scotland). In a single minute.

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