THE fairy lights are already twinkling in shop windows and the nights are getting colder: with six weeks to go, many households are turning their thoughts to Christmas, working out what size of turkey they will need, how much Christmas pudding or whether to order an extra case of wine.

Not everyone, however, is in a position to share in the festivities. Standing on the outside looking in are rising numbers of people who fear they will not have the means to feed their families this Christmas.

The increasing number of requests by organisations for charitable funding to provide food, bedding and other basics to Scottish households highlights a depth of poverty in our communities that is sobering to contemplate. It is a phenomenon driven, apparently, by benefit cuts and low wages, combined with rising food and energy prices .

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This is a very grave development. This degree of want was widely thought to be a thing of the past, a phenomenon associated with the 1920s and 1930s. Then, inadequate nutrition among the poor was so serious a problem that during the war, in spite of the scarcity of some foods, the introduction of rationing for all resulted in improving levels of child health and a drop in infant mortality.

We are of course a long way off a return to pre-war levels of privation, but the assumption that Britain has conquered hunger in its own back yard is starting to look worryingly complacent.

Charities are right to step in, if they can, where they identify such needs, but only as a stop-gap. It should not be the job of philanthropic organisations to provide for such basic human needs in the long term.

Ever since the Prime Minister David Cameron first mooted the Big Society, it has been dogged by accusations of being a cover for using the voluntary sector to fill growing gaps in provision by the public sector and the welfare state, a charge the Government has denied. The growth of the food bank phenomenon will do nothing to reassure his critics.

The process of welfare reform began under the last Labour Government and has been intensified under the Coalition, with both turning their attentions to how benefits are allocated and administered. Some reform was necessary, as the benefits system in many respects was not functioning efficiently or effectively.

There is a long-standing consensus in the UK, however, that the state has a duty to ensure all households have sufficient resources to provide for certain basic human needs, such as eating and staying warm. If household income is not enough to cover such essentials then it is ultimately the duty of the Government, not the charity sector, to do something about it.