Carolyn Harris: “I really get hurt when people can’t have the basics in life."
Food banks may take care of the bare necessities but at Christmas, people facing food poverty need more than just nutrition. That’s why Carolyn Harris is heading up a Christmas hamper campaign to give her Swansea constituents the festive feeling.
Christmas in 2020 will be odd for many; but for the most vulnerable in society it’s not the limits on household mixing or restrictions on propping up the bar in the local that will cause the most concern, but the inability to afford what many of us take for granted in the festive season.
Since March, there has been an 112% increase in those claiming universal credit – taking the total to 1.4 million people. According to the Legatum Institute, almost 700,000 people in the UK, including 120,000 children, have been plunged into poverty since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in the UK.
In Swansea in South Wales, Labour MP Carolyn Harris is taking action to make sure the most needy have a sense of normality this year. “It’s that one time of year where everybody should have that feeling that they are safe, secure, and they’ve got the food in the cupboards to feed the kids and to feed themselves,” Harris says down the phoneline from her Westminster office, her Swansea accent even more pronounced than it seems in the Commons Chamber.
“I’m really big on that. Christmas is a holy festival but it’s a festival of goodwill – and goodwill and charity begins at home doesn’t it?”
The self-professed “ordinary working class Welsh mam”, who was born and bred in her constituency, says she “physically aches” at the thought “that people are going without something”, or were eating pasta and rice for Christmas dinner. “I really get hurt when people can’t have the basics in life,” Harris says.
“I’m always really supportive of the food bank – but whatever you get in the food bank in September, you’re going to get the same in December... You’re not going to get what the rest of us would be buying for Christmas Day and Boxing Day. You know, those little things like crackers and cheese and mince pies. The stuff which is not terribly expensive, but if you haven’t got a lot of money, you’re not going to get it,” she explains.
Now in its fourth year, the Everyone Deserves a Christmas campaign will this year aim to deliver 1,000 Christmas hampers to families in need across Swansea, including the ingredients for a Christmas meal and all the trimmings and treats. Harris says she knew back in March that the need would be much higher than the 300 they delivered last year.
“A lot of the families who will be getting help this year have had help other years. The situation hasn’t got better for them, in fact, it’s just got worse,” Harris says.
“The difference this year is that a lot of the people who would previously have contributed to the hamper campaign are now in a position where they are recipients of the hampers.”
As Harris knows, financial hardship turns Christmas from a time of joy to one of huge stress for parents. Recent research from Action for Children has revealed that 17% of parents would cancel Christmas if they could, rising to 41% of those claiming universal credit for the first time this year. More than half reported plans to delay paying household bills, borrow money or sell belongings to pay for Christmas celebrations.
And poverty is equally draining for their offspring. Separate polling from The Children’s Society shows that three-fifths of children are worrying about their parents’ finances this Christmas, with 91% of children admitting they worry about it on most days.
Swansea was already one of the most deprived areas in Wales and it has seen unemployment rise further in recent months. Even before the pandemic, between 28% and 30% of children in Wales were living in poverty.
“I think that the pandemic has exposed the fact that a lot of people were already quite vulnerable, that they weren’t resilient enough to take the hits of several months of lower income or no income. So it just goes to show the people in places like Swansea East have not got that safety net of a nest egg, which they can draw upon. And those who did have spent that as well,” says Harris.
Most of the referrals come from constituents Harris sees in her office, or local schools that spot the families in need.
“So we get schools phoning up and saying, ‘Can we have 10 hampers?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, no problem’. And they said, ‘Well, if there’s any left, can we have another 10?’ So I started to say, ‘Look, how many do you need?’ And it’s grown and grown and grown up to 1000.”
Listening to Harris describe the process for assembling the hampers, it becomes clear why she brands the initiative as “community support” rather than charity. The campaign is run in partnership with Julie James, the Senedd member for Swansea West.
Both the local football club, the Swans, and the region’s Pro14 rugby team, the Ospreys, get involved, along with many local businesses and restaurants. In previous years, they mostly relied on people bringing in food, as well as cash donations from local businesses. “I’m cheeky and I ask people for things,” Harris explains.
This year, as well as the need increasing, the model of delivering the campaign has also had to change. Rather than receiving food donations, they asked a local wholesaler who had seen a loss of business due to Covid to price all the things they would need in a hamper. They intended to raise at least £15,000; at £50 per hamper, this would mean they could match last year’s number.
This is where Harris’s cheek comes in, she says. Inspired by Marcus Rashford’s Free School Meals campaign, and helped by the fact that the Swans’ former chairman is now at Tottenham Hotspur, she set out to contact Welsh winger Gareth Bale to acquire a signed shirt to auction off. Harris describes the phone conversation with his agent with glee.
“He said, ‘Right, so Gareth Bale wants to know, do you want the shirt or do you want the £15,000?’ So I said, ‘Well, I’d love the £15,000 but I’m not putting him in that position. I’d be happy with the shirt’. And he said ‘Well Gareth Bale says you can have both’.”
Along with his cash donation to cover their original planned costs, Bale’s is one of four signed sports shirts they’ve had donated for online auction to raise money.
Harris has also reached out to Wales’s theatrical stars. “Because I’m Welsh and I am cheeky, I know Michael Sheen. So then I got in touch with Michael Sheen. And I said: “Is there any way you can help us with the auction?
“So Michael’s put a video out, and he’s doing another video Saturday!”
As in previous years, Harris and her staff will take over the Mecca bingo hall in Swansea on Christmas Eve to cook and deliver another 100 hot meals for families who don’t have access to a stove.
Over the course of the conversation, it’s a constant surprise to hear about the amount of work that she and her team commit to, which Harris casually drops in with little explanation, whether it be teaming up with Beauty Banks to provide gifts for Swansea’s rough sleepers; delivering donated advent calendars to local special needs units; keeping an eye on Swansea’s “working girls” on a monthly basis, who also receive gifts via Harris and the Beauty Banks; and bagging up and delivering any leftover chocolate or treats from the Christmas collection to the local emergency services, children’s ward at the hospital, and the local cancer hospice.
The Christmas chocolate collections continue, despite the pandemic – predominantly at the local leisure centre, where “Zumba freak” Harris goes three or four times a week.
“I said to them, ‘Is there a chance you guys can put a box on the desk?’... In all fairness, every day I’ve been at the gym since for the last fortnight, the box has been full of chocolate.”
Harris maintains that she “wasn’t put on this earth to be a politician”. When I point out that she is doing it quite successfully, serving as deputy Welsh Labour leader since 2018 and now PPS to Keir Starmer, she puts it down to imposter syndrome.
“I’ve always been a bit of an anorak,” she laughs. “When I was eight, when everybody else on voting day was in the park, I was outside the polling station taking numbers.
“I was brought up in that environment where people were not overtly political, but they were Labour. You know, I didn’t really understand what being Labour was I don’t think, but I knew I was Labour.”
An active campaigner, she marked herself out soon after entering Parliament with her successful campaign to establish a children’s funeral fund, in honour of her eldest son who was hit by a car and died when he was eight. He would have been 40 this year.
“If I hadn’t had lost Martin when I did, I probably would not be here, if I’m honest, because I was quite happy in my little world,” she tells me. “I was 29 when I lost Martin. I think I was still quite childish at that age. I don’t think I grew up until I lost Martin.
“At the time you think ‘I’ll never worry about anything again, because the worst possible thing in the world has happened to me’... You completely completely change. I spent a long time wrapping everybody up, and I mean everyone, in cotton wool...”
“I still have to know that everyone is home safe, everyone is safe. But it’s gone now from my immediate family to everybody now. It’s the bloody world actually, but I can’t look after the world, but I certainly can look after those in my constituency.”
Harris remembers her local community coming together to bring food, jars of coffee and packets of tea to them after Martin’s death – and when she went to pay for the funeral, there was an envelope with £1,000 in it. “People bring things; they think, what can we do?
What can be our part in making this better?”
Across the UK, Harris thinks the government’s biggest mistake was probably underestimating the strength of feeling around Marcus Rashford’s Free School Meals campaign.
“Everybody got that this was a really serious issue that we were in, and one of the simplest things to do was to make sure that those who are most vulnerable, the children in society, are looked after,” she explains.
“If it wasn’t for Marcus Rashford – I mean, the Labour frontbench had a role in it as well, but let’s be honest about it, Marcus Rashford got this government to change its mind. That says a lot about him as a person.”
Like the outpouring of generosity from businesses to feed children over October half term, similar Christmas hamper schemes have been set up across the UK for those in need. And there are other causes for hope. When asked by The Children’s Society what is on their ‘alternative Christmas wish list’, 58% of children indicated what they want most of all is for everyone they love to be happy and healthy.
The second most popular choice was a lovely family Christmas dinner – and in Swansea, Harris and her team are working on it.