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Everything The Sun didn’t tell you when shaming a mum for buying Christmas presents

The tabloid has run a story criticising a mother on benefits for spending money on her children.

As sure as the seasons change, tabloids run stories shaming low-income families for spending money. And Christmas is the prime time of year for it.

Today the Sun has run a front page (headline: “Yule Pay”) slamming Claire Young for saving up her benefits to buy Christmas presents for her six children. She cannot work due to illness, her partner cares for her full-time, and so they rely on benefits for their family income.

“Benefits mum splurges £2,000 on 66 presents for her six kids and YULE PAY!” screams its splash, accompanying a picture of “gift-mad” Claire holding wrapped presents, and a report full of judgement about her family and financial situation.

Claire first told her story in an appearance on ITV’s This Morning, where she explained that she scrimped on other parts of her life – she only has one pair of shoes – to ensure she makes Christmas special for her children.

“You could lose your job tomorrow and have to rely on benefits,” she told the show. “If I could go to work right now, I would do. But just because I’m on benefits, does that mean your children don’t get a Christmas? At the end of the day, it’s our family money – I don’t tell anyone else how to spend their money.”

While Claire later defends herself in further quotes to the Sun – saying “it’s our money and we spend and save it well and the kids benefit. I’m proud I can make Christmas special for my kids” – the newspaper uses her story essentially to say that people claiming benefits don’t deserve to spend how other families do – and in this case, don’t deserve to make Christmas enjoyable for their children.

Here are some rather inconvenient facts they’ve left out of their story:

Some of the presents cost £1

Claire has been lambasted by Conservative MPs Andrew Rosindell and David Davies in the Sun’s piece for her “extravagance”, but as the paper fails to note, some of the 11 presents she has bought for each child “cost a pound, or three pounds” (as she told ITV). This number of presents for each child is not extravagant, when you consider that most will be stocking fillers.

The Sun’s own article says “more than ten” presents is the “magic number”

In an October article labelled “THE MAGIC NUMBER”, the Sun asked how many presents you should give your children this Christmas, headlining the piece: “One mum worries that ten gifts each isn’t enough… and others agree”.

Quoting Mumsnet users, the piece gave a lot of airtime to the idea that more than ten presents is key, citing “parents insisting that it’s important that kids have lots of gifts to unwrap on the big day”, and finding “the vast majority of Mumsnet users admitted that ten or more gifts per child makes Christmas Day more magical”.

Why is this OK for Mumsnet users and the readers of this article, but not for mothers on benefits?

Demonising big families is bad – but also inaccurate

Newspapers like the Sun would have you believe that the majority of families on benefits have hundreds of children that they have both to avoid work and claim millions in benefits. This is nowhere near the real picture.

Firstly, there is a two-child limit for child tax credits and the Universal Credit child element. Secondly, the number of children living in households with a parent claiming out-of-work benefits is falling. Out-of-work benefits were claimed in only one million households with children when measured last May – a drop of 4.2 per cent since the previous year.

Only 8 per cent of families on benefits had three or more children, when the data was analysed four years ago.

Demonising unemployed claimants is bad – but also inaccurate

Many benefit claimants are in work. There are 6.8 million working-age benefit claimants, according to the November 2017 statistics, of which 460,000 claim Jobseeker’s Allowance. Of the people on Universal Credit as of 12 October, 40 per cent were in employment.

This is more about saving than spending

The only reason Claire is able to buy presents for her children at Christmas is because she starts saving at the beginning of the year. Putting aside £50 a week, tough when your income relies on the vagaries of the benefit system, is surely something the paper should be applauding when it quotes MPs outraged by “extravagance”.

The avoidance of debt

If Claire didn’t save, she would likely become a victim of the UK’s debt crisis at this time of year, when many parents struggle to afford a fun Christmas for their children. Millions of people are affected by what is branded “problem debt”, and the debt charity StepChange finds this costs the UK £8.3bn: a social cost that takes into account mental health, physical health and financial help required by people who fall into debt.

The new Universal Credit system is worse

Claire is on what are known as “legacy benefits”, which is the old welfare system. When people are moved over onto its successor, Universal Credit, they not only have less money coming in – overall, families with children have lost more than any other group from these changes – but they also go into debt more easily because of the payment structure.

As Universal Credit has an in-built delay of five weeks, claimants are forced to wait for their money. That means if you have been, or are being, moved over to the new system from mid-November onwards, you won’t receive your benefits until Boxing Day at the earliest.

So to ease the financial pain, the government has allowed claimants to take out an advance payment – an upfront loan they can pay back over a year if they’ve moved over from the old system.

This means more people will have the stress of being in debt over periods when they are waiting for their benefits – particularly at Christmas, when more money is required. These are the parents the Sun appears to have forgotten about.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.