Clips from the recent parliamentary debate on the causes of the increased use of food banks can be found towards the end of this post. The debate was largely ignored by broadcast TV news on the day so you may well be unaware that it even happened. Nonetheless, I urge anyone that wants to know the truth about how this government is failing the vulnerable and the starving poor in the UK to watch it and decide for yourselves whether we are all in it together.
The poor-laws of England appear to have contributed to raise the price of provisions, and to lower the real price of labour. They have therefore contributed to impoverish that class of people whose only possession is their labour. It is also difficult to suppose that they have not powerfully contributed to generate that carelessness and want of frugality observable among the poor, so contrary to the disposition generally to be remarked among petty tradesmen and small farmers. The labouring poor, to use a vulgar expression, seem always to live from hand to mouth.
Thomas Malthus on the Poor Laws (1798)
Is our government in denial about why half a million, largely working, people in the 7th richest country in the world have found that the only way that they can feed themselves and their families is by accepting charitable gifts of food?
Statistics are not difficult to come by because people using the Trussell Trust food bank can only do so if they have been issued with one of their official vouchers. These vouchers are issued by a limited number of agencies that deal with poverty, welfare, criminal justice, health, housing and related issues in the UK and each time one is issued the reason for it is recorded.
This means that when the Trussell Trust reports that 67% (includes Duncan Smith’s withdrawal of crisis loans* formerly provided by the DWP) of users of its services are doing so due to poverty and problems with the benefit system it would appear to be sensible to consider that the UK’s social security system may not be providing the scroungers’ paradise that we have been led to believe that it does by this Conservative led government - let alone a social safety net that is meant to obviate the need for people to rely on charity to feed their children.
Duncan Smith would know this but he refused to speak to the Trussell Trust even though they had made a polite but urgent request for his attention in order to find ways of reducing hunger. He decided that their motives were political – demonstrating conclusively that his personal paranoia about his own cabinet position is preventing him from doing the job that the rest of us are paying him to do.
But then no one in power wants to talk to the trust. As the Observer revealed, Chris Mould, its director, wrote to Duncan Smith asking if they could discuss cheap ways of reducing hunger: speeding up appeals against benefit cuts; or stopping the endemic little Hitlerism in job centres, which results in unjust punishments for trivial transgressions. In other words, a Christian charity, which was turning the “big society” from waffle into a practical reality, was making a civil request. Duncan Smith responded with abuse. The charity’s claims to be “non-partisan” were a sham, he said. The Trussell Trust was filled with “scaremongering” media whores, desperate to keep their names in the papers. But he had their measure.
Oh, yes. “I understand that a feature of your business model must require you to continuously achieve publicity, but I’m concerned that you are now seeking to do this by making your political opposition to welfare reform overtly clear.”
* Crisis Loans used to be provided by the DWP as an emergency source of funds for those in dire financial distress. The loans have assisted c.2m people with an average short-term interest free loan amount of £86. Repayments were deducted from benefit payments at source and consequently had a near zero default rate. Evidence suggests that withdrawal of this emergency funding has pushed many benefit recipients into the hands of payday loan providers leading to the almost inevitable debt management problems.
In fairness, the Trussell Trust is only one, albeit the largest, provider of food bank style services to the poor and needy in the UK. However, to the knowledge of this blogger, none of the other service providers have reported materially different reasons for people using their services.
The coalition government however deny that welfare reform has had any impact on the usage of food banks and it is tempting to believe them – no I have not lost my senses! You see, back in February, Owen Paterson‘s DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) announced an inquiry into the causes for the rise in usage of food banks.
“Government officials have commissioned an investigation into the explosion in food banks, soup kitchens and school breakfast clubs as fears rise over the impact of austerity on the living standards of low-income families.
The research will examine the extent and effectiveness of emergency food aid, amid concern that increasing numbers of low-paid and benefit-dependent households are forced to use charity food sources”
As you will see in the clips from the recent food banks debate in parliament the government deny, deny and deny again that welfare reforms have anything to do with the massive increase in the need for food banks. They have the official report into the reasons so they surely would not lie about it knowing that the report is about to be released and it contradicted them… would they?
In July, Lord Freud, who heads-up this government’s welfare reform programme in the Lords, insisted that the seemingly inexorable rise in the number and use of food banks by the poor has nothing whatsoever to do with the swingeing cuts in welfare provision he is introducing. Instead he claimed that:
“It is difficult to know which came first – supply or demand” and that “If you put more food banks in, that is the supply. Clearly food from a food bank is by definition a free good and there’s almost infinite demand.”
If you follow British politics, you will be aware that this was just another in a long line of heartless (not to mention erroneous) comments made by Conservative Party ministers (Liberal Democrats, despite being enablers of the welfare crisis have been church mouse like on the issue) denying that changes in welfare provision might have some causal relationship with increased food bank usage.
In September, Education Secretary Michael Gove “insulted” people who use food banks by suggesting they were often responsible for their own predicaments.
In the week before Christmas, Esther McVey, the Conservative Party’s favourite northerner, scowled and hissed as she dissembled (as is her wont) about the increase in the use of food banks. The government has confirmed that it does not consider food bank usage to be part of the UK’s system of welfare provision and that it is a matter for DEFRA as it concerns the supply of food to the nation. Of course, McVey ignored the fact that as a junior minister of state for the Department for Work and Pensions her presence and that of Iain Duncan Smith (her masters voice at the DWP) rather undermined the government’s assertion.
In a speech that was long on accusation but bereft of information, McVey in turn accused Labour of causing the need for food banks, suggested that her department’s cuts to welfare are the cure for this particular ill and that food banks are in her view a good thing as the need for them allows the voluntary sector to demonstrate how great it is at what it does!
Most of us are still recovering from the excessive overeating that accompanies the Christmas day celebrations. Far fewer of us would have taken a moment on that day to consider how fortunate we are and to spare more than a passing thought for the hundreds of thousands of children spending Christmas day wondering why their ‘feast’ has left them hungry yet again.
What follows is the debate that took place on the 18th December. It is, to this bloggers mind, a shocking indictment of the coalition government’s welfare reforms, of the Conservative party and of Iain Duncan Smith and Esther McVey in particular. For there to be no ministerial presence on the government’s front bench during the debate (other than for their own and shadow ministers’ speeches) is an outrage.
Food bank debate Part 1 of 4 Maria Eagles proposes the motion:
Food bank debate Part 2 of 4 Esther McVey gives government’s response:
Food bank debate Part 3 of 4 Backbench MPs statements:
I urge you to watch the backbenchers’ statements about their personal experience of food banks in their constituencies. As Jessica Morden MP states at the end of her moving statement, these are “sad stories, real lives.”
Food bank debate Part 4 of 4 Rachel Reeves and Nick Hurd close and voting:
Clip commentary to follow
It is often said that ensuring a nation’s security is the first duty of government. It is not. The first duty of any government is to ensure that its citizens have enough to drink, enough to eat and have warmth and light - security comes a distant fourth to those basics. Hundreds of thousands of UK citizens are starving and many of those are children. Yet Duncan Smith and McVey left the chamber within minutes of McVey completing her speech. What could be more important to Iain Duncan Smith and his sidekick than starving British children?
Food banks in the UK are already seriously under pressure due to the extraordinary levels of demand for their services. They are desperate for extra funding but the coalition government do not see food banks as part of the government’s welfare system – this is a PR decision because they recognise that, if officially recognised as an accepted part of the welfare state on their watch, it would put the lie to their claims that they are protecting the vulnerable from the ravages of their cuts in welfare. Notwithstanding this outrageous ideological position the government has, according to reports on RT and in the Guardian, also refused up to £30m of funding from the EU specifically provided to support food banks in the UK.
As you can see in the actual government memo below, this funding has been refused because having an anti-European Union ideological stance to attract UKIP supporters appears to be one of the things that David Cameron thinks is more important than feeding the starving in the UK.
The government has been accused of putting “anti-European ideology” before the needs of the most deprived people in society after Britain rejected help from a European Union fund to help subsidise the costs of food banks. David Cameron, who was heavily criticised recently after Michael Gove blamed the rise in food banks on financial mismanagement by families, faced pressure to embark on a U-turn to allow EU funds to be spent on feeding the poor. The government came under fire after British officials in Brussels said that the UK did not want to use money from a new £2.5bn fund – European Aid to the Most Deprived – to be used to help with the costs of running food banks. The use of food banks has increased dramatically in recent months, prompting Sir John Major to warn that the poor face a stark choice between paying for heating or food. But British officials rejected EU funding for food banks, which could have reached £22m for Britain, on the grounds that individual member states are best placed to take charge of such funding.
Certain truths are self-evident. In this case, the terrible truth is that our Conservative led government would rather accept that hundreds of thousands of its citizens, many of which are children, starve than compromise on their anti-welfare and anti-EU ideology.
The premise of this blog is that our decisions should be based on evidence not ideology – that should be doubly true for government policy. David Cameron, IDS and McVey know the facts, they have the evidence from the Trussell Trust and they have the results of the DEFRA study that they refuse to publish. Almost four years into their government, they continue to play the politics of the blame game rather than take the action required to ensure that UK citizens are fed.
British people are starving. This government has eviscerated the welfare system and left the working poor and others in no better position to feed their families than they were in the time of Malthus. Shame on Cameron, Duncan Smith and McVey for their callous focus on re-election instead of on the empty stomachs of their own fellow countryman.
Shame on them for their betrayal of the most vulnerable in our society and shame on you if you decide to vote for them in May 2015.
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