In recent years there has been a sharp rise in the number of people forced to use food banks. There were 41,000 people using food banks when the coalition came to power in 2010, now there are half a million, one third of whom have children.
This rise appears to have been fuelled mainly by the government’s welfare reforms – Kent County Council, under Conservative rule, has published a report linking welfare cuts to the increase in food banks. Furthermore, a study by Crisis and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has argued that the rise in homelessness of 34%, between 2010 and 2013, is linked to welfare reform.
However, Work and Pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, refused to see the Trussell Trust, leading to a debate in the House of Commons on the 18th December. But the behaviour displayed here was akin to scenes from a Dickensian novel.
Fiona MacTaggart, Labour MP for Slough, described how people battled for cheap fruit and veg in her local Tesco, prompting the supermarket to increase the presence of security guards. Rather than taking such a shocking demonstration of desperation seriously, Conservative MPs laughed and jeered. And Iain Duncan Smith caused controversy when he departed a mere hour into the three-hour debate.
Perhaps even more frightening is the government’s ignorance of these issues, as last week they turned down £22 million of EU funding to aid food banks, who are struggling to keep up with the increase in demand.
Perhaps the most obvious illustration of the regression of politicians’ attitudes to those in need was Minister for Disabled People Esther McVey’s response to questions from the opposition. She stated that food banks were one of the few good things that the recession had produced as it showed that, “the community has pulled together to support one another”.
This almost appears to be a reflection of a philosophy, steeped in Victoriana, which was particularly prominent in Gladstone’s First Ministry (1868-1874); that charity, rather than the state, should provide for the poor.
Unfortunately, there are far worse examples of this government’s attitude towards poverty. George Osborne, for example, has argued that people regard living on benefits as a “lifestyle choice”, and that claimants stay at home “with their curtains closed, sleeping off a life on benefits”.
This is despite the fact only 0.7% of benefits claims in 2012-13 were fraudulent. To hear comments, ungrounded in evidence, of such extremity and so frequently makes it seem as if we have been transported back to the 18th Century, when the majority of economists and politicians believed unemployment to be voluntary; in other words, there is employment if workers are willing to take increasingly lower wages.
Indeed, the rise of zero-hours contracts under this government, appears to be testament to this, and has meant that many of those using food banks are employed, but depend on them because of the financial instability of such contracts.
Although I have criticised the government, Labour are also blameworthy. Rachel Reeves, Shadow Work and Pensions Minister, pledged that Labour would be “tougher” than the Tories on welfare; a move which would surely increase food bank usage.
Therefore, it appears that, on both sides of the house, British politics is returning to a time when the poor were treated not with compassion, but with contempt, regarded as both work shy and lazy. Unless we begin to see past the poisonous rhetoric of successive Conservative and New Labour governments that the poor are the culprits of their positions in society rather than victims of circumstance, we will find our politicians increasingly uncaring and callous to those in need.