Lord Freud shocked a hell of a lot of people on Monday when he claimed there was no causal link between rising poverty and an increase in the use of food banks to 500,000 people (at least – some think the true number is already higher). He claimed the rise in the use of food banks is a simple matter of supply and demand ie. if you open food banks people will use them, regardless of financial need. The sheer audacity of denying that the UK could go from having 250,000 food bank users in early December 2012 to 500,000 now without the actions of Government having any impact on those people to cause them to need food banks is breathtaking.
Lord Freud’s claim is ridiculous on many levels but the first is that it ignores how food banks operate. I couldn’t just stroll up to a food bank in the hopes of reducing my shopping bill. Access is controlled to ensure only those in genuine need are able to use food banks, not to mention the fact that food banks have a very limited range of foods available and it’s reasonable to suggest that most people would prefer to choose from the wide range of foods available to buy elsewhere if they had sufficient money to do so.
Many other people are writing about the timing of benefits payments, the amount of the payments and a rise in the use of sanctions, for example Freud Foodbank Dunce or Devil. I won’t repeat the arguments related to benefits in any detail here. I want to mention an additional causal link between the rising reliance on food banks and the actions of the Government (which makes all of those problems related to benefits worse for those affected). The starting point for me when considering an increase in food poverty is the broader picture, encompassing other Government actions, resulting in inflation. I don’t know about you but I’ve certainly noticed the impact of inflation on food prices over the past few years. The RPI and CPI cover a very broad range of goods and services and, as such, aren’t an entirely reliable source of information on how inflation affects the poorest people in society if you just glance at them, eg downward shifts in the cost of luxury technology are taken into account and in January this year it was reported (yes, it’s probably unfashionable to quote Unite right now but tough) that it was overseas flight costs which cancelled out rising energy prices in the CPI. If you have a burning desire to look at the RPI and CPI in more detail you can find explanatory notes on this year’s shopping basket in a 34 page document here. If you look solely at basics, the increase in the cost of living has been shocking over the past few years. Don’t just take my word for it. Tory mp Laura Sandys called for Government intervention in food pricing just last month, pointing to food inflation of a whopping 29% in five years. At the same time we’ve seen enormous increases in energy prices, plus bitterly cold weather conditions. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has just reported a rise of 25% in the minimum household income for a family of four over the same period
Even many people in work have struggled to balance their household incomes in the face of pay cuts and freezes. People in work have taken record pay cuts over the same five year period in order to minimise job losses. I was one of them in my last job but I could get by. People like me have safety nets in place as a result of our place in the middle income bracket. We can cut back and juggle things. Many other people were on low wages to start with and can’t do things like stop making pension contributions or use their credit rating to borrow from banks for household emergencies. Yes, those people may respond to the availability of food banks by using them but to imply that they don’t need that help is absurd when there’s nothing left to cut and nowhere to borrow but from obscenely expensive sources like Wonga.
Disturbingly, the fact that so many of us have struggled as a result of failed economic policies, rampant profiteering on the part of energy companies and the bad luck of poor weather was used by the Government to justify benefits uprating. The Government was warned by church leaders, among others, at the time of benefits uprating debates that reliance on food banks would increase as a result but Lord Freud seems to have conveniently forgotten this point.
What do charities have to say about food banks users? The Trussell Trust, the rapidly growing charity responsible for operating many food banks said in April.
“Nearly a third of food parcel recipients had been referred to the trust because their social security benefits had been delayed. A further 15% came as a result of their benefits being cut or stopped (up from 11% in 2011-12). The trust said the majority of people turning to food banks were working-age families. Mould said: “We’re seeing people from all kinds of backgrounds turning to food banks: working people coming in on their lunch-breaks, mums who are going hungry to feed their children, people whose benefits have been delayed and people who are struggling to find enough work.”
Oxfam also noted factors such as delays in payment of benefits and the fact that even those in employment simply can’t afford to live when it announced it’s decision to support the Trussell Trust and Fareshare.
Presumably, according to Freud it’s pure coincidence that, while the use of food banks is increasing a study published at the end of June reported that:
“the number of UK children living in poverty (below 60 per cent of median income before housing costs) is expected to rise by around 700,000 – from 2.3 to 3 million – between 2010-11 and 2015. Including universal credit leads to only a slightly smaller child poverty figure of 2.9 million.
The number of children living in households below 50 per cent of median income before housing costs is expected to rise by 300,000 to 1.5 million children during the same period.
The number of children living below a ‘minimum income standard’ is expected to rise by 400,000 to 6.8 million (around 52 per cent of all children).
The impact of tax and benefit reforms has been strongly regressive: low-income families with children have lost more as a percentage of net income than high-income families.”
If Lord Freud isn’t deliberately lying to the House of Lords, he’d have to genuinely believe that 500,000 people in Britain today have no desire for the dignity of surviving without having to rely on charity. I believe that he is deliberately lying but I sometimes wonder if people like our current Government, many whom were born with wealth and/or titles, find it easier to dismiss the concept of human dignity and the desire to not have to rely on the State or charity to survive because they’ll never have to do that. They have the best safety net money can buy: money itself. When people criticise the Government’s policies on taxing the wealthy, the Government often claims that is the politics of envy but they try to make the “squeezed middle” envy unemployed people, painting their lives as ones of irresponsible ease and luxury at the expense of basic rate tax payers. Theirs is the politics of mealy mouthed resentment.
Note: In digging up the links for this post I came across this article on current British and European attitudes to poverty in the Buenos Aires Herald. It’s well worth a look.