What should be the best response?
This week Ed Miliband was campaigning in Oxfordshire and visited a food bank in the Prime Minister’s constituency. I was surprised that the people of Witney needed a food bank, but perhaps it’s a sign of the times. It struck me how ‘food banks’ have become a live political issue now and are not just a response to real hardship. How MPs and political parties respond to their growth is important.
One thing that is clear is that they’re growing. And fast. Labour MPs have highlighted this in Parliament and while the Prime Minister has retaliated by illustrating the growth under the previous government, the figures are dwarfed by recent years’ expansion. 61,000 people were fed by food banks in 2010/11 compared with 346,000 in 2012/13. At this rate if nothing changes we could see approaching 1 million people using food banks in the next parliament.
For Labour to simply point to them as proof of government failure overlooks the charitable effort and donations behind them. David Cameron’s reluctance to visit a food bank illustrates the difficulty in getting the response right.
For Tories to praise the arrival of food banks and their ‘big society’ ethos looks crass and insensitive to their cause. Peterborough’s Tory MP Stewart Jackson went further at the launch of a local food banks saying “it shows that the Christian community working with others across our city are directing help to those most in need and supporting the statutory agencies to make a difference and a positive contribution, particularly for families with children.” Shouldn’t Stewart Jackson show some humility at the contribution of his own government’s policies that have affected some of the poorest resulting in people unable to feed their families?
Some of the biggest users of food banks seem to be families who are in the throes of having their benefits changed. This is likely to increase in the coming months. Cuts to housing benefit and freezes to benefits while the cost of living goes up will also make it harder for some. There also appear to be many in rural areas and not just in the inner-cities, perhaps reflecting the higher cost of living. Despite the claims of one young Tory activist from Cameron’s constituency claiming that people are using food banks to save money to spend on alcohol, there clearly is a large degree of desperation involved in those that use them. In one case some walked 20 miles to access food.
I find the very idea of food banks uncomfortable. I am torn. I don’t want to celebrate them, but I am also relieved they’re there when people are so many people are clearly struggling.
Yet Britain remains one of the wealthiest countries in the world and the fact that so many people need to rely on charity should be a collective source of shame shouldn’t it? Or is it somehow better that people are dependent on charity rather than the state? As is stands it seems it will take a lot for the rise in food banks to slow down, never mind begin falling. They look like they’re here to stay. Politicians from all parties may have to find a different way of responding to them.