Until it starts caring for all of the people it was elected to serve, people will continue to ask for help.
Rob Flello is the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent South
The first caller was a bearded man in his 50s clutching a crumpled plastic bag. Standing nervously near the front door of my constituency office, he spoke in almost apologetic terms.
He was followed only minutes later by a young couple pushing their child in a pram. The parents, like the man before them, appeared tired and drawn. This was hardly surprising, given that the same evil had driven the three of them to ask for my help: hunger.
Hard though it may be to believe in the 21st Century in the seventh richest country in the world, but the man and couple wanted a referral to the foodbank based in the Methodist Church nearby. This foodbank is one of 10 such centres in Stoke-on-Trent run by the Trussell Trust and one of four in the constituency I serve.
From April to the middle of last December, just eight months, the city’s foodbanks fed an astonishing 7,195 people, including 2,861 children, with almost 46,000kg of food.
The figures make for even grimmer reading if the period scrutinised is extended back to May 2012. For during these 20 months the foodbanks fed more than 13,900 people, including 5,275 children, with over 100,000kg of food.
Thinking these shocking statistics would help sting the government into launching an investigation into the causes of the food poverty now endemic in Britain, I highlighted some of them during Labour’s debate on the issue in the House of Commons shortly before the Christmas recess.
Shamefully, my hopes proved in vain as Tory minister Esther McVey from the Department for Work and Pensions responded to the Opposition’s pleas with her characteristic whirl of bluster and evasion while her boss, Iain Duncan Smith, took cowardice to new levels by grinning like a Cheshire cat before skulking away once the heat in the parliamentary kitchen became too much to bear.
The Tories and most of their Liberal Democrat allies then capped this astonishing display of cold-hearted indifference by marshalling their troops to defeat Labour’s bid for an investigation.
It seems as though the weightier the evidence of desperation – 60,000 people fed by foodbanks this Christmas, up threefold in a year; 500,000 fed by foodbanks last year, up from 41,000 in 2010 – and the more passionate the calls for answers and remedial action, the more resistant the coalition to being shaken from its damaging torpor.
Unfeeling and uncaring, the government has not only forgone the chance to tap potentially tens of millions of pounds of EU funds to support foodbanks, but insulted foodbank users – education secretary Michael Gove suggested their suffering was self-induced – and those who are left to pick up the pieces of ministers’ politics of starvation: the foodbank organisers themselves.
Delivering a Christmas gift which would have made Scrooge blush, Duncan Smith told Trussell Trust director Chris Mould that his charity’s claims to be non-partisan were a sham and that it was merely ‘scaremongering’ in a bid to sustain its ‘business model’.
But although the government’s incompetence and nastiness is a big disappointment to me and my colleagues, that’s not really the point.
For the real victims of their arrogant disdain are the thousands of people in Stoke-on-Trent, indeed throughout the UK, who are going hungry in increasingly large numbers.
They must continue to choose between heating and eating while the government, Nero-like, fiddles away on the sidelines, choosing to ignore a plight Oxfam believes is caused by rising prices, low wages and the benefit system overhaul.
And that, it should be stressed, is the main cause of the problem: the government is choosing not to help those in distress.
Until it changes tack and starts caring for all of the people it was elected to serve, and not just society’s elite, people will continue knocking on MPs’ doors asking for help.
And that should make all of us nervous and apologetic, and indeed ashamed.
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