Food bank bashing: when poverty dares speak its name

The Tories are trying to discredit food banks because the alternative would be to accept that their policies are creating poverty.

The Tories are trying to discredit food banks because the alternative would be to accept that their policies are creating poverty, writes Annie Powell

Today, Easter Sunday, that paragon of Christian virtue the Mail on Sunday has run a story about food banks. Not about how nearly a million people have been driven to such extreme poverty in Cameron’s Britain that they cannot afford to feed themselves, no, but about how one of its reporters lied to a food bank to obtain a free food parcel.

The point of the story? To make out that it’s easy to get free food from food banks and that those who do so are simply on the scrounge rather than in genuine need.

It’s pretty clear what’s prompted this bile. Not only does the soaring rise in food banks undermine the right’s rhetoric about benefit claimants, it also reveals the nature of in-work poverty.

Why would the sick or unemployed be referred to a food bank if they weren’t in desperate need of food? Aren’t they supposed to be living a life of luxury at the taxpayers’ expense? And if food bank users have a job, why can’t they afford to feed themselves?

It gets worse for the Tories. Food banks have captured the imagination of the national press in a way that other experiences of poverty have not. Food bank use is easily counted and easily communicated; poverty statistics are abstract but food parcels are strikingly evocative of aid efforts in developing countries. This is dangerously close to depicting the poor as deserving.

That’s why, with the help of Mail, the Tories are trying to discredit and smear those who run and those who rely on food banks. The unpalatable alternative would be to accept that their policies have created indefensible levels of poverty.

These smears tell you nothing about food banks, but a lot about the Tories. Possibly the most ridiculous attack on the Christian charity the Trussell Trust, the largest food bank provider in the UK, is that it’s a business and all its efforts therefore self-interested. “I understand that a feature of your business model must require you to continuously achieve publicity,” wrote Iain Duncan Smith to the Trussell Trust last year.

This line of attack was continued in recent days, with a “senior Whitehall source” telling the Daily Mail that the charity’s “publicity seeking” was “not entirely surprising given Chris Mould [Trussell Trust chairman] is effectively running a business.”

The Trussell Trust gives food away for free to those who are assessed as in need. Now I’m no entrepreneur, but that doesn’t seem like a particularly promising business model.

This unnamed senior Whitehall source also accused the Trust of being “emotionally manipulative”. Emotionally manipulative, for speaking out about the need to feed the hungry in modern Britain. Goodness knows what they’d have to say about that arch manipulator whose teachings form the basis of the Trussell Trust’s mission.

Then there is the suggestion from our esteemed education secretary that people have enough money but are bad at managing it. And of course we’ve heard that food bank use is just one more example of “something-for-nothing” culture. Edwina Curry claimed that free food is needed by people who spend their money on dog food and tattoos.

Less grotesque but just as pernicious is DWP minister Lord Freud’s pronouncement that “there is actually no evidence as to whether the use of food banks is supply led or demand led…food from a food bank-the supply-is a free good, and by definition there is an almost infinite demand for a free good”. In other words, food banks are proliferating because people want free food not because they need it.

Leaving aside the fact that your circumstances will first be assessed in detail before you can receive a food parcel, and that for most people asking for food is a humiliating last resort, what exactly did the government think would happen when it legislated to increase the minimum – minimium – sanction for benefit claimants from one to four weeks? Four weeks, often longer, with no money. Iain Duncan Smith knows you need money to buy food, right?

Reports abound of the increasing and ludicrously unfair use of these sanctions: the woman who was sanctioned for failing to meet the quota of weekly job applications because she’d applied for too many of the available jobs in the preceding week; the man who could not attend his training course and jobcentreplus appointment because they clashed; the unemployed teacher who missed an appointment because she was attending an interview.

These are all fairly typical examples.

So that, Iain Duncan Smith et al, is why people are using food banks. That, stagnating wages, insecure work and your government’s detrimental changes and cuts to in and out-of-work benefits. But I think you already knew that, didn’t you?

*Details are here for how to donate to the Trussell Trust on a regular or one-off basis

Annie Powell is a Left Foot Forward contributing editor

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6 Responses to “Food bank bashing: when poverty dares speak its name”

  1. angry

    what makes me so angry is that we vote these idiots in. these people have no qualifications for the job, have no interest in the country or the welfare of its citizens. they see politics as simply a job and being an mp as a promotion, knowing that they can then get a consultancy job doing nothing for a lot of money. perhaps we need to look again at how politicians are paid, perhaps with a basic civil servant pay, and instead of allowing them to dictate their own expenses, use the guidelines in HMRC, a set amount for a hotel stay, a set amount of petrol allowance, a set amount for food. perhaps bring politicians in from general life, not from a millionaire bubble with no experience. or maybe we should just starve them.

  2. GO

    I’d respect the Tories a little more if they just had the courage of their own avowed convictions. They set out, so we were told, actively to promote the ‘Big Society’ as an alternative to ‘Big Government’. They created space in the welfare system for charities to step in and take over certain responsibilities from government – e.g. by delaying entitlement to out-of-work benefits for newly unemployed people by a week, and by increasing benefit levels at a rate lower than the rate at which the cost of living was rising. Well, it’s worked; charities such as food banks have stepped up to the mark and are assuming some of the burden previously shouldered by the state. Yet rather than trumpet their success, they’re backpedalling furiously and insisting that the growth of foodbanks doesn’t really mean anything and certainly doesn’t have anything to do with them.

    It’s kind of reassuring, though, to see that the Tories are in a position where they’ll either take the blame for the growth in food bank use, or not. There’s no question of them taking the *credit* for it; the British public just aren’t right-wing enough to buy this sort of shift (from a society based around a comprehensive welfare state, to a society based around a patchwork of charitable provision) as a good thing.

  3. swatnan

    The problem is that its idiots that vote idiots in. Most MPs are pretty hopeless when it comes to keeping eyes on their money. |f they had any sense they’d employ an accountant or financial advisor, but most are foolish enough to think that their finances don’t matter that much and thdey can manage their money themselves… until its too late. And most MPs these days have never experienced a backgound of poverty; they come from pretty comfortable homes and environments.

  4. Gavin Radcliffe

    9 times out of 10 I find my blood boiling when ever I read an article in the Daily Mail. And just when I think people are being brainwashed I read the comments. 100s of people slagging off the journalists and the Government. I don’t think many people take that paper too seriously. I think the fact that the Mail and IDS tried to blacken the name of anyone who speaks against them does nothing but further alienates the Conservatives from the masses. The fact that they have tried to turn the public against the poor and sick and targeting a hate campaign against a charity, has further alienated them and the result is more people donating food.

  5. nodbod

    Oh I wish that you were correct. I have in my family DM readers. Some Saturdays ago they waved a copy under my nose showing how planes of refugees from Romania were flooding into the country and that we were almost bankrupt with the welfare that they were claiming. The Romanian highlighted in the story came here three years ago, set up his own recycling/scrap business but was also not working and claiming welfare. There was no evidence of how many flights per period were coming here, what the seat occupancy was or how many went back after any given time. Those that could not afford to fly were coming by coach.
    I pointed out the holes in the evidence, the contrary stories elsewhere that they were not coming in wholesale. The story was even self contradictory but in their eyes it was in the paper so it must be true. Their opinion of Labour is that they sold all the gold, they are all millionaires and no better than Camoron and his mates. If you try to explain £385 billion of Quantitative easing or infrastructure projects rather than austerity they say that I am just another looney socialist.
    In their eyes, anyone using a food bank is just another scrounger and any amount of proof or evidence to the contrary is just ignored. This story is just more grist to the mill.
    Funny thing is, they are all alive directly because of the existence of the NHS (heart condition, polio and cancer) but they are entitled because they have paid for it, not because socialists of old.
    So back to your point, I wish it were true but these are just some of so many. To them the DM is good and true in all that is says.

  6. treborc1

    Poverty of course Miliband did go through Poverty once so he said he lived in a council house, you cannot get much lower then that can you,

    Dave of course thinks council houses are for Chickens which most of the poor keep.

    Ball’s and Osborne are two of a kind.

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