The TV comedy star is furious that a “prat” like Tory Government minister Lord Freud says people are just going to take advantage of a free meal
When I was asked to help out at a Liverpool food bank by the Trussell Trust and Len McCluskey, I leapt at the chance. But what I saw there really stopped me in my tracks.
The volunteers were working flat out packing food boxes for families who without their help would have nothing to wake up to on Christmas morning.
Then the manager Paul told me this was just one of a number of food banks in and around Liverpool and all of them would be rushed off their feet over Christmas.
In all there are 400 Trussell Trust food banks trying to feed 20,000 kids this Christmas. That’s on top of the 500,000 people they’ve fed since April, which is like feeding the whole of Wembley stadium five and a half times over.
Now Len and I are working class Liverpudlians – born and bred. We know what Scousers are like. Ours is a city full of proud people.
It’s obvious to us that the moment a family was forced to go to a food bank for help would’ve been one of the hardest of their lives – no matter how friendly the volunteers.
So it makes me furious when a prat like Tory Government minister Lord Freud says people are just going to take advantage of a free meal. Rubbish! These families are totally desperate.
Iain Duncan Smith, the embattled work and pensions secretary, is refusing to meet leaders of the rapidly expanding Christian charity that has set up more than 400 food banks across the UK, claiming it is “scaremongering” and has a clear political agenda.
The news will fuel a growing row over food poverty, as church leaders and the Labour party accuse ministers of failing to recognise the growing crisis hitting hundreds of thousands of families whose incomes are being squeezed, while food prices soar.
Responding to requests for a meeting from Chris Mould, chairman of the Trussell Trust, which has provided food supplies to more than 500,000 people since April, Duncan Smith has dismissed claims that the problems are linked to welfare reforms and attacked the charity for publicity-seeking. In his most recent response on 22 November, Duncan Smith made clear that he had received enough letters from the trust and referred Mould to his previous answers. His deputy, Lord Freud, the minister for welfare reform, also explicitly rejected an invitation for talks on 30 August, telling the trust’s chairman that he was “unable to take up your offer of a meeting”.
It is a national disgrace that this Christmas there are tens of thousands having to turn to food banks. Britain is experiencing a food poverty explosion. The Trussell Trust estimate that they will feed 700,000 people this financial year. Whilst 13 million people in Britain are living below the poverty line – one in five – it’s no surprise that hunger is a reality for so many adults and children. Yet this in one of the richest countries on earth.
Last year I secured the first parliamentary debate on food banks. It was a relatively new phenomenon. Most people had never heard of them a few years ago. My Labour colleagues and I exposed some shocking statistics: almost one in ten people in the UK have skipped meals because of poverty, gone without food to feed their families or relied on friends and family for food. We pressed ministers to tackle the sharp end of the cost of living crisis, but we failed. Ministers refuse to acknowledge the depth and scale of the crisis. Yet ministers view food banks as merely an expression of people’s good will, a worthy charitable enterprise or the manifestation of the illusive ‘big society’.
‘Food banks are not a negative thing – they are evidence of communities getting together to try to help their neighbours, but they should not be needed in one of the richest countries in the world.’
Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
Two weeks ago, along with the Trussell Trust and the Unite union, I launched a petition in the Daily Mirror calling for parliament to debate hunger and food bank use in the UK.
By the end of the first day, 63,000 people had signed it. By the end of the second day, that number topped 100,000, the usual tipping point for a petition to be discussed in parliament. On the third day, we received confirmation that the Labour party was going to raise it as an opposition day debate in the House of Commons.
A week after it launched, we handed the petition in to parliament. It had over 130,000 signatures on it, and the number is still rising.
1. Food bank use in the South East, the region known for its wealth and relative prosperity, is up over 60% this year.
2. A decade ago, food banks were almost unheard of in the UK. The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest network of food banks, now opens new food banks in Britain every week to cope with the increase in referrals.
3. The Government commissioned a report into the rise in food bank use in June this year. DEFRA investigated, and the Government are refusing to publish the report.
4. Thousands of families face the prospect of relying on emergency food handouts this Christmas.
5. Some people who are in full time work are using food banks to support themselves and their families. Many of these work zero hour contracts – people are employed, but can work little or no hours in a week. They have no financial stability, and are not guaranteed enough to pay their rent, bills, or buy food.
6. Half a million people received emergency food assistance from a Trussell Trust food bank between April and December 2013. This is more than the number assisted in the entire year before (346,992).
7. Robin Aitkin in the Telegraph claims that: “A new service is being offered to more and more communities, and naturally people are using it. The sustained media interest in food banks has acted as a giant advertising campaign.” This is simply untrue. People cannot simply turn up to a food bank and ask for help, they need to be identified as being in need by a healthcare professional or social services or similar, and referred with a form or a voucher. It isn’t, as certain politicians would have you believe, an opportunist desire for free food.
8. Figures from the Trussell Trust show that changes to the benefit system are the most common cause for food bank use in Britain. Nearly a third had been referred after benefits had been delayed, and a further 19% due to their benefits being cut or stopped.
9. 3 in 10 people say they are now struggling to feed themselves and their family because of the rising cost of food.
10. Lord Freud (again) thinks that food banks are a good thing and that local authorities should ‘ramp up support in kind’. Speaking at a recent conference on welfare reform, he said that it is “absolutely appropriate” that charities should provide free food parcels to people hit by benefit cuts and delays.
11. Niall Cooper, the national co-ordinator of Church Action On Poverty, says: “Where are we as a society that people in work are having to turn to food banks? It’s a big question but it does not feel like one the Government wants to answer.”
12. All 152 councils in England have set up welfare assistance schemes to replace the crisis loan and community care grant elements of the social fund, which until April were provided by the DWP. Some schemes offer food vouchers in place of cash assistance, and a number are working in partnership with food banks. Despite 87% of benefit claimants being in work, almost two-thirds of the local council welfare schemes stipulate that working people are not eligible for their help.
13. Nottinghamshire council is proposing to close its welfare assistance scheme in April, and will cease to refer people to food banks or offer additional support.
14. Lord Freud (again!) claims that there is no robust evidence of a link between welfare reform and the rise in food bank use. However over half of the people referred to food banks are there due to delays and cuts in benefits, and benefit sanctions.
15. Today there are more than 400 food banks across Britain, with new ones opening every couple of days.
16. Some food banks now open twice a day in order to meet the number of referrals in their local community. The Storehouse, in Southend, changed its opening times earlier this year to accommodate the growing number of people in need in their community. The Storehouse is an independently run food bank, part of the Vineyard church, and not affiliated with the Trussell Trust.
17. Since April this year the number of people referred to food banks because they can’t afford to feed themselves due to benefit changes has increased. Over half of food bank referrals are due to welfare issues, such as cuts and changes to benefits, delays, and sanctions.
18. A mum of two whose husband is in work was referred to Chiltern food bank for help after the council made a mistake with her housing benefit. “I was really embarrassed at first, but the volunteer at the food bank really boosted my confidence and self esteem. She made me feel like I was worth something.”
19. Food banks don’t just hand out emergency food, they also provide other essentials such as nappies, formula milk and sanitary towels.
20. Food banks do not encourage a cycle of dependency. Molly Hodson from the Trussell Trust says: “Our food banks are different to American and Canadian food banks, they are an emergency service. Where there is a welfare provision, nobody should be at a point where they can’t put food on the table long term. We help people out of poverty by working with local agencies and charities for example if someone has debt problems, we put them in touch with a debt counselling charity. We want to help resolve the issues, and make sure people have a route out of poverty.”