Reposted from Patrick Cutlers blog @ the Guardian
David Cameron’s discomfort over food banks typifies the right’s panic, confusion and denial over the causes of food insecurity
Notoriously, David Cameron recently admitted to his inquisitor Jeremy Paxmanthat he did not know how many food banks there were in the UK, a clear sign, many concluded, that when it comes to poverty he is desperately out of touch, incompetent, in denial, or all three.
He did not know, or think to say, that no-one else knows exactly how many there are either (best estimates are in the thousands). But then food banks provokeblind panic in the Tories: they can’t decide whether they admire or despise them; they fear them and with few exceptions, their default position is to try to ignore them.
Indeed, one of the last acts of the coalition was to confirm that it was not in the least bit interested in finding out how many food banks there are, or why there has been an explosion in the number of people using food banks.
In January, the commons environment and rural affairs select committee called on the government to start collecting statistically robust data on this austerity-era phenomenon (a constant ministerial criticism of food banks’ own data has been that it is not “statistically robust”):
We recommend that Defra commission further research into why more people are using foodbanks to provide an evidence base to inform and enhance policy responses.
Last week, the government replied (exactly as I predicted, showing no great insight) that it would not do so. The reasons given are brief and oblique, but apart from such a task being “complex”, ministers appear especially keen not to put the poor food banks themselves to any more trouble:
Some of these food aid providers take records, whereas others do not. As an obstacle to collecting data on food aid provision, we would be reluctant to oblige communities to collect data on top of the hard work they are already doing.
Of course, food banks tell us that they work so hard precisely primarily because government policy – benefit sanctions, delays in benefit processing, and so on – generates so much demand for food parcels. But that is precisely the insight the coalition has been so desperate to suppress. Food banks, they know, may be Big Society incarnate, but they are toxic to the austerity project.
As I have pointed out before:
The food bank phenomenon has become a rolling commentary on the deep flaws and ideological vanities of the Coalition’s policies of austerity and welfare reform.
In the face of this challenge the right has attempted to construct ever more unlikely narratives to explain the rise of food banks. The welfare minister Lord Freud suggested people went to them because the food was free; the former education secretary Michael Gove suggested it was because people on low incomes were bad at managing their money; Baroness Jenkin, because the poor can’t cook.
The latest comes from the Telegraph columnist and Spectator editor Fraser Nelson. His alternative history goes something like this: food banks were a response to Labour’s cumbersome benefits system; the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith tried to support food banks, but was thwarted (for unspecified reasons) by Whitehall bureaucrats; the ungrateful food banks (for unspecified reasons) then turned on the haplessly betrayed Duncan Smith (“in politics no good deed goes unpunished”].
It’s entertaining, if bizarre stuff (and he misinterprets food banks data to try and suggest the rise of food banks is not predominantly down to welfare-related poverty). But the main flaw of his argument is that it assumes food banks are part of the permanent order of things: that they somehow exist and thrive outside of government welfare and economic policy.
In this strange narrative, ministers are innocent bystanders, bullied by powerful, wily, expansionist charity interests (Nelson calls the Trussell Trust network a “chain” as if it were Tesco). Rather than ask if food banks are a just or effective way to tackle rising hunger triggered by state policy, the key question, Nelson suggests, is how ministers can somehow accommodate within their welfare systems the rampant vogue for charity food:
All of this does present governments with a challenge: what do you do, if charities start coming up with popular welfare solutions? Fight them – or help them?
Food banks, as countless studies in Canada, the US and the UK have shown, are popular welfare solutions only for governments who slash social security and are happy to encourage low-wage economies. They tend to be hated by their “customers”, who may be grateful for the help they get, but routinely say their abiding experience of charity food is deep shame and humiliation.
Food banks, we know, are driven by poverty, but are not efficient or sustainable ways to tackle poverty and food insecurity.
This is why Labour has pledged that in government it would halt and reverse the growth of food banks (not, as Nelson suggests, ban them). They are also committed to undertaking the research into food insecurity needed to properly inform food and welfare policy. It remains to be seen whether they would succeed, or whether their current enthusiasm would founder on the rock of deficit reduction.
But unlike the Conservatives they appear to have learned to talk honestly about food banks: they understand the distressing reasons why they thrive, and how, for all the admirable work of volunteers that run them, food banks are a sign of a failing society, not a compassionate one.