December, and the festivities that hold its hand, are equated with warm, cosy houses, roaring log fires, a bustling kitchen full of meaty and spicy aromas while the alcohol flows and Christmas programmes blare from the TV. The same cannot be said though for tens of thousands of families this year– a year which saw a record number of people turning to food banks for assistance. Turkeys will not be carved, nor presents exchanged, as households rely on parcels from food banks to get them through this particularly poignant season.
Food banks have, really unfortunately, had a big year. Use is up by 60% in the south east – an area generally known for its larger proportion of wealth; new food banks open every couple of days throughout the UK; and half a million people received emergency food from food banks between April and December this year – over 150,000 more people than 2012. But perhaps the most grossly shocking headline of all is that the Government is continually refusing to meet with charity the Trussell Trust to discuss overcoming the growing pressure and increasing use of the emergency service with the help of Government – because it claims the two ideas are not linked.
Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has on several recent occasions declined to meet with the Trust, accusing it of “scaremongering” and pursuing a political agenda. He flatly dismisses the link between cuts to welfare and the increased use of food banks, and instead accuses the Christian charity of publicity-seeking.
Meetings have been sought since June by Trust chairman, Chris Mould. He expects 2014 to see a million people through food bank doors, and anticipates another 100 centres opening. Among Duncan Smith’s responses to Mould include: “I strongly refute this claim [linking welfare to increased food bank usage] and would politely ask you to stop scaremongering in this way. I understand that a feature of your business model must require you to continuously achieve publicity, but I’m concerned that you are now seeking to do this by making your political opposition to welfare reform overtly clear.”
What is actually overtly clear is that the coalition Government is not concerned with this deeply troubling state of affairs sinking the UK deeper and deeper with every year. So much so that it turned down a €22m of EU funding towards food banks, claiming it should be left to individual member states on how to spend its money. And Duncan Smith is in a second firing line after he walked out in the middle of a recent debate on food banks, but not before the House and he had laughed and jeered as Labour MP Fiona MacTaggart told of shoppers fighting over cut price fruit and vegetables which prompted increased security measures in the stores. Are these the scenes Government really wants playing out across the UK at Christmas so that families can put on as festive a spread as their means will allow?
The Government has made a point of chastising food banks already this year, suggesting they merely subsidise those that cannot manage their finances. So what does 2014 hold for the welfare state and food banks when the Government holds these attitudes? If the minister responsible for the working life of the UK’s people continues to sneak out of Parliamentary debates, and Tory ministers find it amusing to laugh at the hungry, then next year looks decidedly bleak. It’s kind of like being back in the playground scenario of the bully taking the kid’s dinner money – but this time the hungry will not be silenced.
Food banks are the ‘Big Society’ in practice, but that does not mean it is for the Government to wash its hands of. A democratic government is supposed to represent the interests of its people, but instead, the UK’s very own buries its head in the sand. Food banks are now a reality for Britain but by no means should they be a certainty like death or taxes. For all the while the Government aligns itself with the school of thought that ignorance is bliss, could we be hurtling towards a scenario where 2015 – 30 years since Live Aid – might see a concert for the UK’s food impoverished in the absence of the coalition Government’s intervention and its two fingers to Europe? What a harrowing thought.