Still Hungry for Answers on Foodbanks

Sometimes the supposed wickedness of one’s opponents can make you lazy. The left have spent the best part of the last 30-odd years blaming the late Margaret Thatcher for their own terminal decline and UK society’s ills to boot. And they’re now keen as custard, if you’ll excuse the culinary reference, on vilifying the views of her associates on the foodbank issue whatever the merits (admittedly scant) of what they have to say. While it may be hard to stomach ex Tory ministers Edwina Currie and Norman Tebbit, spouting ill-considered bile about the inadequacies of the poor – notwithstanding the recent contrite comments of the latter following an encounter with the apparently food-poor; I find it harder still to swallow today’s left-liberal refusal to countenance any alternative view on the subject than their own.

Those who have questioned the government’s critics’ unofficial-official account – accepting, as most do, that the DWP version of events doesn’t stand up to scrutiny – have also met with no little hostility. It is not enough to accept, or even regret, that some people are hard-up and desperate. You have to sign-up without question to the completely counter-factual notion that a million or more people are actually going hungry. Or else be banished from polite company. Robin Aitken, co-founder of the Oxford Food Bank, for instance, is one of the few people involved in the industry (for want of a less cynical term) to question the dominant narrative that there has been an increase in ‘food poverty’. I find this intolerance of any counter-argument or criticism on the grounds that it is itself tantamount to cruelty, about as shocking as the poor-pitying no doubt find the imagined plight of the allegedly hungry masses. And about as anger-inducing as the notion that a compassion-light, cutting-obsessed, Tory-dominated government is inflicting unprecedented deprivations on the ‘vulnerable’ and needy.

But it is only a notion, and a shaky one at that. According to figures provided by the Trussell Trust – a network running more than a third of the country’s foodbanks and, according to Nick Cohen, ‘the Anglican conscience at its active best’ – the increase in take-up of food parcels preceded the coming to power of the apparently ever-so-austere coalition government. (A government, it should be noted, with which the Trust has been in a very public spat of recent.) So there were 2,814 people in 2005/6 – under a Blair government – receiving the at least 3 days worth of non-perishable food that their food voucher entitled them to. This shot up to 9,174 the following year; and again, under the ill-fated Brown government to 13,849, 25,899 and then 40,898 in each of the years that followed. In other words, there was a very significant upward trend in foodbank demand under the preceding Labour governments. In 2010/11 under Cameron’s Lib-Con administration there was even a relative slow down in the rise to 61,468 referrals. It was after this that the trend of high proportionate increases under Labour gave way to high absolute increases, with 128,697 referrals in 2011/12 and 346,992 recorded in 2012/13, under the coalition.

The reasons for the increase are various: including things like unemployment, domestic violence, sickness and delayed wages. Over the winter period, the Trust even began issuing ‘kettle boxes’ for the extremely desperate few who, because they had been made homeless or were just plain broke, couldn’t afford to use a cooker; and ‘cold boxes’ for those who didn’t even have the means to heat water. But, in the latter period at least, there is good reason to point to welfare changes as having the single most sizeable bearing on the rise in foodbanks and the take-up of food parcels. According to the Trust (ever-reliable in recording its foodbank activity), in 2013/14 benefit delays accounted for the highest number of referrals at 31% of the total 913,138. Another 20% were a consequence of ‘low income’, 17% down to benefit changes; and 8% a consequence of debt problems. In other words, at least half of the referrals – whether or not you include things like the refusal of short term benefit allowances or crisis loans – were in one way or another related to recent changes in the benefits system, both to its reform and its (mal)administration.

That this has been happening is not in question. In fact it would be silly, as the government has indeed been doing, to deny it. But the extent and nature of the ‘hunger’ problem is in question. It would be remarkable if somebody somewhere didn’t find the claim that ‘Britain isn’t eating’ a little far-fetched. Indeed, it is only in questioning the orthodox view which, in my view, tends to exaggerate the problem that we might arrive at a sensible explanation about what is causing it. We only, after all, have half an answer.

First published in Huffington Post

People Using Foodbanks Are Hard-Up Not Hungry

Foodbanks have been back in the news over the past week, most notably with two rather vicious attacks on the people who use them. First came the Mail on Sunday with its investigative journalistic piece on how apparently easy it is to get your hands on a food parcel if you’re devious enough. The second, though not especially new (welfare minister Lord Freud had made the same point some months back), came from former minister Edwina Currie.

She argued that people are using foodbanks (much like some climb mountains) because they are there, and in growing numbers.

1 million people may be very hard up but they are not going hungry

The undercover piece may have been pretty mean-spirited – arguably it isn’t easy enough to get a food parcel because in most cases the gatekeepers at the Council, jobcentre, etc decide who does and doesn’t qualify – but it was the first real evidenced challenge (putting to one side the anti-poor prejudices of Tory commentators) to those such as the Trussell Trust making wild claims about a million or more people going hungry.

The rise in take-up of food parcels from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands is largely welfare-related

I see no reason to challenge the view of the government’s critics that it is welfare reforms in the form of a greater use of sanctions, the bedroom tax, the benefit cap, and fitness to work tests; alongside delays in payments, the abolition of the social fund in favour of less generous local authority-run emergency assistance schemes, and in all likelihood a deliberate attempt to shift the welfare burden onto the charity sector; that is responsible for the sudden and steep rise in food banks and food parcels.

But is there something else going on too?

You’d think ‘Egwina’ would steer clear of food-related controversies given her infamous run-in with the salmonella crisis that ended her political career. But in a way, I’m glad she did. For all their faults, there is a certain logic to the argument put forward by Currie, Freud and others that can’t be so easily dismissed.

There used to be a stigma about accepting charity – nobody wanted to be a ‘charity case’ – but given the riots of 2012 and what that said about the breakdown of some communities, and of the kinds of traditional working class values of which such an attitude was once a definitive part, would it be surprising if there were a greater readiness to accept charity today? As Currie herself argued, growing up in a working class family in Liverpool her mother always made sure to ‘put food on the table’ whatever the hardships she and the family otherwise endured. Similarly, as one rather controversial Labour-supporting social landlord has reminisced, his mother (unlike his tenants) would always be sure to pay her rent on time.

The instilling of these sorts of values may not have gone completely out of fashion, but – as I argued on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Stephen Nolan programme the night after he interviewed Currie (from 1:24:40) – to the extent that this is the case, maybe she has a point. Maybe, just maybe there is a greater readiness on the part of an increasing minority of people to accept, or even seek out, charity in the form of food parcels; rather than, as previous generations would have, fall back on their own resources or seek help from family and community?

Of course, it is hardly surprising that some people are struggling to get by when jobs are scarce, and the cost of living is going up. The economic crisis, not just the recent downturn, is all too real and unprecedented in its apparent resistance to the interventions of a clueless political class. But exaggerating the extent of the so-called ‘food poverty’ problem isn’t helping anybody. It only turns those struggling on the breadline (so to speak) into victims. Instead of trying to close down debate (like the foodbanks lobby have been doing following that Mail on Sunday article) or emoting all over the place – as the Daily Mirror did, apparently without outcry, with its use of a stock photo of a crying American child on its front page to illustrate its ‘shock report’ into foodbanks – we need to establish where the real problem lies. It is only by doing this that we can ultimately do anything about it.

First published in Huffington Post

Bedroom-tax protests: a patronising defence of the status quo

People used to go on marches to demand change in a very public show of strength. This weekend’s protests in Britain calling for the abolition of the bedroom tax turned the meaning of protest on its head.

A year on from the introduction of the bedroom tax – or the removal of the spare-room subsidy, as the government prefers to call it – the marchers in London, Leeds, Cardiff and elsewhere were not demanding radical change. Their cause was a conservative one. The demonstrators were against any kind of reform – on the bedroom tax as well as any other welfare reform – because of the impact it may have on ‘the vulnerable’. Of the estimated 660,000 households affected by the bedroom tax, it is estimated that 440,000 contain people with disabilities. Disability campaigners in particular have a deserved reputation for radical protests in the 1970s and 1980s, fighting for the freedom and equality of disabled people. It is ironic, therefore, that this weekend’s protesters found themselves in opposition to the bedroom tax, which, at least in part, is designed to give disabled people greater autonomy.

Yes, the bedroom tax is as awful as opponents say it is. Few can afford to lose the 14 per cent or 25 per cent of their housing benefit that a spare room or two will cost them; and many disabled people dispute the idea that the room containing equipment they rely on is ‘spare’. The mean-spiritedness of this ‘tax’ is clear, not to mention the incompetence of those responsible for it. Indeed, the bedroom tax has simply failed to do the two things it set out to achieve: free-up stock in the scandalously cramped social-housing sector and save public money. Those claimants who have been forced out of their homes have ended up in more expensive private-sector accommodation because of the shortage of social housing. Therefore, the bedroom tax has done nothing to lower the housing-benefit bill.

Still, accusing the government of cruelly punishing the poor and vulnerable is patronising. It diminishes the humanity of those on welfare and turns them into objects of pity. On the other hand, the government’s adoption of the radical notion that people with disabilities can be independent when given the right support, and that many of them are able to work and needn’t be claiming benefits, is worth supporting. The fact that this weekend’s protesters, those who have appointed themselves defenders of the disabled, are demanding a return to the state-dependent status quo suggests that people with disabilities are not so much disabled by society – as the old slogan went – as they are by those claiming to represent them.

First published in sp!ked

From Benefits Street to Famous, Rich and Hungry – Poverty Porn? Nah, It’s Just Reality TV

Next month, as part of the Sport Relief season of programmes (I know, yawn), we lucky viewers will be treated to seeing the likes of the Dragon’s Den’s Theo Paphitis and some spoilt rich ‘star’ off Made in Chelsea quite literally slumming it with people living in ‘food poverty’ (whatever that is supposed to mean).

I, for one, will be relieved when Relief-branded charidee programmes are no more. But, with Pudsy still with us after all these years, I could be waiting a while. Despite this, I will be watching Famous, Rich and Hungry. Trashy voyeur that I am, it will be difficult not to tune into this latest instalment of what critics are calling ‘poverty porn’. It is made by the same production company responsible for The Great British Bake Off and The Great British Sewing Bee.

And, perhaps more pertinently, the recent Channel 4 hit Benefits Street. The latter ‘documentary’ series prompting two admittedly not-so-Great British Benefits Debates. I know the TV lights went out on Benefits Street a few weeks ago now, but they never really got switched on as far as the welfare debate goes. Still it caused no little anger on the part of supporters of the welfare state in the media. And its even more poor-bothering follow-up seems set to do the same. So it’s perhaps worth reflecting on the reaction to Benefits Streetas much as the programme itself. Because it really did show how divided we are as a country. Not so much between the haves and have-nots; but between us ordinary telly-watching folk and the supposedly left-wing and ‘liberal’ punditry-elite.

Lynsey Hanley, a Brummy like me, and author of the quite good if unduly sentimental look back at public housing in the UK, Estates: An Intimate History; was put out from the start by its portrayal of benefit-dependents living on the now infamous James Turner Street in the Winson Green area of Birmingham. An area, until recently at least, better known for its prison. She was clearly expecting something more worthy than what she got. Perhaps blinded by her misty-eyed longing for the Channel 4 of the 1980s (not unlike her longing for a return to an idealised past of council housing) Hanley was hoping for something much more ‘reflective and contextualised’.

Another Brummy, the effortlessly charmless former Labour MP and one-time government minister, Clare Short, was no less impressed with the ‘crummy and misleading‘ depiction of the run-down neighbourhood she once represented in parliament. She told The Guardian that it would only encourage apparently easily duped ‘viewers to judge and sneer’. And as well as lefty writers and ex-politicians getting upset, there were the habitually censorious who seemingly can’t help but be offended (always on behalf of somebody else) about anything and everything. There were more than a thousand complaints received by Ofsted and tens of thousands signed an online petition trying to get this reality show apparently responsible for ‘stirring up hatred’ on Twitter taken off air.

But let’s take a step back. Was it a reality show or the real people watching it that these critics and wannabe censors had in their sights? Was it that more than four million apparently idiotic viewers watched the first episode, a figure that went up to five million as the series continued, that really bothered them? I’ll admit I was one of them. I enjoyed it in much the same way as I did the baking and sewing programmes. (Not usually my sort of thing, but I learnt a thing or two about hemlines and soggy bottoms which is not bad for undemanding if agreeably distracting tea-time telly). And far from hating the stars of the show like I was supposed to, according to the critics, I rather liked them. Especially the street’s matriarch White Dee who was admirably no-nonsense but considerate, even if this jarred with her depressive-state dependency; and the no-less likeable if pathetically-tragic abused-as-a-child alcoholic Fungi, who she took under her ample wing.

But the critics are also right, of course, despite the slagging match … er, debate … screened at the series’ end, that Benefits Street didn’t help viewers to get to grips with what the welfare problem is all about. The trouble is, neither have they. And they’re supposed to be the experts. Not only have they outrageously tried to shut down the debate and removeBenefits Street from our screens, for fear that we’ll all be worked up into an anti-benefit-scrounger rage. They have failed to shed any light on the problem themselves. Worse still, they’re patronising. If I were a resident of Turner Street I’d resent the pity of the clueless commentariat far more than the no doubt ignorant but equally ignorable abuse of the none-too-representative man-on-the-tweet.

128px-Television.svgFirst published in Huffington Post

Bedroom tax critics in need of a better argument

While I am not in the business of defending poorly thought out, miserly policies, neither am I one to jump on slow-moving bandwagons all too eager for everybody to jump aboard. You see, if there’s one thing worse than the bedroom tax it’s the obvious, narrow, cynically emoting critique of it.

According to the National Housing Federation, as a consequence of the ‘bedroom tax’ two thirds of social housing tenants in receipt of housing benefit are now behind on their rent. The 14% or 25% reduction in benefit paid to those who are deemed to have a spare room or rooms has had a not inconsiderable impact on the poorest households. And far from helping solve the overcrowding problem or reduce the benefit bill, critics point out that even for those who have miraculously found somewhere else to live, this has been in the costlier private sector. So there has been a good deal of misery and not much to show for it.

As if that isn’t bad enough, it has also been revealed that those who lose a loved one will no longer be given plenty of time to get over it. The empty room so personally and movingly described by the poet and children’s novelist Michael Rosen, will no longer be just a terrible aching reminder of the person that once occupied it. After just three months it will also be subject to the under-occupancy penalty (to give it its official name). Officials used to be decent enough at least to give the grieving a full year to come to terms with their loss before reassessing their benefit entitlement.

But that isn’t the end of it either, at least not for those responsible for this ‘tax’. I don’t buy the idea that the Tories are ogres compared with their supposedly poor-friendly Labour Party opponents. It is their incompetence in their implementation of the welfare reforms that is most apparent – from the failing IT system underlying the roll-out of universal credit to the failure to properly inform the jobless of their obligation to work for their welfare if need be.

Now it turns out that because of some obscure legislative oversight somewhere between 5,000 (if you believe the government) and 50,000 households (if you believe the opposition), will be entitled to a full refund of the benefit wrongly denied them. That this thoroughly technical loophole has been jumped upon as if it were a matter of principle by those keen to see the back of the ‘bedroom tax’ suggests that they lack arguments of substance. They don’t seem to understand that the problem with this awful policy is not just that it makes hard-up people harder-up still; but that it exposes the extent to which this is a consequence of a large minority of the population (whether in or out of work) being dependent on benefits.

It also shows, as critics have pointed out, how little housing there is to go around. But they’ve stopped short of demanding a mass housebuilding programme, preferring meekly to ask for more ‘social’ or ‘affordable’ housing. Indeed the better argument was put forward in the recent report of Raquel Rolnik, the UN’s now infamous rapporteur; who has been so critical of UK welfare and, particularly, housing policies. Following her recent visit she has been subject to counter-criticism by ministers and in unusually immoderate language. According to housing minister Kris Hopkins her official report was just a ‘misleading Marxist diatribe’.

And yet, putting the cheap lefty-bashing to one side, the government is absolutely right to object to the meddling of this unaccountable official in sovereign policy-making. Bad policies are never so bad that they should be unmade on the say-so of undemocratic supranational bodies. They shouldn’t have invited her in the first place. That leftist critics have been quick to defend her as if she, like all those apparently helpless benefit claimants, is a victim of the bedroom tax too; only draws attention to the fact that they too, so reliant on Rolnik, have failed to make a good argument against it themselves.

Written by Dave Clements, convenor of the Social Policy Forum at Institute of Ideas. We are on Twitter @SocialPolicyFor

800px-A_bedroomFirst published in Institute of Opinion

Picture by: Jean7031