This week, the bad news got worse. Or rather, new evidence of long-running trends confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt that five years of reckless, ideological policy making have brought us, here in the sixth richest country in the world and well into the 21st century, back to Dickensian levels of poverty and inequality.
On Wednesday the Trussell Trust – a respected charity which operates half of the nation’s food banks – released figures showing that the number of visits to food banks over the last year exceeded one million for the first time. The full figure, 1,084,604 food parcels handed out in the 2014-15 financial year, was a shocking 19% increase on the previous year’s figures. More than a third of the supplies given out by food banks were collected to feed children.
These figures are really only the tip of the iceberg, because they record only what’s been given out at food banks themselves. Despite their visibility, food banks actually account for only about a third of the emergency food aid handed out in the UK each year, with the rest coming from smaller charities and churches among other organisations.
Over the last five years the increasing prevalence – and visibility – of food banks has become one of the most powerful symbols of government failure. In Islington, which has the sixth highest child poverty level of any borough in the country, the picture is particularly stark. Food banks sit side by side with multi-million pound houses and restaurants where some people pay more for one meal than others earn for a week’s work. Here we see extremes of rich and poor writ large every day. It doesn’t have to be that way.
The blame for the huge increase in food poverty over the last five years lies squarely with this government’s failed policy. It’s a failure of imagination as well as compassion, because whenever people like me and other London MPs, who deal every day with the consequences of destructive policies in our communities, have tried to argue the case for a fairer and more equitable approach, we’ve had the door slammed in our faces.
Even before the benefit cap was introduced two years ago, I led a delegation of London MPs to see Iain Duncan Smith twice, with evidence showing that the idea of a uniform nationwide cap made no sense because in places like Islington, where housing costs are so very high, even people in full time work have to top up their incomes with benefits if they earn the average wage. Our efforts were ignored then, and in the months and years since we’ve continued to be ignored as we’ve tried to draw ministers’ attention to the consequences of their policies on the people we represent, like the disabled woman I met earlier this year, who was forced to support her three children with just £100 a week after her rent, paid to a private landlord, had swallowed up four fifths of her £500 weekly benefit payments.
Despite the cold, hard evidence of increasing food poverty, presented with fresh urgency by the Trussell Trust this week, the Tories have continued to bury their heads in the sand. But another look at the figures shows a correlation between Tory policies and increasing poverty that is simply too great to be explained away. The increase solely in the number of food banks themselves is telling – 445 nationwide this year, compared to just 56 in 2010 – an eight fold increase.
Moreover the Trussell Trust found that in the last year the single most common reason for someone to be referred to a food bank, accounting for 44% of all referrals, was delays or changes to their benefit payments, including sanctions. The second most common reason was that people were working for wages too low for them to make ends meet. So all that Tory bragging about the fall in unemployment comes down to this – those thousands of jobs they say they’re so proud of creating have left thousands of hard working people so poverty stricken that they can’t even afford to feed themselves.
Food banks have become such a powerful symbol in part because they’re inescapable. When upmarket shops like Waitrose collect contributions for local food banks, they serve as a constant reminder to those of my constituents who are lucky enough not to have to worry about where their next meal will come from that those less fortunate than themselves are increasing in number, and suffering more than ever.
With less than two weeks until election day, the increasing prevalence of poverty in the UK is something everyone should reflect on and consider. This election is so important because, in many ways, the fundamental question facing voters is what kind of society we want to be. Whatever people’s backgrounds or values, a society where more and more people face a daily struggle to house, clothe and even feed themselves and their families cannot possibly be the answer.