Foodbanks: charity, justice and Cameron's avoidance

Foodbanks: charity, justice and Cameron's avoidance

For several weeks at Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron has been asked about foodbanks. Each week he has had a request by an MP to visit a foodbank in their constituency, to speak to the people who run them, and to the people who rely on them to feed themselves and their families.

Mr Cameron has reacted by trying to make a virtue of the growth in foodbanks, praising their volunteers and citing them as evidence of the Big Society in action (http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/pmqs-david-cameron-tries-to-make-14...). Many suspected that he had very little understanding of the real poverty and deprivation foodbanks represent, and little or no interest in learning about it.

This view was only confirmed by a rather surprising statement which emanated from Downing Street last week. Once again welcoming the growth of foodbanks as an example of the Big Society, an official said: "Benefit levels are set at a level where people can afford to eat. If people have short-term shortages, where they feel they need a bit of extra food, then of course food banks are the right place for that. But benefits are not set at such a low level that people can't eat." (See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/jan/30/downing-street-benefits-fo...).

This apparently willful ignorance of the way large parts of the population are struggling to survive was alarming. If the government really believes that benefits are generous enough to ensure that people never get to the end of the week and find their purse empty and their cupboard bare, they are seriously out of touch with reality. Do they actually believe their own propaganda, that people on benefits (who may or may not be working) are actually having quite an easy time of it? If so it is ominous, because if that’s the case, what will stop them from cutting those people’s incomes even further?

Thankfully, it appears the Trussell Trust, the Christian Charity which runs more than 300 such foodbanks, has decided it has had enough of the government’s refusal to face up to food poverty in the UK. It has released a statement in which its Executive Chairman Chris Mould is politely scathing of Number 10’s dismissive attitude, saying: "Foodbanks are not where people go who ‘feel they need a bit of extra food’. Foodbanks are where people go when they have little or no food left, where you will meet mums who are going without food to stop their children going hungry…."

While welcoming the Prime Minister’s decision to visit a foodbank in his own constituency, Mr Mould points out that it is not part of any national network, and so staff there will be unable to give him a clear understanding of the picture throughout the UK.

(The Trust does not say this, but one also suspects that such a meeting in Mr Cameron’s own constituency will be highly stage-managed, and the people he speaks to may be hand-picked. As a former PR man, he is unlikely to walk into a potential PR disaster.)

The Trust goes on to say that it is "urgently calling on the Prime Minister to speak to us about the thousands of people who are turning to our foodbanks for help and the reasons behind that."

Looking to the future, Mr Mould says: “The introduction of the universal credit and changes to the social fund later in the year could have a significant impact on people on the breadline, making it increasingly urgent that the Prime Minister is aware of the problems people turning to foodbanks across the UK are facing…. We sincerely hope that the Prime Minister responds positively to our request to meet soon.”

It is encouraging that Mr Mould has finally chosen to speak out like this. Ever since the last General Election the government seemed to believe it could slash welfare and look to charities to pick up the pieces. Many charities, having stepped into the breach, have remained silent on the growing misery and desperation caused by the government’s policies. But it is surely incumbent upon those who work at the sharp end of society, who see the effect of the cuts, to speak out for those who cannot make their voices heard. Let’s hope that many other professionals in the charity sector will use their high profiles and media access to challenge the government on the suffering being caused by its choices.

No doubt they will face criticism if they do so. As the Brazilian ‘Bishop of the Slums’ Dom Helder Camara once said: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.”

It will be easy, but we are getting to the stage where silence on foodbanks is not a credible option. I hope many follow in Mr Mould’s footsteps by speaking out.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor.

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