Foodbanks, homelessness, and the government's wilful ignorance

By Bernadette Meaden
March 19, 2018

There appears to be a new government tactic developing. Having created real social harm, appoint new ministers who profess puzzlement and concern at the harm, and ignorance as to who or what is responsible. They then declare they are looking for a solution, while letting the harmful policies continue.

On the strength of two recent interviews with government ministers, this certainly appears to be what is happening. They are both presiding over policies which are producing poverty and homelessness, whilst simultaneously wondering aloud what is causing the poverty and homelessness.

Last week Kit Malthouse MP, a DWP minister, gave an interview on local television which I watched in growing disbelief. It was briefly available online so I was able to transcribe it.

BBC North West Tonight had been reporting on poverty in Liverpool. The reporter, Annabel Tiffin, began by telling Mr. Malthouse about the people in those reports – unable to feed their children and reliant on foodbanks. Mr Malthouse replied with the customary DWP line about jobs and work as the route out of poverty, but Ms  Tiffin told him that 82 per cent of the people using the foodbank she visited were in work.

So Mr Malthouse changed tack, saying, with the air of someone doing a challenging crossword puzzle, “Well, foodbanks are an interesting phenomenon that we are having a look at, the Department.”

“We find, even in areas of very high employment, there are foodbanks. Now, there’s never been any serious work to try and understand what the drivers of that are, and why people would feel the need to go to foodbanks”. 

Here Ms Tiffin interrupted to say, “Well, I think because they don’t have any food”, but Mr Malthouse continued undeterred, “and most people go in a moment of crisis, right? Nobody lives out of it all the time. You might go once or twice when you have a budgeting moment where you’re short of money and then unable to access food. And so at the Department we’re going to be doing some thinking over the next few months and some research into why that is, because you’re absolutely right, it’s a phenomenon that we need to address. “ 

Ms Tiffin then explained to Mr. Malthouse that in Liverpool there is real poverty, “there are people that cannot afford to feed their children”

Mr Malthouse replied, “I’m sure there is still poverty in Liverpool, it would be odd to deny that, but there is nothing on the scale of what there was back in the late 70’s”.

Ms Tiffin says charities would disagree, that it is as bad as ever, but the Minister replies, “I would urge them to go back and look, because the one thing that Liverpool doesn’t have now which it had then was mass unemployment, you know employment in the North West is at almost record highs, private sector employment up 256,000, we’re seeing enormous investment across the North West.”

Ms Tiffin says that’s the point, people are working yet struggling to feed their children, but the Minister, absolutely fixated on the DWP line of work being the route out of poverty, continues, “I visit Liverpool on a regular basis, and I’ve seen a transformation in that city over my lifetime, literally a transformation, and that’s all to the good and for the betterment of people in Liverpool, but it doesn’t mean to say there aren’t some people who are having a tough time, and we will be doing our best in the years to come to try and help them, as I say, into work and out of poverty.”

Admittedly the Minister is relatively new to his DWP job – but anyone with a scrap of genuine interest would surely, by now, have read up on the basic facts. It takes five minutes to find and read the headline points of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report UK Poverty 2017  to learn, "One in eight workers live in poverty – 3.7 million." and "state support for many of those on low incomes is falling in real terms, rents are increasing, and rising employment is no longer reducing poverty". Even a glance at Twitter would tell him, “Working lone parents on low incomes were £1600 worse off in 2015/16 than they were in 2010/11”. There is absolutely no excuse for Mr Malthouse not to know this.

And the suggestion there has not been any serious work done on why people need foodbanks – well, I imagine Dr Rachel Loopstra of Oxford University would be surprised to hear this. She is the author of Financial insecurity, food insecurity, and disability: The profile of people receiving emergency food assistance from The Trussell Trust Foodbank Network in Britain published in June 2017. There is now quite a substantial body of research on this subject, for those who are interested.

A couple of days after Mr Malthouse’s interview, an interview with Heather Wheeler MP, the new Minister for Homelessness, caused anger, consternation and incredulity.

Asked if she knew why rough sleeping had increased so dramatically Ms Wheeler said, “In truth, I don’t know. That’s one of the interesting things for me to find out over the last eight weeks that I’ve been doing the job.” She was clear about one thing, however – she "did not accept the suggestion that welfare reforms and council cuts had contributed to the rise."

This flies in the face of all the evidence, not just from respected bodies like Homelessness Monitor, but from the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee - plus the daily experience of every charity and advice worker in the field.

Again, anyone with a genuine concern for people who are homeless or sleeping rough (which has had fatal consequences this winter) would, at the very least, have read this research and accepted the facts. Such ignorance is inexcusable and in this case apparently wilful. 

These areas of policy, when they go wrong, can have devastating consequences, with health ruined and even lives lost. The government's refusal to accept that it bears any responsibility is reprehensible.

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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. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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