Can a tour of foodbanks by two MPs serve any useful purpose?

By Bernadette Meaden
January 30, 2019

I confess, when I first heard that Conservative MP Heidi Allen was undertaking a tour of foodbanks to understand the causes of poverty in the UK, I was very angry. Angry that an MP who has voted for all the policies and all the budgets which caused destitution and homelessness to soar could now plead ignorance as to why it had happened.

I wasn’t alone. On social media many people reacted with hostility. Fans Supporting Foodbanks, a brilliant collaboration of Everton and Liverpool fans who support local foodbanks, and take donations to every away game to support rival fans, tweeted: “Our message is clear, simple, concise & unequivocal We will not be providing any photo opportunities for @heidiallen75 or the bold Frank with any photo opportunities at any of our Foodbank activity The Tory establishment & their cohorts like Field should hang their heads in shame” 

From a city with terrible poverty levels and hardest hit by Conservative austerity, this response is entirely justified.  But could this tour serve a genuinely useful purpose? Let’s consider the two MPs involved.

The ‘bold Frank’ referred to is Frank Field MP, formerly Labour, now independent. As Minster for Welfare Reform under Tony Blair he became the Labour party’s equivalent of Iain Duncan Smith, with a very similar approach and attitudes, strongly in favour of policies like the benefit cap and sanctions. When Rachel Reeves said that Labour would be “tougher than the Tories on welfare”, Field did not, like many Labour people, protest – he said, “The problem is people won’t believe us”.  

As Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee since 2015 he has observed and chronicled the dismantling of our social security system. His meticulous and rigorous approach means that on technical and administrative matters he has been a thorn in the government’s side. But he has never questioned the damaging ideological underpinning of welfare reform – in fact has been sympathetic to it, and thus helped facilitate it. And so we are where we are, with all the problems documented by the UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston.

But in Birkenhead, Field is confronted with the impact every time he goes back to his constituency. And he does now seem genuinely appalled by what’s happening there. 

As a prominent figure whose support has given welfare reform a seal of cross-party approval, it would be highly significant if he turned against it. He may be inching towards such a position, writing a few days ago, “The idea that Britain has a safety net to protect its most vulnerable citizens from destitution is fast disappearing. That is one of the many troubling findings emerging from the series of visits that Heidi Allen and I are conducting...”  Field is an intelligent mand  – surely he cannot for much longer avoid the conclusion that Iain Duncan Smith’s brand of welfare reform has been a grave injustice and a disaster for those affected.

The context in which Heidi Allen operates as an MP could hardly be more different from Birkenhead. She represents South Cambridgeshire, a wealthy area with abundant well-paid jobs and one of the lowest child poverty levels in the UK. In 2017 her constituency had the lowest proportion of people claiming unemployment benefits in the whole of the country. In the East of England she is surrounded by similarly prosperous Conservative constituencies which have been deliberately spared the worst of austerity.

So really, as far as her career is concerned, she could probably afford to completely ignore the issues with which she is now engaging. In Allen's world, poverty is perhaps not very visible or high on the political agenda. She’s stepping outside of her very comfortable comfort zone, and that does merit some respect.

We now have, as Disraeli described, “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets. The rich and the poor.” Allen belongs firmly in the rich nation. We can only hope that if she visits the terra incognita of deprived communities, and bears witness to the truth of what is happening there, she can persuade some colleagues that the situation really is as bad as Philip Alston said. This seems to be her intention, as she has said, “I asked Frank if he would join me on a tour of the UK to show the government this exists. Unless we blow the lid off it, my lot are not going to listen.”

It tells us a lot about the current Conservative party that they wouldn’t listen to a United Nations Special Rapporteur but they might listen to the MP for South Cambridgeshire. 

If Allen can communicate to her fellow Conservatives the fact that many people are being made destitute by a system which is supposed to support them, but which has been turned into organised cruelty by catastrophic ‘reform’, then it could be a small but significant step towards justice.

So, I am still angry with every MP who voted for policies which have caused and are causing such deep and unnecessary suffering. But if Heidi Allen visiting foodbanks means she can break through the denial, complacency and callousness of the Conservative party, then we should give her a chance.

And if Frank Field can admit that, far from tackling poverty, the welfare reforms he supported actually increased poverty and added terrible cruelty to the system, then with his knowledge and experience he could really hold the government to account.

Of course, the danger is that Allen and Field come up with suggestions which simply mitigate the worst extremes of a cruel system, leaving the system intact but giving the impression that the cruelty has been dealt with. Then we really will need to redouble our protests. But until then, perhaps we should allow for the possibility of a change in a few hearts and minds.

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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

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.