The head of the UK’s largest provider of food banks has launched a scathing attack on the government’s welfare reforms and rhetoric, accusing ministers of lacking "empathy" with the poor and predicting a rise in crime and homelessness next year as a direct result of George Osborne's austerity policies.
In an interview with the Huffington Post UK, Trussell Trust executive chairman Chris Mould said the chancellor should "look behind [his] soundbites, look at the kind of people who lose their jobs, think before you speak about who you’re pointing the finger at. Just try and put yourself in other people’s shoes."
Cabinet ministers, he said, "have an inadequate level of empathy with the people that we deal with". If they had a "deeper understanding" of the causes of poverty, he added, "I believe they would choose to nuance their policy differently".
Labour leader Ed Miliband visited a Trussell Trust foodbank in London earlier this week and raised the issue of food poverty with the prime minister in the Commons on Wednesday.
"Is the prime minister as concerned as I am that there has been a sixfold increase in the last three years in the number of people relying on food banks?" he asked at PMQs.
Cameron said that he "shared the Right Hon Gentleman's concern about people who are struggling to pay the bills and to deal with their budgets".
Mould, however, told the HuffPost UK that coalition ministers have turned down repeated invitations to visit the Trust’s network of food banks across the UK. "My message to George Osborne is: come to our food banks."
He said the chancellor’s decision to squeeze benefits and tax credits, with a below-inflation 1% rise, was "short-sighted" and did not take into account the future social costs of such a move.
"The consequences of [making] savings in one part of the system will be unnecessary expenditures by the Department of Health, the Home Office, the Department for Communities and Local Government… you spread the costs downstream."
Next year, he claimed, the UK will see the dire social, and not just economic or political, consequences of the coalition’s austerity measures: "Sadly, I expect more crime, more stealing of food from shops."
Mould also predicted a rise in the number of "temporarily homeless" as a consequence of people not being able to pay rent.
"It’s just obvious… people who can’t afford to make ends meet commit crimes, lose their homes, have children put into care…"
The 53-year-old former NHS executive started working with the Trussell Trust in 2003 and took charge of the charity in 2009. He said people are "absolutely" going hungry in Britain in 2012.
"People are going without meals, sometimes for several days, because they are making choices about what to prioritise with the money they do have. They have to choose whether to heat the house or feed themselves.
"This is not just about people who are on benefits; low pay is a real issue in the UK," he added, "And a lot of self-employed people who don't have a regular income, might have to wait for a customer to pay them. They have to make tough choices every day."
The Trussell Trust has estimated that food banks will feed around 250,000 people this year, an astonishing increase of 400% since 2010.
Mould said the Trust had "seen a steady increase in the scale of demand and the single most significant reason is flatlining incomes combined with the increasing cost of energy and food."
He added: "Two simple headline statistics: it costs 63% more to heat an average home now than it did five years ago. It costs 35% more to provide a standard set of meals now than it did five years ago. And there’s no way that lower paid people have seen their incomes rise by either 63 or 35%."
Mould pointed out that the much-trumpeted boost in employment has disguised the fact that full-time jobs are being swapped for part-time jobs, well-paid, secure work for low-paid, insecure work.
"We’re not comparing like with like," he said, citing the example of a couple in Gloucester who visited one of the Trust’s food banks after they were both made redundant and got "new jobs with lower pay".
"They’re on a fixed-term mortgage, in negative equity, they can’t sell [their home] and they’re in deep trouble. Their children are under the age of five."
The Trussell Trust boss said he wants ministers to do more to tackle "the challenge of reducing inequality. Britain is a place where inequality has steadily risen over the last many years: we have steadily become a more and more divided nation."
Mould is keen to see the government offer greater support for the living wage and rethink austerity: “The truth [is] that the burden of the paying down of the national debt falls heavier on the lower paid 40% of households.”
As a result, he said, the coalition's ‘strivers vs shirkers’ rhetoric is "naïve and said for political reasons – and political reasons only."
He called on ministers such as Osborne to "come and meet the people we meet in food banks. Come and meet a self-employed plumber who isn’t getting paid on time, who’s owed £12,000. Come and meet a mum who’s living in substandard social housing paid for by the state…"
"A lot of the people we talk to are in work and they’re angry. They’re angry that they are being called shirkers when they have got jobs and the jobs are paying them two-thirds of what they were paid before. They don’t think its fair to be pointed at and accused in this way."
Mould has another message for the chancellor: stop using the phrase 'We’re all in this together'.
"It annoys me," he told the Huff Post UK.
"Because its not true. Those who are on lower incomes are taking a larger personal proportion of the burden than those who are on higher incomes. And that’s the consequence of political decisions [by the government]."
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