Nothing quite characterises the levels of poverty in austerity Britain better than the dramatic growth in the use of food banks in recent years. With record numbers visiting local food banks in many areas over Christmas - and January looking set to be their busiest month yet - it is clear that they remain a much needed resource for many working people as the Coalition government's cuts, poverty pay and harsh benefit sanctions take their toll on household incomes.
In 2013-14, 913,138 people visited a food bank to receive emergency food provision - a figure which stood at just 346,992 the previous year. Numbers of food bank users almost tripled in that period and, worryingly, are continuing to rise, with over 400 food banks currently in operation in the UK and around two new ones having to open every week to meet demand. It is, quite frankly, an outrage that it we live in the sixth richest country in the world and yet so many people are reliant on food banks in 2015. People are struggling to make ends meet and are so financially precarious that they are unable to guarantee where their next meal will come from and how they will feed their families.
The majority - 30% - of those counted in these figures over the past year cited delays in receiving their benefits as the main reason for their reliance on a food bank. The second most common reason was low income and the third was benefit changes - all while the Department for Work and Pensions stated that there was no evidence to show that welfare reforms or benefit administration was even linked to increased food bank use. This is a scandal as it could not be clearer that this government has a lot to answer for when it comes to food poverty and their failure to recognise this shows how far they are from solving the problem.
As if this wasn't enough proof of how out of touch the Conservative Party is, listening to Conservative politicians discussing this issue in the media is even more worrying. They continue to shamelessly perpetuate damaging myths and misleading stereotypes of those who have been forced to turn to a food bank, simply to feed their families. Former MP, Edwina Currie stated that the rise in demand was down to people who had never learnt to cook or manage and instead spent their spare money on food for their pets - or "another tattoo". She's not alone in her views as Conservative Peer, Baroness Jenkin claimed increased dependence on food banks was a product of the fact that "poor people do not know how to cook". Most recently, Conservative Party Councillor Mark Winn tweeted that food bank users were made up of "those with drug, alcohol and mental health problems" and despite the statistics I mentioned before, Iain Duncan Smith described food bank use in this country as "tiny" - which is increasingly concerning given his position as Secretary for the Department of Work and Pensions.
Well, I for one find these comments highly offensive and completely disgusting. These people can't live in the real world because if they did then, like me, they would have seen the unacceptable levels of poverty in local communities for themselves and know just how hard people are working to make ends meet. Just to take one of countless cases of poverty in my constituency, a man whose benefits were shamelessly sanctioned whilst he was in hospital with a heart condition then lived for three days on field mushrooms and borrowed eggs as he couldn't afford to buy any proper food.
The worst part is that stories like this are not uncommon. How the government can stand by and refuse to act while so many people are struggling to make ends meet is beyond me. We need to work to boost wages, raise living standards and put an end to in-work poverty, food poverty and the cost of living crisis once and for all. We want a recovery that everyone can benefit from - not just the richest - and that is what I, alongside the whole Trade Union Group of MPs, will be fighting for in the run-up to the general election and beyond.
Ian Lavery is the Labour Party MP for Wansbeck and Chair of the Trade Union Group of MPs
This blog was first published on the Trade Union Group of MPs blog, and can be read here. The Trade Union Group of MPs is a vehicle for promoting the voices of working people in Parliament, working with a wide range of MPs and trade unionists to push the political agenda on to the side of working peopleSuggest a correction