THE BLOG

The UK's Hunger Games: Manufacturing Poverty

07/05/2013 13:11 BST | Updated 06/07/2013 10:12 BST
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Many people have expressed alarm at the steep rise in the numbers of people relying on foodbanks run by charities to get their next meal, but David Cameron loves them. Asked by Ed Miliband in a parliamentary debate last year whether he was concerned about the 'six-fold growth' in this phenomenon in the last three years, the Prime Minister hailed foodbank volunteers as an exemplary expression of the 'Big Society'.

In February this year the PM he visited the Oxfordshire West Food Bank in his Witney constituency, while taking care not to speak to any of its service users. And last month Chris Mould, the Executive Director of the Trussell Trust, the largest of the charities that runs foodbanks in the UK, was invited to Downing Street at Easter in recognition of its work.

Some might conclude that such support indicates a compassionate, empathetic government that cares about the poor and badly off and is keen to encourage the voluntarist spirit that Cameron has so fervently promoted as the hallmark of the good society, in order to ameliorate their plight.

The government would clearly like people to reach these conclusions, but they fall a long way short of the truth. Last week I went to the town of Clay Cross in Derbyshire to research an article on the Trussell Trust's foodbank there.

Clay Cross is a former mining town with a population of 5,000, whose Labour council once became nationally famous in 1972 because it refused to implement the Heath government's 'Fair Rent Act' and raise rents for council house residents. Like many former mining towns and villages, it's fallen on hard times since the closure of the pits under Thatcher, and these times have got a lot worse under her ideological successors.

Since the centre opened last August, it has fed more than a thousand people, and the Trust is opening new drop ins in towns and villages in the area. I spoke to one client, who I shall call Bernard. He told me he had gone nearly two weeks without any money, after his benefits had been cut, apparently because he hadn't applied for one job that was presented to him - among many that he did apply for.

Bernard said that he never got the letter telling him about it, and in any case the sanction has been imposed till the beginning of July. Until then, unless he wins an appeal, or gets a £29 per week hardship fund, he will have to live off nothing the vouchers issued by the job centre, which enable him to get food from the Trussell Trust three to four times only.

Meanwhile, his flat is currently without gas or electricity because he has no money for the meter. Clearly the Trussell Trust is doing essential work, and its reliance on volunteers and donations from the public is a tribute to a generous and altruistic spirit that can still be found even in these times of everyone-for-themselves austerity.

But the fact that hundreds of thousands of people now depend on foodbanks in the seventh largest economy in the world is nothing to congratulate ourselves about, particularly when this phenomenon is often a direct consequence of the policies imposed by the government itself.

People end up depending on foodbanks for many different reasons, but tens of thousands of their service users, like Bernard, have been forced to go to foodbanks because of benefit sanctions and delays in payments that are deliberately designed to force them off benefits.

In March this year, a Guardian investigation found that jobcentres are imposing benefit sanctions in order to reach government-imposed targets. Many of those sanctioned are then referred to foodbanks, who in effect end up providing assistance previously offered by statutory bodies.

For the government, it's a win-win situation. Unemployed 'scroungers' are forced off benefits, so that it can claim that unemployment is falling and that its saving money for 'the taxpayer'. And the harsher the benefit regime gets, the more the unemployed will be forced to choose between going hungry and accepting temporary jobs and zero hour contracts

The 19th century Poor Law system once had a similarly punitive and deterrent ourpose in its treatment of the unemployed. Today, in the early 21st century, the poor are once again being victimised and punished to pay for a crisis they did not cause - even as their numbers are growing.

None of this was necessary. None of it was inevitable. Much of it is a direct consequence of policies introduced by one of the most ruthless and callous governments this country has ever seen. And for that same government to turn around and celebrate the charities forced to pick up the pieces is not only paradoxical - it's an act of gross hypocrisy.