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What the Foodbank Debate Tells Us

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The debate about foodbanks exposes the dark secret at the heart of this government: they just don't care.

Asked about the growth of foodbanks, David Cameron always gives the same reply: that demand for foodbanks went up tenfold under Labour. He is implying that things are no worse now than before the election.

The facts, however, tell a different story. One of the reasons the extraordinary Trussell Trust has proved so irksome to government is that it keeps meticulous statistics. And it refuses to suppress them.

In the year before the 2010 election, 40,000 people visited a foodbank. When Labour was elected, the Trussell Trust did not exist. Mr Cameron's claim of a tenfold rise is meaningless. The prime minister could justifiably point out that foodbank demand was a worry under the last Government too. However, since the General Election, demand has rocketed. Since April 2013 alone, over 500,000 people have used a Trussell Trust foodbank.

The Trussell Trust records the reason each person uses a foodbank. In 2012-13, 30% did so because of benefit delays, a further 15% because of benefit changes and 4% because they had been refused crisis loans. So 49% of referrals related directly to benefit problems.

Trussell Trust foodbanks only give food to people who produce one of its vouchers. Vouchers are held by GPs, social workers, Citizens' Advice Bureaux and police officers. They will issue a voucher if they are satisfied there is a genuine need. They have to tick a box on the voucher to indicate the reason for the problem.

The prime minister's soundbite gets him through Prime Minister's Questions. The secretary of state for work and pensions cannot duck the issue so readily. So he has made a series of absurd claims. He has said that the rise in demand for foodbanks has no connection with the benefits system. The foodbank volunteers I meet say this is laughable. Mr Duncan Smith also suggested that demand grew because of the publicity his department gave to foodbanks.

The education secretary Michael Gove was more honest about what ministers really think. He said the problem was that people are incapable of managing their finances. Lord Freud, the welfare reform minister, said that, where free food was available, people would of course help themselves - failing to grasp the reality of peoples' predicaments, and ignoring the voucher system.

Growth in foodbank demand reflects the wider cost of living crisis. Increasing numbers of those referred are people in work. But problems in the benefit system are playing a big part - straightforward cuts like the bedroom tax; major processing delays; and the enormous number of benefit sanctions - up more than tenfold since the General Election - where payment is withheld for alleged breaches of regulations. Foodbank volunteers say people who have been sanctioned often have no idea why.

Ministers could argue that they have to take from the poor in order to reduce the deficit. But they also claim that "we are all in this together" - and everybody can see that their policies are not hurting the well off. In fact, those earning over £150,000 per year had a large income tax cut last April. So ministers have to pretend their policies aren't hurting the poor either.

Iain Duncan Smith is livid that a church-based group bangs on about the hardship his policies cause. He thought he was safe with them - as with the think tank he founded, the Centre for Social Justice, which draws on the same vein of church-based social concern. He now refuses to meet the Trussell Trust, complaining in a letter that they have had the temerity "repeatedly" to "link the growth of your network to welfare reform".

When Iain Duncan Smith was appointed, he made a song and dance about lifting a ban on jobcentres referring people to foodbanks. But the ban is apparently back. A written parliamentary answer on 4 September stated: "Jobcentre Plus... does not refer people to food banks or issue vouchers". In fact, foodbank volunteers say many jobcentres still make referrals, but with their own version of the vouchers. The boxes to show the reason for the referral have been removed, so they won't give the Trussell Trust evidence of their own failings.

Thank God for the Trussell Trust and for its thousands of unselfish volunteers. But surely even these politicians must have some concern that their policies are causing so much hardship? Can they simply ignore it just because their own friends aren't affected? Why do they deny facts they must know to be true? The foodbank debate shows it more clearly than almost anything else: these people should not be running the country.

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