I'm writing this article after visiting a foodbank in my constituency this morning. I can't speak highly enough of the many volunteers who work there, dedicated to doing their bit to help the poorest people in society.
The system is well thought out: people are referred to the foodbank with a voucher and they're allowed to receive up to three food parcels to help with a crisis. They're referred by reputable organisations (for example, by their local GP) and help is given at a time when it's needed.
I can't help but wonder, how have we got ourselves into such a mess as a society that some people - through no fault of their own - find themselves needing assistance?
I'm not going to argue that every single person who ever walks into a foodbank hasn't made mistakes when handling money; no doubt some have. But the majority seem to be people who have been hit by a crisis in life. Whether it's due to an illness or sudden job loss, they come from all walks of life. Some are surprising - people who used to run successful businesses, and were relatively affluent, but finally succumbed to the pressures of recession with the ensuing bankruptcy and loss of assets.
The foodbank I visited was part of a network of foodbanks organised by local churches. It's actually refreshing to see churches doing what they should be doing (actually serving the local community) rather than what they shouldn't be doing (making pronouncements on an array of political issues). They see a need in their local community, and dedicate their time to meeting that need.
Back in the 1990s, when I was growing up, we didn't have poverty on anything like the scale that we do today. It's a terrible indictment of our 21st century society that foodbanks are needed at all. So what has changed in the meantime? It can't just be that the minimum wage is too low, because at that time we didn't even have such a thing as a minimum wage. I think the root cause of the problem is the cumbersome nature of our benefits system. In 1997, when Labour came to power for the first time in eighteen years, they spotted some hard cases, and naively tried to fix them by making the system more complicated. Then there were further hard cases created, which again they tried to solve. After a few years of this, our benefits system was so complex that some people were able to utilise the system to do rather well for themselves - whilst other needy people were drowned in a sea of paperwork, unaware that they might actually be entitled to some support.
The Conservative Party recognised that the system was a mess, so when they took power in 2010 they tried to simplify it. They spotted those who were abusing the system, and used that as justification to toughen up. Unfortunately, tightening up the system ended up with genuine people being penalised. I could give countless examples of friends who have fallen victim to the Conservatives' desire to look tough to the general public. It only takes one look to see that some of those ruled 'fit to work' are not. Both approaches were well-meaning but naïve.
We need a benefits system that is accessible and flexible. What, for example, about the many people who have illnesses which go into remission - or are better one day than another? They might be fit to work one week, but not the next. If they take paid employment, they find themselves without statutory sickness pay on the days when they are off sick. They're unlikely to get through a probationary period. The system is geared up to make it almost impossible for them to do any meaningful work, and if they do work they're almost certainly going to end up worse off than they would be on benefits.
There are countless ways that people fall through the gaps in the system. What we need is a benefits system fit for purpose, and such a system must be far simpler than the current one.
Then there is the employment trap. People in work may be nominally better off than those on benefits, but once the incidental costs of work (bus travel for example) are taken into account they may actually be worse off. That's the reason for UKIP's policy of no tax on minimum wage - we need to reward those who work hard. It's right that those who work for a living should be better off than able-bodied people out of work. Against this backdrop, government policy has consistently pushed domestic energy bills up far higher than the rate of inflation.
Finally, we need to do what it takes to create jobs. There are many things stopping us from doing so, and I'm sure that you'll recognise what some of those are - this article is after all written by a UKIP MEP. I'll just say this: if we stop strangling our small businesses at birth they will grow, generating tax revenue for the government and employment prospects for those who currently have no hope in a difficult economic climate. If we avoid a massive influx of people willing to work on minimum wage then young people will have the chance to gain their first step on the career ladder. And if we stop artificially inflating energy prices, not only will consumers be better off but also we'll give our heavy industry an opportunity to be competitive again.
Until this mess is sorted I would urge people to support their local foodbank. They do a fantastic job, however distasteful it might be that they're needed in the world's 5th-largest economy in the 21st century.