The Trussell Trust hits out at Cameron: the coalition has broken its agreement with foodbanks

The head of the UK's biggest foodbank network says the PM is wrong to claim that job centres have been allowed to give out vouchers.

The head of the UK’s biggest foodbank network says he is “annoyed, puzzled and confused” by the government, which he says has “broken its agreement” with foodbanks, directly contradicting the Prime Minister’s comments to parliament this week.

David Cameron told the Commons that the government had gone further than its predecessors to support the food bank movement, saying during Prime Minister's Questions that they had allowed job centres to give out vouchers to claimants to receive food in times of need.

But Chris Mould, head of the Trussell Trust that has started over 380 foodbanks across the UK, says that this is not the case:

“We’re annoyed, puzzled and confused because the reality is not as he paints it,” he says, “The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) had an agreement with us in 2011 and they’ve reneged on it. They’ve now said they won’t hand out vouchers to families in distress… The DWP is not doing what the Prime Minister is saying and this needs to be sorted out.”

The consequence of jobcentres not being able to give out vouchers is that families in dire need of food with no money are left hungry. Without the proper paperwork from jobcentres, foodbanks do not have the evidence they need that the person is in genuine need and are forced to turn them away.

“We don’t know the reason (why DWP have made this decision). From our perspective it’s a real problem because we have a relationship of trust with our donors. They need to know there is validity to these claims…If people come to us from jobcentres with no paperwork we say we can’t help. We need assurance.”

The head of the UK’s largest foodbank network goes even further, damning the government’s welfare reforms for causing a surge in foodbank clients across the UK. Between April and June 2013 when the welfare reforms were implemented, over 150,000 received help from the Trussell Trust, some 200% up on the year before.

“The actual (welfare) policy and its operational impact is causing problems,” says Mould, “Take the bedroom tax say, it’s got some logic to it, but when the provision of alternative (fewer bedroom properties) are not there then that means people simply fall short of cash. These people are not scroungers but they suddenly find themselves £14 a week short.”

Although it might be expected that people plugged into jobcentres would have their benefit needs met, Mould cites all kind of reasons why people fall through the net. The transfer of people from incapacity benefit to ESA and ATOS medical assessments are causing large number of appeals. These often result in the successful reinstatement of benefits, but people are often waiting weeks before they get the result. In the meantime, their benefits are stopped and they are left with nothing. Now many of them can’t get a foodbank voucher either.

“Whilst some jobcentres do a great job, we’ve got the data and the case studies to show that some are operationally inadequate and the advice they are giving is just plain wrong,” says Mould, who says he’s been trying to meet DWP officials since April, “We say we want to share this information and put things right, and they have rebuffed us repeatedly.”

In a further problem, DWP have said they won’t even record the reason for referring people to foodbanks (as they also refused to do under the previous government). This is not surprising, given that the Trussell Trust says over half of people visiting foodbanks in the first quarter of this year were referred due to problems with benefits - a 9% increase on last year when the reforms were implemented.

This revelation would obviously be embarrassing for DWP, and officials would rather that data disappeared. But Cameron told Parliament on Wednesday that he would never fail to take action simply because it might result in “bad publicity.” So did the Prime Minister deliberately mislead the Commons?

“What he said just isn’t happening on the ground,” says Mould, “What we’re dealing with here is confusion. I’d prefer to hope he was just badly briefed. He’s certainly not up to date with the decisions DWP has taken.”

Volunteers begin to process a food voucher at a Food Bank depot at St. Paul's Church in Brixton on October 23, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder