The growth of food banks shows why there must be no welfare cap

Cuts to benefits have pushed thousands of families to the edge. Welfare needs to be paid on the basis of need, not within some artificial limit.

Food bank use in south east England, the region known for its wealth and relative prosperity, is up over 60% this year and thousands of families face the prospect of relying on emergency food handouts this Christmas. A decade ago, food banks were almost unheard of in this area but there are now 59 across the region.

We know this thanks to a report from Green MEP Keith Taylor, who’s released Hungry Christmas, a report into the spread of food banks in his region. The report is published ahead of a debate on food banks in Parliament on Thursday, which came after the public demonstrated its understanding of the issue, with more than 100,000 people signing a petition on the subject within four days, possibly a record for the official government site. A group of public health experts have concluded that the rate of food poverty in Britain should be classed as a medical emergency.

At this year’s Green Party conference we heard from the brilliant Jack Monroe, known for the blog A Girl Called Jack; her story is not unusual. She went from a well-paying job working for the Fire Brigade to being a mother living on benefits that didn’t cover the bills. She had tried and tried to balance work and childcare but was stymied at every turn. Jack’s story hasd a happy ending. Not everyone’s does. Few can expect that – what stretches ahead of them are years and, unless our economy is transformed, decades of endless, grinding struggle for the basics of life.

As today’s report highlights, three new food banks are set up every week to help meet demand. Cuts to benefits such as housing benefit, child benefit and council tax benefit have pushed people to the edge. Increasing use of unreasonable sanctions that leave already desperate households with no income at all, force them to turn to charity. But the rise of food banks is not just a result of government’s welfare policies – although a report for Defra, delivered in early summer and mysteriously not seen since – probably shows how welfare cuts are a critical part of the process, and that’s certainly what Keith’s report demonstrates for this one region.

Low pay is, however, the other side of the story. Eighty seven per cent of people on benefits are in work – and many of those are the one in five workers on less than the living wage. That’s more than five million workers – the staff who serve you in shops, the school dinner ladies, the road sweepers and parking attendants you see every day – who can work a full-time week yet not earn enough money to live on. Then there’s the victims of fast-spreading zero-hours contracts. They’re employed, but they can get to the end of the week without any income, or with only a fraction of what they need to pay the rent, buy food, pay for heating and travel.

For despite the Chancellor’s gleeful posturing in this year’s Autumn Statement, the claim of "economic recovery" is not recognisable to most people. Wages are not in line with inflation, energy and transport costs are spiralling, and many people are in the "heat or eat" dilemma, a problem set to worsen due to this government’s disastrous lack of policies to ensure warm, comfortable, affordable-to-heat homes for all and its failure to invest in public transport and ensure its affordability.

So what is to be done: initially, the government should abandon its plan for a welfare cap – as should the Labour Party. Welfare needs to be paid on the basis of need, not within some artificial limit. It should stop pressuring Job Centre staff to sanction benefit recipients. And it should abolish the illogical, unfair bedroom tax, and ensure councils aren’t pushed to force low-income households that can’t afford it to pay council tax.

And it should make the minimum wage a living wage. Labour is saying it is going to ask employers to pay a living wage and offer tax breaks for doing so. I say we should ensure that everyone who works full-time earns enough money for a basic decent existence – the living wage.

A living wage is a salary people can live on, feed themselves and their children on. It would give people back some control over their lives and the ability to plan for the future rather than live a hand to mouth existence. Now that really would be a Merry Christmas from George Osborne.

A volunteer carries a basket of donated jam at the headquarters of the Trussell Trust Foodbank Organisation in Salisbury. Photograph: Getty Images.

Natalie Bennett is the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales and a former editor of Guardian Weekly.

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Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.