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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Northern Ireland election results: a shift beneath the status quo

The power of the largest parties has been maintained, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

After a long day of counting and tinkering with the region’s complex PR vote transfer sytem, Northern Irish election results are slowly starting to trickle in. Overall, the status quo of the largest parties has been maintained with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party returning as the largest nationalist and unionist party respectively. However, beyond the immediate scope of the biggest parties, interesting changes are taking place. The two smaller nationalist and unionist parties appear to be losing support, while newer parties running on nicher subjects with no connection to Northern Ireland’s traditional religious divide are rapidly rising.

The most significant win of the night so far has been Gerry Carroll from People Before Profit who topped polls in the Republican heartland of West Belfast. Traditionally a Sinn Fein safe constituency and a former seat of party leader Gerry Adams, Carroll has won hearts at a local level after years of community work and anti-austerity activism. A second People Before Profit candidate Eamon McCann also holds a strong chance of winning a seat in Foyle. The hard-left party’s passionate defence of public services and anti-austerity politics have held sway with working class families in the Republican constituencies which both feature high unemployment levels and which are increasingly finding Republicanism’s focus on the constitutional question limiting in strained economic times.

The Green party is another smaller party which is slowly edging further into the mainstream. As one of the only pro-choice parties at Stormont which advocates for abortion to be legalised on a level with Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act, the party has found itself thrust into the spotlight in recent months following the prosecution of a number of women on abortion related offences.

The mixed-religion, cross-community Alliance party has experienced mixed results. Although it looks set to increase its result overall, one of the best known faces of the party, party leader David Ford, faces the real possibility of losing his seat in South Antrim following a poor performance as Justice Minister. Naomi Long, who sensationally beat First Minister Peter Robinson to take his East Belfast seat at the 2011 Westminster election before losing it again to a pan-unionist candidate, has been elected as Stormont MLA for the same constituency. Following her competent performance as MP and efforts to reach out to both Protestant and Catholic voters, she has been seen by many as a rising star in the party and could now represent a more appealing leader to Ford.

As these smaller parties slowly gain a foothold in Northern Ireland’s long-established and stagnant political landscape, it appears to be the smaller two nationalist and unionist parties which are losing out to them. The moderate nationalist party the SDLP risks losing previously safe seats such as well-known former minister Alex Attwood’s West Belfast seat. The party’s traditional, conservative values such as upholding the abortion ban and failing to embrace the campaign for same-sex marriage has alienated younger voters who instead may be drawn to Alliance, the Greens or People Before Profit. Local commentators have speculate that the party may fail to get enough support to qualify for a minister at the executive table.

The UUP are in a similar position on the unionist side of the spectrum. While popular with older voters, they lack the charismatic force of the DUP and progressive policies of the newer parties. Over the course of the last parliament, the party has aired the possibility of forming an official opposition rather than propping up the mandatory power-sharing coalition set out by the peace process. A few months ago, legislation will finally past to allow such an opposition to form. The UUP would not commit to saying whether they are planning on being the first party to take up that position. However, lacklustre election results may increase the appeal. As the SDLP suffers similar circumstances, they might well also see themselves attracted to the role and form a Stormont’s first official opposition together as a way of regaining relevance and esteem in a system where smaller parties are increasingly jostling for space.