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.