Lee Anderson, the Labour councillor turned Tory MP for Ashfield, is still rattled about food-bank users. Having made a name for himself saying people use food banks because they can’t cook, they could live on 30p meals, and his parliamentary assistant doesn’t use food banks despite her low salary, his campaign continues.
Food banks are being “abused” by people treating them like “the weekly shop” and then going to McDonald’s “two or three times a week”, Anderson, who is deputy chairman of the Tory party, said in a recent debate in parliament. And this isn’t just his opinion, he claims: his constituents are the ones saying this, telling him “every single day about people making it up, telling lies or whatever”.
Well, of course they say that. Nearly a quarter of Britons think most benefits claimants are “fiddling” their dole, according to the latest polling available. It’s long been a core prejudice in Britain that your neighbour on benefits is getting something for nothing, or cheating the system somehow. Labour and Tory governments have encouraged this thinking. George Osborne painted a picture of welfare recipients with their “blinds down” as others went to work, and New Labour even planned to send “mystery shoppers” into GP surgeries to find out if sick notes were handed out too freely.
Anderson likes to say that when he outrages the Westminster bubble and liberal commentariat, messages gush in from the public telling him how much they agree with him. But just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s true. (In reality, benefit fraud is very low – yet it’s prosecuted far more than tax dodging, which is costlier to the Exchequer.)
From my experience reporting on food banks for years, people are not going on a freebie hunt to blag some snacks. On the contrary (and perhaps related to that “scroungers” perception), what has struck me is the deep feeling of shame among food-bank users.
Sometimes they will decline to be interviewed, out of embarrassment. Or they will try to assure me they’ve never been to a food bank before. It’s also common to hear people say they will come back and donate when they can, to give back. Food banks I’ve visited have put flowers on the tables, to make it look like a café, and called their visitors “guests” rather than service users or claimants, to encourage them to overcome the shame and accept help.
Maff Potts, a former government housing adviser who runs a network of “public living rooms” around the country, told me recently that as soon as one in Rotherham hospital changed its sign from “Put your feet up” to “It’s time to talk #mentalhealthawarenessweek”, its daily visitors plummeted from 1,000 to 40.
Anderson thinks he understands Britain, and in some ways he does. But what he’s missed is our saddest trait: feeling ashamed to ask for help. Hardly anyone is going to a food bank as a jolly, and when there are now more food banks in the UK than branches of McDonald’s, it’s clear where the demand really is in Britain today.