I am used to David Cameron not answering questions and either getting his facts wrong or just making them up.
This has consistently been the case when the Prime Minister has been asked about food banks. When asked what he thought about the dramatic increases in the use of food banks, he would answer that the volunteers are wonderful and food banks are a sign of the success of his “Big Society”.
So, last week, Mr Cameron looked like the cat that got the cream as he thought he finally had something good to say about this issue. Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, he boasted about his Government’s ground breaking relationship with food banks. He was talking about Job Centre Plus (JCP) staff being able to refer people who need help to a food bank. A few months ago, that would have been true.
However, I knew that national food bank charity the Trussell Trust had already claimed that the reality was that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had broken an agreement made between it and job centres in 2011 without consultation with the charity. After hearing these concerns, I had sought clarification from the DWP on the Government’s policy. The answer was that “it does not refer people to food banks or issue vouchers.” This was received just hours after I raised a point of order in relation to the PM’s earlier answer and complaining to the Speaker that I was overdue an answer to my questions about this issue.
What was even more concerning was that when I asked the minister when he would next meet with the Trussell Trust, he said “food banks are not Government responsibility and, therefore, it is not considered necessary to have a meeting”. This Government has gone from boasting of a new and close relationship with food banks, to turning their backs on them.
I think the Government did the right thing in allowing JCP staff to make referrals to food banks in the first place. The part of the referral process which the Government seems to object to is explaining why the person needs emergency food supplies. Now why would the Government not be willing to provide this information? Could it be that ministers have realised that there is a direct link between their welfare policies and the rocketing number of people unable to feed themselves?
There is nothing to celebrate in the growth of food banks, but communities want to respond and help. If the Government wants to understand the causes of food poverty in the UK and work with the “Big Society” to heal this scar on our society, then they have to get honest and provide the information we need to do just that.
Fiona O’Donnell is MP for East Lothian