Donald Macintyre's Sketch: A dog’s breakfast of food banks and porridge oats

One sense in which the unanimous report was 'cross party' was that after it was launched, the parties got rather cross

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Indy Politics

Good news! “I rather agree with the Archbishop of Canterbury,” Iain Duncan Smith announced a little languidly today in the Commons as hostilities broke out over the new report on food banks backed by the Archbishop. But on what?

Was it with the archiepiscopal remark – as quoted to him by the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves as she questioned her rival – that “‘hunger stalks large parts of our country,’ often because of problems with the benefits system and that even being in work and earning money no longer appears to offer complete protection against extreme food poverty”?

Not exactly, even though Duncan Smith insisted he was taking the report seriously.

Rather it was that “the Archbishop of Canterbury said today it would be wrong to play political games with such an important issue,” he told Ms Reeves, sternly reprimanding her for the apparently capital crime of “wanting to make this a political issue”. “Playing political games” is something that, by definition, only your opponents do, of course.

It doesn’t, for example, include retorting “same old rubbish from the opposition” as Duncan Smith did when Ms Reeves suggested ending zero-hours contracts, shortening benefit delays – an issue highlighted in the report – and cancelling “the cruel and unfair” bedroom tax.

But in any case, this was a pretty odd accusation. Here was a report issued by a cross-party group of MPs and churchmen, headed by Labour’s redoubtable Frank Field, on British poverty – or at least food insecurity – with a number of recommendations for the Government. By most definitions that’s fairly political. As His Grace must have known when he got involved.

One sense in which the unanimous report was “cross party” was that after it was launched, the parties got rather cross. With each other. Even more so when the Tory peer in the group Baroness Jenkin announced that “Poor people don’t know how to cook” before adding helpfully: “I had a large bowl of porridge today, which cost 4p. A large bowl of sugary cereals will cost you 25p.”

True, the report said that while “many families” coped valiantly on a “shoestring budget”, “a number of individuals and families” were unable to cook “a decent meal”. But as generalisations go this was fairly spectacular.

She later said that she had made a “mistake” but it wasn’t immediately easy to see how, other than she had said it out loud.

It was also unfortunate that the Baroness is a member of the Lords “refreshment committee”, which rejected a merger of the Peers’ and Commons catering departments on the grounds that the quality of the champagne would suffer.

She only joined the committee in 2012, so perhaps she is fighting, behind the closed doors in which it operates, to have the decision reversed. Let’s hope so.

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