Exclusive: Food bank charity ‘was threatened with closure by Iain Duncan Smith’s aide’

Chair of the Trussell Trust admits it had decided to become less vocal about food poverty in the wake of the incident

A senior aide to Iain Duncan Smith was accused last night of threatening to “shut down” Britain’s main provider of food banks, in a bitter row over allegations of the “politicisation of poverty”.

Chris Mould, chair of the Trussell Trust, told The Independent that he had been warned during a private conversation that the “Government might try to shut you down” over its public campaigning on the plight of people unable to feed themselves or their families.

While Mr Mould would not reveal the identity of the person concerned, The Independent understands from sources that it was the Conservative MP Andrew Selous, parliamentary private secretary to Mr Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary.

However last night Mr Selous strongly denied having been the individual concerned. “Your allegation is wholly false, I’ve never said that. And I actually helped set up a Trussell Trust food bank in my constituency.”

Details of the encounter, which allegedly took place in March last year, were given in evidence to the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector earlier this week.

Mr Mould said: “This was somebody telling me something which was probably being conveyed to me as a message from ministerial level.” He added, “It was said in anger”, and that the conversation got back to “a sensible place”. However he said the incident “exposes the way in which people in the political world think”, which he said “is quite often private, quite often secret, quite often slightly malevolent, with intent”.

Mr Mould also admitted that the charity had decided to become less vocal about food poverty in the wake of the incident.

Labour demanded that Mr Duncan Smith “urgently establish” what was said. “It would be extraordinary if anyone in Government made threats to the Trussell Trust,” said Stephen Timms, the shadow employment minister. Mr Mould also accused one of the DWP’s top officials, Neil Couling, the work services director, of trying to smear the charity by suggesting it had an evangelical motive for its work to help the hungry.

The DWP official had claimed: “For the Trussell Trust, food banks started as an evangelical device to get religious groups in touch with their local communities.”

The remark was made during evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee last month, according to Mr Mould.

Mr Couling has since written a letter to Mr Mould citing the charity’s description of itself as “a community-based organisation driven by Christian principles” and stating: “If I have misunderstood this aspect of the work of the trust then I am more than happy to be put right.” The DWP official denies “belittling” the work of the charity.

The claims over the experiences of the Trussell Trust come just days after the Conservative MP Conor Burns called on the Charity Commission to investigate Oxfam for being “overtly political” after the aid charity launched a “perfect storm” campaign highlighting widespread poverty in Britain.

In a statement last night, a DWP spokesman said: “We spend £94bn a year on working-age benefits and the welfare system provides a safety net that supports millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed. 

“The truth is that employment is going up, benefits are being paid to claimants more quickly and the OECD [group of rich countries] says there are fewer people struggling with their food bills compared with a few years ago.”

Andrew Selous profile: The member who claimed 55p for a mug of Horlicks

Andrew Selous was educated at Eton College and the London School of Economics. He served in the Territorial Army for more than a decade, combining this with a career in insurance, before being elected as MP for South West Bedfordshire in 2001.

The Conservative MP was a member of the Work and Pensions Select Committee until 2005. The following year, he was promoted to shadow Work and Pensions Minister.

During the expenses scandal, it emerged that the married father-of-three had claimed 55 pence for a mug of Horlicks in the members’ tea room. And Mr Selous was ridiculed last year after tweeting: “Strongly support the loss of benefits unless claimants lean [sic] English.” The tweet was subsequently deleted.

A supporter of the controversial bedroom tax, he has voted against raising welfare benefits in line with prices, and has been parliamentary private secretary to Iain Duncan Smith, Work and Pensions Secretary, for the past four years.

The politician describes how his “motivation for being a Member of Parliament is that I love my country and want to serve it”. In the statement, on his website, he adds: “My Christian faith inspires me in much of what I do in Parliament.”

Jonathan Owen

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