A Political Life: So it’s advertising, not dire need, that is driving people to food banks

Poverty is a crisis largely unseen in the drawing rooms of Middle England. Plus, Julain Huppert isn't bullied in the Commons, he's just outnumbered

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The Office of National Statistics told us something this week that should have all British politicians hanging our heads in shame. The number of children growing up in absolute poverty has grown by 300,000 in a single year. Not relative poverty, you understand, but absolute poverty. Not that apparently more acceptable brand of poverty, relative to median earnings, but grinding, wear-you-down-and-spit-you-out poverty. That’s one in five children, 2.6 million of them, hit by the fact that while prices have risen, wages have not, especially for those within spitting distance of the minimum wage. (And in case you were consoling yourself with some barbaric idea that these might all be “shirkers”, just bear in mind that many are children in working households. Yes, workers’ children. Living in poverty. Absolutely.)

It’s a crisis that remains unseen in the drawing rooms of Middle England. It’s a bit like the shirtless and shoeless 48-year-old Algerian who was caught trying to get into Spain by clambering on to the back of a ferry bound for Tarifa. To look at the ship, you would never know there was a man hanging on for dear life just inches from the ferocious propellers. And most of us would have no idea of the constant agony of many of our fellow citizens, whose struggle to stay above the waterline is full of anxiety. Mr Micawber’s balancing act (“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery”) doesn’t even touch what many have to go through. For a start, annual income doesn’t come into it. They are fighting a daily or weekly battle. Overtime one week can make all the difference, but if it gets paid late, then an expensive short-term loan may be the only way of putting food on the table. All of which will be made infinitely worse by the Government’s determination to move to a monthly benefits system. No wonder Newcastle alone has seen rent arrears spiral by £250,000 in the few weeks since the Government’s bedroom tax came in.

This brings me to the issue of food banks. I’ve said before that it is a damning indictment of modern Britain that food banks have sprung up in the most unlikely of places. But they continue to gain more and more clients. And the Government has changed its tune. At first, it welcomed them as evidence that the Big Society was alive and well. The blue rinsers have a heart. But now the Government has fashioned itself a new excuse, claiming that the rise is due to the fact that food banks are now advertised in JobCentre Plus offices. Why anyone in No 10 thinks this is progress I cannot imagine, but since you have to be referred to a food bank to use it, and many of those now availing themselves are actually in work, I fear all this proves is that the Government’s hard-heartedness is adamantine.

Not one to bear a grudge

My friend Tom Harris has resigned from the Labour front bench, completely without scandal or acrimony, to spend more time with his family. I’ve known him since 1991 and helped baptise his and his beautiful wife Carolyn’s two children in the Chapel of St Mary’s Undercroft, but Tom is no ardent left-winger. I once told him that the only vaguely left-wing thing about him is the fact that he quite likes poofs. He so liked this that he has repeated it on countless occasions, including in the Commons.

Despite being a bit obsessed with Doctor Who and the night sky, Tom is a fundamentally good guy with a great sense of humour, and I can recall falling out with him only once. Sion Simon and I had drafted a joint letter from the 2001 intake of Labour MPs to Tony Blair at the height of the Israel-Lebanon war in September 2006, calling for him to name the date for his departure. We never expected Tom to sign the letter, but I still feel ashamed of a text I sent Tom when he was offered and accepted a junior ministerial post in the reshuffle that was precipitated by the resignation/sacking of my fellow letter-signers. My text was sharp and nasty. So decent is Tom that when he was publishing a book of his infamously witty blog and assorted memoirs, he offered to leave the text out.

Opposition to shadowy pay

Incidentally, contrary to rumour, being an opposition spokesman is no great sinecure. Quite the reverse. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change gets a ministerial salary on top of his pay as an MP of £79,754, and the recently departed Chair of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, Tim Yeo, got a £14,728 annual top-up on his parliamentary salary, but the shadow Secretary for Energy and Climate Change gets not a penny extra. Fair enough, maybe. But what if all MPs were paid the same?

Not bullied, just outnumbered

The Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, Julian Huppert, has complained that the moans that erupt from around the chamber the moment the Speaker mentions his name are tantamount to bullying. I think he’s slightly missed the point. He’s not alone in eliciting groans. For years, the most groaned-against MP has been Simon Hughes, whose capacity for prolixity is matched only by his grating sanctimony.

He has challengers. A Tessa Munt question feels more like a never-ending ramble through every county in England than an attempt to hold government to account. It’s not that we dislike her. It’s just that we are fighting to keep the flame of life awake. So, too, Sarah Teather’s ability entirely to forget her recent ministerial career takes one’s breath away. But the real problem for Julian, Tessa, Simon and Sarah, pictured, is that they are Lib Dems. By definition, they have more people howling at them than anyone else. As Harry Truman (and Bucks Fizz, as Mr Harris would point out) repeatedly quipped, kitchen, heat, etc.

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