People don't visit food banks because they're ‘unable to manage their finances’, Mr Gove

Don't shrug his comments off as a gaffe by an out-of-touch minister. Members of this Government have no idea about the reality of Britian’s growing food poverty epidemic

Luciana Berger
Thursday 12 September 2013 11:18 BST
(Getty Images)

Earlier this week I asked the Education Secretary a simple question: parents are being forced to turn to food banks because they cannot afford school uniform for their children - what is this Government doing to help struggling families?

His astonishing and offensive answer was that this is happening because of “decisions by families” that are “unable to manage their finances.” Yesterday it received the negative response it deserves. During Prime Minister’s Questions David Cameron was unable to answer the same question when prompted by Ed Miliband.

There are a lot of myths about food banks, but the truth is that many people are increasingly having to turn to them just to put food on the table, including many in work.

There has been a 78 per cent surge in people accessing emergency food aid over recent months. According to the latest research, as many as one in five parents had to skip meals, ask friends or family for food, or go without so that their kids could eat over the past year.

More distressing than the statistics are the stories behind them. That is what I tried to shine a light on when I made Breadline Britain last year - a film showing the reality of food poverty.

But it would be wrong to shrug Michael Gove’s comments off as just one gaffe by an out-of-touch minister. There are a catalogue of recent examples showing the bare grasp members of this Government have of Britian’s growing food poverty epidemic.

Iain Duncan Smith told me before the summer that the “real reason” behind the increase in food bank use was “a growth in volunteers and awareness” - a preposterous notion that has since been labelled “disingenuous” by Britain’s biggest food bank charity, the Trussell Trust.

If he had taken the time to visit food banks and meet their clients, he would know that there is a clear link between social security issues and food bank use.

Together with the pressure created by rising prices and falling wages, there has been a marked increase in demand for emergency food aid since the new welfare changes came into effect. And this is affecting both people in and out of work.

More than half of people who have visited a food bank since April were referred because of social security problems. A third of these were delays in receiving their support.

It’s unsurprising that Cabinet Ministers are so out of touch about the real causes however when most of them have never even been to a food bank.

David Cameron eventually did visit a food bank earlier this year following pressure from many MPs, including myself. But he only met with staff and volunteers – choosing not to speak to the people being forced to turn to them.

If he had, perhaps he would have known that not all job centres are referring people to local foods banks as he said in Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday.

George Osborne has admitted he’s never been to a food bank to see how life for ordinary people is getting harder as a result of his weak economic recovery.

Neither has Lord Freud, the Minister for Welfare Reform. I wrote to him recently to invite him to join me on a visit to my local food bank so he could see the reality for himself.

He declined. He didn’t explain why either.

He did reveal something in his reply however – mentioning how some job centres are now “signposting families to local food banks as well as other local organisations supporting families in financial difficulties.”

How telling that the role of food banks in our society has become so accepted by this Government and can be referred to so matter-of-factly.

At least 350,000 people are currently reliant on emergency food aid provided by one of the 300 Trussell Trust food banks across the UK. Research by Oxfam and Church Poverty Action estimates that the support offered by other organisations brings the total number closer to half a million.

Let me repeat that number: 500,000 people have gone to a food bank to receive food aid for themselves and their families.

We are the seventh richest country in the world – when did this become acceptable?

If this Government is to adequately address food poverty, they must accept there is a problem in the first place. Unfortunately it is clear ministers still haven’t acknowledged this issue exists, is growing, let alone taking any responsibility for tackling it.

David Cameron needs to get his head out of the sand. He and his colleagues need to see what poverty is really like. I’d be happy to host them at Liverpool Central food bank any time.

Luciana Berger is the Labour & Co-operative MP for Liverpool Wavertree

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