David Cameron made a perfectly good stab at explaining what the government is doing to support families who are struggling at Prime Minister’s Questions today. He said:

‘I agree with the right hon. gentleman that we need to do more to help the poorest in our country. That is why we have lifted the personal tax allowance and taken 2 million of the lowest paid people out of tax altogether. Let us take someone who is on the minimum wage and works full time – because of the tax changes that we have made, their income tax bill has been cut in half. I would also make this point: because of the decisions that we made in this government to increase the child tax credit by £390 ahead of inflation, we have helped those families with their bills and we will continue to do more in the future.’

In the past I’ve criticised Cameron’s rather poor response to questions about food banks, but this was a good answer. So it’s a shame, then, that the Prime Minister had already damaged his chances by starting his response to Miliband by saying:

‘First of all, let me echo what the right hon. gentleman said about volunteers and people who work hard in our communities, part of what I call the Big Society, to help those in need.’

Labour MPs had been waiting for that answer, and they pounced on it and howled with glee. If the Prime Minister mentioned the Big Society regularly in the Chamber, rather than bringing it up only three times in the past year, with two of those references relating to food banks, then he wouldn’t get called out on the link. Of course communities coming together to help people in crisis is a great example of the Big Society: it’s just that the crisis itself, of not having enough food to feed your family with, isn’t a great thing at all.

As James wrote earlier, what Miliband was trying to do was paint a picture of a Dickensian Britain where hunger and hardship stemmed directly from the cruel Coalition government. But Labour needs to check its facts. The first food bank was set up in Salisbury in 2000, long before those nasty Tories got anywhere near the economy and benefits system. In 2007/08, 22 food banks launched and fed 13,800. Those numbers rose steadily: in 2009/10, before the general election had even taken place, 40,900 people received emergency help from food banks. The picture is much worse now: 128,700  people used food banks in 2011/12. Chris Mould, director of the Trussell Trust Network of food banks, says:

‘The Trussell Trust opened its first foodbank in 2000, so the need for emergency food in the UK is not new, but recession and the economic crisis has seen the demand for foodbanks increase significantly. Despite the official end to recession numbers turning to foodbanks are continuing to grow as people on the breadline continue to struggle with static incomes and rising food and energy prices. The changes that are due in 2013 could see demand for foodbanks grow further.’

What Miliband was trying to suggest – without offering any of his own solutions, conveniently – was that the government’s policies are leading to more people turning to food banks. Food banks are indeed a powerful symbol of market failure. That people in this country find themselves in crises where they have no food in their cupboards is terrible. But Miliband doesn’t seem to have spent much time at all studying the figures behind the food banks he claims to know so much about.

The Trussell Trust has been campaigning for years for Job Centre Plus staff to be able to refer people to food banks. It was only under the Coalition that this was finally permitted, which goes some way to explaining the rise in demand. One of the reasons this was necessary is that 30 per cent of those who need food parcels are in crisis because their benefits have been delayed: JCP staff hand them out to people who are still waiting for the money they are entitled to. It’s only under Iain Duncan Smith that the government is trying to make the benefits system more responsive. A further 20 per cent of those referred cite low income. While Miliband burbles on about the living wage for a lucky few, the government is taking everyone at the very bottom of the pay scale out of income tax.

As food prices rise, it becomes more and more difficult for those whose finances are fragile to weather a sudden shock, like an extra bill, or a late pay cheque. And 2013 is going to be a very, very hard year: this is when a large bulk of cuts to benefits come in, and anyone who pretends that life will stay the same for those on welfare payments is misguided. But Miliband is offering no solutions to this. That Labour would also have to make cuts that would cause shocks is something his party doesn’t want to talk about at all, at least not before 2015. Those who make sensible noises to this effect are shouted down.

Cameron didn’t win today’s PMQs exchanges, even though he made a far better case than Miliband. Labour continues to succeed on the language of compassion, and it is here where the government stumbles, as Cameron recently admitted. But would Miliband’s party be doing any better at stemming the flow of demand for emergency food? He hasn’t offered us any indications at all to that effect.

P.S. One of those more sensible Labour people who want to talk about reality rather than the magic money tree, Hopi Sen, has written a blog post about why Labour’s current pessimistic attack style allows the party to move ‘away from grappling with the messiness and difficulties of reality’. It’s worth a read.

Tags: food banks, PMQs, UK politics