There was a food bank debate yesterday in the House of Commons. We all know that, but what few people can tell you is what was said. Instead, there is a furious debate raging about whether the Tories were laughing at poor people not having enough money for food, or whether Labour MPs were laughing too. I’ll leave that to other people to tussle over, suffice to say that it wasn’t the most edifying debate I’ve watched, mainly because as with all arguments in Westminster over food banks, both sides were jeering one another and making ugly accusations about each other too.
These accusations tend to boil the problem of food banks down to something very simple and easy: either that Labour wrecked the economy and therefore people need food banks or that the Tories rejoice in cutting people’s benefits so that people need food banks. Neither approach really takes in the complex nature of food bank demand, which I’ve written about for the magazine, the blog and the Telegraph.
Food banks are good things in that they at least help people deal with very bad things and are an organised community response to crises that in some cases have been occurring for years, with families previously at the mercy of social workers or teachers who had a few spare pounds to offer. Because people will always have crises, from suddenly losing their job to a sudden bill, we will probably always need food banks to a greater or lesser extent. But we’d all rather that those bad things didn’t exist in the first place, and in many cases (but not all) government can do something to prevent them. Benefit delay is one of the major reasons, and ministers do need to find a response to the rising number of referrals caused by benefit change (which will include cuts to benefits).
But given this debate has become all about the politics of food banks rather than the much more important issue of how government really can help them and drive down demand for them, it’s worth considering the Conservative approach to the issue. There were some very thoughtful contributions from all sides in yesterday’s debate (and from the Conservative side I would recommend Steve Baker and Laura Sandys, who both spoke with knowledge and passion about food poverty and the welfare state). But the Tories had gone in there to fight Labour, and were fired up about doing so. Which is to a certain extent fair enough given this was an Opposition Day debate designed to humiliate the government. But it did leave the door open for all these accusations about MPs laughing. Perhaps a little more gravity and a little less aggression would have helped, even if it is very annoying to be lectured by someone who has decided that they deserve to occupy the moral high ground.
But beyond this particular ding-dong, the Conservatives have been trying to work on their food bank message. One party figure says to me:
‘Labour think we should be scared of the issue. We say let’s pound the shit out of them and drive them out of every corner that they hide in on economic matters, exposing them for the useless idiots that they are!’
Part of this ‘pounding’ apparently involves ministers being encouraged to visit their local food banks. Backbench MPs have also been doing the same, but I hear there has been a recognition at the top that the Tories don’t want to look as though they’re trying to pretend food banks don’t exist at all. Which is an improvement. But it would be nice for both sides to debate the causes of food banks, rather than who is the most evil, which is what yesterday’s debate descended into.