Response from Hugo Swire MP

Finally, on 3 September I received a letter dated 21 August (pdf) in response to mine of 2 August. Some comments:

He, or one of his staff, writes “I am mindful that food banks should not become a political football.” I agree. Care for the weakest and poorest among us should be a base line characteristic of a civilised society. The problem is, for the rest of the letter he attempts to do a few keepie-uppies and pass his way out of defence, but plays the man and not the ball. I am not necessarily a Labour supporter; I suspect my sympathies lie with the Green Party if any. But the Coalition has been the Government for more than three years now, and I am fed up with the use of pathetic attacks on the previous Labour government as a smoke-screen for the paucity of and lack of coherence in its policy.

One of my friends, on reading the letter, commented: “That reply show complete lack of understanding, knowledge or empathy – whoever wrote it should look at data published today showing that over 4 million people in work receive less than the living wage.”

The Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam report “Walking the Breadline: The scandal of food poverty in 21st-century Britain”, among many good arguments, makes this point in the Executive Summary: “Some of the increase in the number of people using food banks is caused by unemployment, increasing levels of underemployment, low and falling income, and rising food and fuel prices. The National Minimum Wage and benefits levels need to rise in line with inflation, in order to ensure that families retain the ability to live with dignity and can afford to feed and clothe themselves and stay warm.”

So Swire is mistaken when he writes, “As work is the surest route out of poverty…”. Work should be a route, yes, but many of the people who have to go to food banks already have work. It’s just not adequately paid. Addressing inequality (preferably via pay, but taxation is an alternative) is the surest route out of poverty.

He continues “…I have high hopes that these measures [Universal Credit] will improve the standard of living across the country and reduce the number of people who feel the need to go to food banks.” Now is it just me, or shouldn’t important policy such as the benefits system be based on firm evidence and analysis rather than “high hopes”? And “feel the need” is just insulting. As though parents who have no money to feed their children, because their pay is not enough to meet their necessary outgoings or the benefits system has cocked up their payments again, have any other option. Oh, those feckless ne’er-do-wells!

Rt Hon Hugo Swire MP, I challenge you to visit a food bank and talk to – no, don’t talk, practise empthy and listen to – the people who have to use it as a lifeline. 

Update on 24 February 2014

I received a further letter dated 8 January 2014. I am at a loss what this was in response to… maybe this post, and my link to it on Twitter on 4 September.

I’m still with the bishops.

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