As more and more people turn to foodbanks for help, we rely on the generosity of others to donate. Ogmore MP and Shadow Minster for Rural Economy, Food and Farming, Huw Irranca-Davies recently volunteered for a foodbank collection and was amazed at what he saw.
On a wet and windy day I stood with other volunteers in the foyer of a well-known supermarket, collecting food donations for our local Foodbanks. Each donation – no matter how big or small – replenished the belief that we are a hugely compassionate people.
At one memorable moment, a mother and her family came through the tills with two identical trollies full of food. She stopped, pushed one of the full trollies to me, and then happily breezed off with children in tow.
The generosity of people in Bridgend, in South Wales, and throughout the UK to the growing demand for emergency food aid has been astonishing to see. On that day, we broke records for the amount of food collected in any store in the UK. Incredible levels of donations are made every day of every week in every town throughout the land, distributed to those in crisis by volunteers like those at the Bridgend Food Bank.
Rarely has a phenomenon given rise to such contradictory responses as the inexorable rise of foodbanks. We are astonished and heartened by the humanity and selflessness of volunteers, and amazed by the ingenuity and energy of church and other organisations.
Yet equally, we are horrified that in a modern developed nation we now have around a million people in receipt of emergency food aid: around a quarter of people referred to foodbanks are in work, and one in three are households with children.
There should be no shame in someone attending a foodbank for emergency support, because this is a case of “there but for the grace of God”.
People resort to a foodbank when a job suddenly goes, when the rent increases, as energy bills rocket and the cost of living crisis rips through a family finances.
The shame is in being part of a country where this socio-economic failure is now accepted as commonplace, and is in risk of becoming normalised by government.
There were 40,000 who sought help from the Trussell Trust – the largest though not the only UK foodbank organisation – back in 2010.
But last year this had grown to 913,138 people seeking help. In the last six months there was another 40% increase in demand.
This is a runaway train heading for a crash, and despite the brilliant efforts of foodbank organisers, the government is watching from the trackside as the train hurtles on.
Reports by the Trussell Trust and last week by an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger point the finger squarely at changes to benefits (including support for those in work on low-pay) and delays in benefits payments, with between 45% and 60% are due to this alone.
Here’s one example: in my constituency of Ogmore there are 920 people with disabilities who have been waiting weeks and even months for a final decision on whether they qualify for the new Personal Independence Payments. How on earth does the government think that these people are surviving?
Yet government ministers categorically deny any link, even though their own report into food aid in the UK also highlighted the major impact of benefit delays and reforms.
That is not all though. The other reason is that so many people who were on low earnings but were just managing, have now been pushed off that cliff-edge by the coalition’s economic policies.
Those in jobs – especially the UK government’s much lauded “new jobs” – normally find they are low-paid and precarious, with people who want full-time work getting only part-time or zero-hours contracts, or in “self-employment” with low earnings.
Prices have risen faster than wages for 52 of the 53 months since David Cameron became Prime Minister, resulting in the biggest fall in wages since 1874, with people on average £1,600 a year worse off. Families on the lowest incomes spent almost a quarter more on food last year than they did six years ago.
Add to this the average £1,000 rise in rental costs since 2010, energy bills up by £300 over the same period, and you can see why the squeeze is pushing people over the edge.
This is Britain, the sixth richest country on the planet, in the 21st century.
It is a scandal that the government sits by, abdicating responsibility, and leaving it entirely to the volunteers who operate foodbanks and those who donate to respond to this crisis.
We need an active and progressive government which will tackle the root causes of poverty and low wages and job insecurity; which will be on the side of the consumer against rip-off energy prices and rents and water bills; which will enforce the minimum wage and push it upwards again, as we move towards a living wage instead of poverty-pay; address the delays in benefit payments, and abolish the bedroom tax; support renters by introducing long-term tenancies and banning rip-off letting fees; introduce a water affordability scheme; and much more.
Today there is a debate in parliament on food aid. If the government is still in denial, then quite simply, we need a change of government.
[Note: This article first appeared in the Western Mail/Wales Online]