Coffee House

Ed Miliband might talk a good game on food banks, but he’s still wrong

19 December 2012

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.

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  • Andy

    political debates like this are hyperbole, and articles like this although interesting, don’t help either with the problem of food banks feeding our nation. The real problem is that there aren’t enough rewarding jobs to go around, and neither side cited this as the most important point.

    I believe if you can take any solace from Miliband, it’s that he is at least pointing the problem out. Cameron’s hap hazard reference to the big society which as the article states he has mentioned just 3 times in the last year, shows that he is out of touch with the real problems faced by families.

    Cameron will continue to have ‘big problems’ in fullfilling his ‘big society’ until he addresses this.

  • Jim Moore

    What a an apologetic document to what is an appalling state of affairs among the poor many who are sick, disabled, unemployed (as a result of the economy) and also children and old persons suffering from fuel poverty. There are food banks spring up because the welfare system has been cut and shaken and many people are homeless, hungry and without work and they have a government tasking them instead of themselves for their own failures to lead properly ! I hope you never get selected as a young conservative aspirant. We need people who can speak up for the country which when I checked are its people and not its rich exclusively ! Some where along the line people have to rise beyond their petty party affiliations and look at the situation straight in the face instead of writing articles to provide a moral justification to what is fundamentally wrong, flawed, and full of holes in its planning and execution !

  • Mike Jenkins

    i wonder then if they say the first foodbanks started under labour, has anybody looked to see if they were needed but not implemented till during labours tiem.

  • TomTom

    For Tel-Boy…….……………..Launching the new Financial Services skills academy at the Treasury last
    night, Ed Balls, the economic secretary, said that widening “the pool
    of talented people” available to work in banks, insurance firms and
    stockbrokers was crucial if the sector is to avoid a skills shortage…………

    By Richard Tyler and Jo Moulds 12:01AM BST 11 May 2007 Telegraph

  • Rahul Kamath

    A very good article thank you. Labours harping on this issue will likely bite them in the rear when the public realise this is far from reality. 120k people using food banks is 120k too many but some of them are there temporarily and 120k is a drop in the ocean in a country of 27 M households or so. Ironically Labour is going back to “Broken Britain”, a mantra which I suspect has been fatal for the Tories (as people see it as dishonest).

  • 2trueblue

    How Millpiede can behave in this way is incomprehensible. Liebore, with him in a front seat, presided over a period where child poverty actually grew, the gap between rich and poor grew. and he has the balls to talk about it as if he knows nothing of such events. Of course he dosen’t. Liebore encouraged single motherhood and can not lay claim to enhancing the quality of family life. They laid the great foundations for what we are now enduring, fuel hikes and no provision made for the future over 13yrs. They were very busy running the most corrupt parliament that governing was totally beyond them.

    • simosim

      Ooooh. You’re still using that deeply witty moniker. Millipede. That’s SO funny. Well done. Oh and Liebore. Even better. I had NEVER seen that one before.

      Did you know that people talk about Chelsea Football Club as Chelski.

      These internet people; they’re SO funny.

      • Procrustes

        and your point is? Free speech still exists. Agree or disagree but at least explain your argument. Or return to the playground.

      • 2trueblue

        And your point?

  • Open_Palm

    The other factor that contributes to the rise in food poverty, albeit indirectly is the increased price of fuel. Those living on a tight or diminished budget are faced with the choice to eat or heat. Energy bills have more than doubled since 2004 and the trend will continue. Uprating benefits below inflation certainly will not help. If anything, it makes it so much more difficult to cope.

    Hardman may think the rise in the number of people using foodbanks has nothing to do with the government’s policies, but I fear those who find every single penny counts when they decide whether to heat or eat may not agree with her.

    • TomTom

      QE reduces incomes

  • dorothy wilson

    One of the reasons we “need” food banks is that so many people seem to think that feeding a family consists of stuffing them with pizzas and expensive ready meals.

    Last Saturday I made a meal out of some liver costing £1.07. It would have been enough to feed 3 people. And liver has recently been named as one of the top 10 healthy foods for 2013. M&S do a twin pack of good quality Aberdeen Angus mince for £7 or £8. Cooked with a tin of tomatoes, some mushrooms and diced peppers [large frozen pack available from Farm Foods for £1] it provides sufficient for around 12 servings. Once cooked it can be frozen into meal sized portions to form the basis of pasta dishes, cottage pies, stuffed peppers and fillings for jacket potatoes.

    Aldi sell fruit packs for around 70p. I can buy oranges from my local market costing £1 for 8 or 10.

    Perhaps some of the people visiting food banks need lessons in how to shop and how to cook.

    • Magnolia

      I’ve just made 3litres of barley stew out of 1 pack of two lamb leg steaks (x3 packs for £10 M&S), carrots, onions fried off in olive oil, few fresh tomatoes, leeks, a diced swede, stock cubes, dried thyme and black pepper, a few shreds of left over spinach leaves, half a packet of purl barley, a glass of left over white wine and a splash of milk. It works with left over chicken and roast lamb bits. Four bowls eaten and still nearly 2 litres left.
      I put it in the fridge and my student kids microwave a bowl when they’re hungry.
      I make this stuff because we all like it but it is very fair value.

    • Open_Palm

      You need a referral to get food from a foodbank after being assessed by a job centre or a council to prove you have no income while your benefits are being processed. Either that or a GP/nurse/teacher/social worker has evidence that children/nursing mothers/disabled persons have no means of accessing money and food, in which case vouchers are issued. And the food received are non-perishables i.e. no meat/veg/fruits. Mostly canned or dried goods and usually in quantity enough for 3 days.

      • dorothy wilson

        But if they knew how to budget and cook they might not have reached that situation.

    • Rahul Kamath

      Sheesh you really are judgemental aren’t you. Maybe people are feeding their kids pizza bcoz they are working too hard to have time to cook. That may also be why they don’t have time to go to Aldi. Maybe they don’t have cars or can’t afford petrol or bus fare.

    • rosieward

      yes many of them need to be taught how to cook, budget, use leftovers but like many other simple bits of education, loads of people aged 30-50 no longer have these skills.

  • Duke of Earl

    Come on Isabel, the fact that people are in hardship or are hungry is not a failure of the market as any A-Level economist will tell you. Market theory perfectly explains unemployment and offers a host of solutions. The food banks you refer to are a perfectly good example of the market at work. Private, voluntary giving. Afterall very very few people die of starvation in the UK.

    That you’d mention this while going on to state that late benefits are the main cause of this hunger (serious govt failure) is puzzling. After all, people go hungry all around the world go hungry. This is especially typical of communist countries. Go look at North Korea or the former Soviet Union.


      Has she ever visited a communist country? Or even spoken to anyone who has?
      I visited East Germany and Poland 6 months before the Wall came down and the shelves everywhere were virtually empty and what food you could get was dried or boiled or pickled. The only fresh food available was apples. Compare that with the failed market system which only provides us with an almost embarrassing abundance of fresh, safe, cheap food – and no queues! Unbelievable!
      And that more and more people are turning to food banks for free food can hardly be a surprise.
      The failure is that of the socialist collective mentality which deliberately deprives people of education and thus any chance of self determination making the poor unfortunates dependent on the high-minded but low-brained socialists who run their vile system.

      • simosim

        Yeah right, cos the capitalists are so smart. The bankers so competent and never any poverty or sadness in the free market paradise.

        Sorry to reply; apparently I’m low brained. And you clearly, pompously, see yourself as, well, superior. Ahhh. Now I understand.

        • Duke of Earl

          I don’t see anyone stating that you don’t get poverty with capitalism. That’s the game, winners AND losers. The point is that looking for a socialist solution will very often make things worse.

          And no, the banking system is definitely not capitalist!it is the most heavily regulated industry in the world after Nuclear.
          Which other industry does govt set a floor price, subsidise production, determine demand, regulate types of products, license employees, implicitly guarantee, and own the 2 largest operators? Answers on a postcard please.

          • TomTom

            I hope you do not imply UKFI is controlling RBS or Lloyds with its staff of 16. It is absolutely pathetic how few Quantitative Controls there are on Banks which were better supervised before Heath imposed CCC in 1971 and unleashed Inflation by his deregulation of credit…….Banks are bureaucratic but not regulated or certain bankers would be in jail

            • Duke of Earl

              If you read my post you do not see me imply or mention anything related to UKFI.
              The Treasury, BoE and FSA on the other had basically control the banking system and it is very very very heavily regulated. The blame for this crisis rests squarely on governments and especially central bankers who debased our currency and caused a bubble.
              The best regulation is failure. It ensures mistakes are punished and WON’T be repeated.

        • IRISHBOY

          As a freelance, self-employed worker I know all about poverty and sadness in the free market paradise. Contrariwise, I also know nothing of sick pay, holiday pay, paternity pay and leave, redundancy pay or secure employment. It’s the price one pays sometimes for independence.

          As for the bankers, if socialists hate them so much there’s an easy way to avoid them. If the Government never spent more than it confiscated, from the few not the many, in taxes, they’d never need to borrow a penny. And if you can’t see that socialism always and only leads to poverty, not just of a financial nature, then indeed I would impugn your powers of observation and thought.

    • Rahul Kamath

      This is fundamentally not correct. Read some Amartya Sen.

      • Duke of Earl

        I’m sorry, do you have a point/argument? I seemed to have missed it completely!

  • Hexhamgeezer

    ‘That people in this country find themselves in crises where they have no food in their cupboards is terrible’

    Yes it is terrible. it is even worse when they’ve got a pint in their hand, a fag in their gob and a 3G phone in their pockets.

    • HellforLeather

      Yes, especially when they do have that pint in hand, fag in gob, 3G phone in hand, huge flat-screen TV at home, and they happen to be MPs gorging taxpayer-subsidised food and drink (or claiming home Wisteria trims on expenses).

      Oh, and also throwing shed-loads of money at tin-pot dictators.

  • the viceroy’s gin

    Labour continues to succeed on the language of compassion, and it is here where the government stumbles, as Cameron recently admitted


    Huh? The Cameroons are falling off the map because conservatives are abandoning them. That’s the root of their “stumbles”. It doesn’t matter what Cameron “admitted”. He’s a useless git. It’s not that he’s poised to be liquidated because the Millipedes are so wonderful and everybody’s moving to them. He’s about to be liquidated because he’s a useless git, and conservatives are fleeing his leftism.

    Do you follow politics at all? It sure doesn’t seem like it.

    • David Lindsay

      Oh, she knows sod all. Although the loss of traditional Tory support is far from unrelated to the catastropic economic situation and to its ruinous effects on middle-class life.

      Earlier this week, she was telling us that all Labour and Lib Dem peers were in favour of same-sex “marriage”. Those old stalwarts of the Methodist and Catholic Labour Party of yesteryear, and those church elders from the North of Scotland and chapel stalwarts from Mid Wales and the West Country. Not that all Labour and Lib Dem peers are in those, or various other, categories. But enough of them are, to make her blithe assertion laughable.

      As another example, and one could cite scores, the large and growing doubts (to
      put it to more strongly than that) about the EU on the Labour benches, especially among newer MPs, are also an entirely closed book to her, as are those, so far less pronounced but certainly on the rise, among the Lib Dems. To whom could she ever have spoken in order to obtain such information? The growing and thriving Morning Star Parliamentary Readers’ and Supporters’ Group, entirely a product of this Parliament? Can you imagine that exchange, between its members and her? No, neither can I.

      She inhabits that crossparty, upper-middle-class, metropolitan, more or less secular world of economic neoliberalism, social liberalism, and liberal-interventionist foreign policy centred on NATO and the EU. Which would be fine. If she did not imagine that nothing else existed, and then draw a salary out of our subscriptions in return for parading both her ignorance and her indolence.

      • HJ777

        I’ve just wasted a minute of my life reading your meandering pointless nonsense. Were you trying to get to the point (any point)? If so, you failed miserably.

        I shan’t make the same mistake again.

        • David Lindsay

          Then it obviously wasn’t written for you.

  • David Lindsay

    The fascinating world of this Hardman person, and perhaps of this entire magazine: she does not know any poor people, therefore poor people do not exist.

    • Cyclops

      I’m sure you are friends with hundreds of them. Thanks for setting us straight. How much financial support do you give them? Ah, of course, that’s for ‘the rich’ to take care of, isn’t it? Nothing wrong with those economics, eh?

      • David Lindsay

        Or with that morality.

        • Cyclops

          Nothing immoral about expecting others to do what we think is right, eh? Especially when it’s against their will! Brings them down a peg or two, doesn’t it!

          • David Lindsay

            Yes. Not before time.

            • Cyclops

              You put your money on France, I’ll put mine on Germany.

              • TomTom

                You would be stunned at the poverty in Germany….especially child poverty

  • BenM_Kent

    An eye opening piece for me as a Labour voter let down by the “magic money tree” swipe at the end (no policy is more fantastical than assuming people will become confident overnight simply because government cuts spending).

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