Last night I went to hear Chris Mould of the Trussell Trust speak at my local church. The scene appeared to confirm every myth Tories tell about themselves.
Though it does not make a great noise about it, the Trust represents the Anglican conscience at its active best. On their own, without state support or any of those nanny bureaucracies the right so deplores, the churches have organised more than 400 distribution centres to provide emergency food aid to desperate people. The men and women, who check that clients are truly in need, and hand out food, nappies and sanitary towels, are volunteers, motivated by a concern for others rather than money or recognition. They are a social service as well as the last line of defence against hunger. They try to sort out their clients’ problems with landlords or the Department of Work and Pensions, whose minions appear to view the arbitrary treatment of the needy as a useful way of keeping down costs. The public donates virtually all the emergency supplies- an act of spontaneous generosity that deserves more recognition. Think about it. Hundreds of thousands of people have responded to the social crisis Channel 4 will not report by freely giving at collection points at schools and supermarkets. On two days in July, shoppers were inspired by an appeal by Tesco – which is not the monster of anti-corporate fantasy – to donate 3.5 million meals.
Without wishing to descend into hyperbole, we are witnessing a vast movement of charitable giving from below, which in my more mellow moments can make me rather proud to be British.
The Right ought to be delighted at the mobilisation of Burke’s “ little platoons”. But Iain Duncan Smith hates them. As I wrote in the Observer at Christmas, Mould wrote to
…Duncan Smith asking if they could discuss cheap ways of reducing hunger: speeding up appeals against benefit cuts; or stopping the endemic little Hitlerism in job centres, which results in unjust punishments for trivial transgressions. In other words, a Christian charity, which was turning the “big society” from waffle into a practical reality, was making a civil request. Duncan Smith responded with abuse. The charity’s claims to be “non-partisan” were a sham, he said. The Trussell Trust was filled with “scaremongering” media whores, desperate to keep their names in the papers. But he had their measure.
Oh, yes. “I understand that a feature of your business model must require you to continuously achieve publicity, but I’m concerned that you are now seeking to do this by making your political opposition to welfare reform overtly clear.”
It’s got worse since then. Mould had a call from the Daily Mail saying that DWP spin-doctors were telling journalists the Trust had fired him for annoying Duncan Smith. Mould hasn’t been fired, and the Mail didn’t run the story. But the fact remains Duncan Smith’s “people” now regard the best of small “c” conservative England as enemies who must be smeared.
Meanwhile Duncan Smith has not repudiated an extraordinary statement by his junior minister Lord Freud – one of those Widmerpoolian figures, who achieve power by their sheer insistence on promotion – that food banks were run off their feet simply because ‘there is an almost infinite demand for a free good.’
For the record, you cannot get a food parcel unless a police officer, social worker or Citizens Advice Bureau says you are in desperate need. For the record again, a survey for Netmums of 2000 mothers found, 1 in 5 regularly go without meals to feed their children, 16% are being treated for stress-related illnesses and one third are borrowing money from friends and family to stay afloat. Teachers have reported that thousands of children are going to school hungry, exhausted and poorly clothed. A study by Tesco estimated that one in five people was going hungry.
I could go on, but why don’t you judge for yourself and volunteer to work in your local food bank, and see if you meet Freud’s frauds.
The low reasons for Duncan Smith’s behaviour are obvious enough. He is a minister whose career is on the line after his incompetent handling of IT projects. If he were to admit that there was widespread hunger in Britain because of the incompetent behaviour of his staff , he would be toast. Not all Tory MPs are the same. Conservative Home published an interesting piece the other day saying that many many know well how bad life is getting in their constituencies, and wanted Duncan Smith to stop treating charitable Christians as enemies. That said, there is an element in the right, in the media as well as the Conservative Party, which cannot bring itself to admit that poverty exists, or accept that the needy are anything more than scroungers.
Mould told me he had agonised about whether the Trussell Trust’s charitable work let the state off the hook. His admirable answer to the old problem was that you must help the despairing while campaigning for reform. But he still has doubts. The worst moment came when the director of one think tank told Mould he had saved Duncan Smith’s hide. If the Trussell Trust had done nothing, he said, the visible poverty in Britain would have been too great for even this hard country to bear. Cameron would have had to have fired Duncan Smith.
Look now at how Duncan Smith repays the Trussell Trust’s favour. Truly in the Work and Pension Secretary’s world, no good deed can go unpunished.
PS: Isabel Hardman reports in this week’s Spectator that Duncan Smith plans to relaunch himself as a “compassionate conservative”. Well that should be a laugh.