On Wednesday I attended a meeting in Brighton organised by the Food Partnership to bring together the many foodbanks in our small city. It was the second such meeting and in the 3-4 months since we first met at least two new foodbanks are being formed. They are very diverse, some are based in childrens centres, some offer food to people from a distinct geography and others are focused on what is often referred to as a community of interest, such as the one based in the womens centre. We are working with the help of the food partnership to ensure we learn from one another and avoid the risk of a small number of beneficiaries taking advantage of the different groups and potentially depriving others who are in much greater need than they are. We are fortunate enough to have a supportive Council who are keen to work with all of these projects and support them. The same is true in East Sussex where the County Council and District/Borough Councils are also working to support the foodbanks that have emerged over recent months. It is clear that the need for foodbanks is real and genuine, although it would be naïve to deny the small numbers of people who see this provision as being something to abuse. However the core users of these services are in genuine need and this need is not being met through the low pay or limited benefits that prevents residents from building up resilience to unexpected bills or delays in payments.
This morning on the Radio 4 Sunday Programme Frank Field MP spoke about his concern that the Government was still not paying any attention to the impact of this explosion of support through foodbanks. He recognises that they are in many ways providing what many of us thought the welfare state was meant to provide. He referred to his concerns regarding the sustainability of these groups. I appreciate that there are good reasons why the Prime Minister and his Cabinet want to visit tractor factories and the like. We need jobs that pay good wages and if visiting a factory helps to ensure that the economy grows then we must urge them on their way. However life in this nation is more than shiny tractors, it is also boxes of donated tins and packets of food. We know that the Government Minister in charge of the DWP had not visited a foodbank as recently as July. Through one of our local MPs I recently sent a message to David Freud, inviting him to meet our network of foodbanks so he could find out for himself how they are working and how significant the need is. His reply was polite but he turned down the offer. Sadly I suspect that Frank Field who has recently written to the Prime Minister will get a similarly polite brush off.
In 19 months time there will be a general election. As we approach the contest we will see lots of tractors on our television screens. I have no desire to see foodbanks on my screen if it leads to reports that stigmatise the very vulnerable people who visit these, many of whom are ashamed to do so. I recall from the Conservative Party conference a number of speeches which took credit for the numbers of jobs that have been created since 2010. An honest political party would also admit how many foodbanks have opened since 2010 and perhaps more importantly what lessons are being learned from this. None of the big parties can say their policies have reduced the need for foodbanks. That would be a promise I would like to see in manifestos, with a clear indication of how they will achieve it.