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No sign of a party for the poor as food banks boom

THOUGH the notion might prompt a mass spluttering of cornflakes over breakfast tables, there are places in the UK where bankers are the business.

Their premises are always busy, their customer base is growing, and patrons are so delighted to seek their services that queues form before the doors open.

Say good morning to Britain's food bankers, the people and charities who are not asking for a bail out but are instead bailing out the state for its failure to tackle poverty.

Poverty today comes in old and new varieties. The old poverty is much the same as it has always been, except now it comes with an extra helping of contempt. Only charities, churches, and documentary makers in search of headlines actively seek out the company of the old poor. For politicians on all sides they have become an optional extra, there to be noticed and exploited now and then.

Then there are the new poor, those with second jobs or three part-time jobs, the householders paying the mortgage or rent with a credit card or payday loan, the workers who have watched the value of their wages plunge since the recession began in 2008. The new poor, unlike the old poor, are now the object of the political establishment's affections. From Scotland's independence referendum to the UK General Election of 2015, this is the constituency to be courted.

Old poor or new poor, both sides will have had cause this week to laugh at the notion that Britain has left Recession Rise, made it passed the muggers on Double Dip Avenue and turned the corner into Recovery Street. In what has been a sickly tortoise versus arthritic hare race, pay has finally inched ahead of inflation, meaning that hard-earned pound in your pocket will go slightly further.

Ordinarily, one might have expected this news, together with the upwards bump in employment, to have brought David Cameron, the Prime Minister, back from his holiday in Lanzarote to celebrate in public. But he was nowhere to be seen, leaving it to the work experience kid, also known as Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to do the media business.

One would like to think Mr Cameron stayed on his sunbed because it would have been obscene to crow about a recovery in a week when it emerged that almost a million people visited food banks last year. In Scotland, the Trussell Trust has seen the number using its food banks increase from 14,318 to 71,428. Across the UK, demand is up by 162%. The charity does not have to look far for the causes. Poverty pay, plus benefits sanctions and bungles, mean the food banks must always strive to be the banks that say yes. Otherwise, children and adults go hungry. It is that simple, that shameful, an equation.

The Coalition Government's response to this crisis is, you have guessed it, to blame the media. David Gauke MP, the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, appeared on television this week to say that the main reason there was increasing demand on food banks, and more food banks in general, was because the media were publicising their existence more.

They were victims of their own success, in other words, a sort of Waitrose of the welfare age, Apple stores for austere times. Never mind that customers require an official chit to shop there. It is not just any old hungry Tom, Dick or Harry who can turn up. Still, it was hard not to feel some admiration for Mr Gauke. Imagine the muscle strain involved in keeping a straight face while spouting such laughable tosh. Bravo, sir. And what will you be having for your Easter Sunday meal, minister?

To think Mr Gauke comes from the same political family tree as Disraeli, the Conservative prime minister who wrote about the rich and the poor being two nations "between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by a different breeding, are fed by a different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws".

Thus far, the new poor do not see themselves as being an interest rate rise or a couple of missed wages away from joining the old poor, and for that the political class must be eternally grateful.

It is not that the new poor are living in denial. They know that it is rising house prices in London and other hotspots that are fuelling a phoney sense of recovery. They are well aware that it is bonuses to the few rather than pay hikes for the many that are driving up average wages.

They know their futures, and those of their children, have never been more uncertain. They live with this gnawing sense of insecurity and wonder which political party, if any, can ease it. And in the meantime, they keep taking the anti-depressants (pharmaceuticals being the other sector, aside from food banks, that has boomed during the recession).

The Tories, bereft of any other ideas, suggest a policy of steady as she goes. The Liberal Democrats will do as the Tories say, until a couple of months before the General Election at least. Labour at UK level are living in a la-la land where they will not increase spending but will somehow help the poor, new and old, out of their respective holes. It will take a magician, not a calculator, to make those sums work.

Around these parts, however, matters are taking a turn for the interesting.

Here, traditional Labour supporters, the ones most likely to be receptive to the message that things can only get better in an independent Scotland, are being love-nuked by the SNP, which in turn has prompted Scottish Labour to wake up and smell potential defeat in the referendum. Scottish Labour knows that if the tide turns in Scotland, if votes switch from Labour to the SNP on the question of which party is most ready to help the poor, they will likely never go back.

When Johann Lamont chides the SNP for cosying up to big business with talk of corporation tax cuts she is not playing party politics as usual, but making a plea for her party's very survival. If Labour is not there to be the voice of the poor and underprivileged in Scotland, what on Earth is it for?

For now, all the SNP needs to do is to keep asking that question and continue to promise that there is a fairer Scotland to be had under independence. Hope, not certainty, is all that is on offer. It is all vision, with verification to come later, if it arrives at all.

But optimism is not something that can be taken to the bank. It will not pay a soaring welfare bill as Scotland's population ages and the pot of public money grows ever smaller. And it will not, in the short term, remove the obscenity whereby a postcode determines how long a person lives. New poor or old poor, new country or old, the short-changing looks set to go on for a long time yet.

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