It is becoming increasingly clear that the poorest members of society, who have suffered the most as a result of the recession, are not the priority for the Conservatives at Westminster.
Speaking yesterday, the Prime Minister insisted that deep, ongoing cuts to public spending were based on "values". Senior Tories favour a tax cut for the middle classes and David Cameron hinted at the possibility, talking of giving people "a sense of economic security and peace of mind" from "having more money in our pockets".
Yet how would such a tax cut be afforded? The Chancellor, George Osborne, plans to cut the benefits bill by a further £12bn if elected for another term. Money could be saved by ending the winter fuel allowance for certain pensioners, but the Conservatives have resisted that move so far and it would not fund £12bn of savings in any case. The poorest would almost certainly face more pain.
Ironically, Mr Cameron's speech was aired yesterday just as charities were giving evidence to MSPs about the huge increase in demand for food banks in Scotland and their belief that it was inextricably linked to the Government's money-saving welfare reform programme.
It is inevitable that some will question just how much people really need food banks. Some will do so out of disbelief that anyone could require something so reminiscent of Victorian philanthropy in 21st-century Britain; others because they are cynically predisposed to think that benefit claimants and the poor are really effecting a huge con on society. In truth, it should come as no surprise that the poorest are struggling to pay for food. Graeme Brown of Shelter Scotland yesterday pointed out that the conditions existed for a "perfect storm" caused by welfare reforms, stagnant wages, rising utility bills, higher living costs and job insecurity.
It is true that the more publicity there is about food banks, the more people will seek them out and the more professionals will refer people to them (it is an important feature of the banks that clients may not simply turn up and take food; they must have a voucher from a care professional such as a social worker, doctor or CAB adviser). Not every person who uses them would go hungry otherwise, perhaps, but some would. Charities pointed out yesterday that some clients are given items that can be eaten cold because they cannot afford the fuel to cook with.
The biggest welfare-reform related reason for people to need free food is having had their benefits stopped as a sanction. In that situation, with no other source of support, ending up cold, hungry and possibly homeless is evidently a risk.
Dave Simmers of Community Food Initiatives North East has noted that some independent research on the impact of welfare reform on food banks would be helpful to back up the anecdotal evidence. It would. There is little doubt, however, that further cuts to welfare will hurt the poorest even more. The middle classes have suffered in this recession but a tax cut for them while the crisis deepened for the poorest, would be unfair.
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