There is no political consensus about the cause of the rise of food banks. Some claim that it is the Government’s spending scaleback, worklessness and welfare reforms. Others, that the increase in their number is being driven by family breakdown, poor education, welfare dependency, and a consequent lack of capacity to shop sensibly, cook adequately, and budget properly. Either way, three points are clear. First, that food banks didn’t spring out of the ground in 2010. The first one opened as long ago as 2001. By 2005, they were attending to the needs of the best part of 3000 people. By 2010, that number had soared to over 40,000 – all under Labour. Second, they are by no means confined to Britain. In Europe alone, there are food banks in France, Germany, Spain, and – among other countries – Belgium, where they distribute up to 70 per cent of all food aid. Third, food banks aren’t soup kitchens, as Isabel Hardman has put it: the people who use their services are referred by charity case workers or social services. As Tony Baldry pointed out recently, many of those charity workers are committed Christians, who help to run food banks “as part of their mission to the communities which they serve”.
Those who use food banks can also be referred to them by Jobcentres – which brings us to the story of Iain Duncan Smith and the Trussell Trust, the largest provider of foodbanks in Britain and, in its own words, a “Christian organisation”. Under Labour, Jobcentres weren’t allowed to refer customers to food banks. Like many other organisations, the Trussell Trust wanted this position altered, arguing that people in need would gain. The Work and Pensions Secretary was advised by officials not to alter the status quo. But he decided that changing it would be the right course to take, and did so – for much the same reasons as the trust. One would have thought that the decision would have drawn Duncan Smith and the Trust closer. Instead, the relationship between the Trust and the Department, never an easy one, worsened. It accused the Work and Pensions Department of breaking an agreement about how referral would work. The Work and Pensions Secretary exploded with fury at what he sees as partisan political campaigning by the Trust, which he accused of falsely linking the rise in food banks to benefit changes.
One can understand how Duncan Smith feels. First, he bent over backwards to help the Trust (and, more importantly, people in need). Next, it repayed him, as he sees it, by using information gleaned from the change to attack the Government unfairly. Sources close to the Secretary of State point that Chris Mould, the Trust’s Chairman, is a Labour Party member whose behaviour, they claim, is responsible for the breakdown of the relationship between the Trust and Duncan Smith. Certainly, at least one story designed to light a fire under his feet, and which was well-stocked with quotes from Mould, has appeared in the papers during recent months. Amidst this sulphurous atmosphere, the impression is abroad that the Work and Pensions Secretary won’t meet the Trust. This is not the case – though he is, at present, refusing to meet its Chairman (cue a thousand Boris Johnson-style jokes about Breaking The Mould.). The latter feels that he has nothing wrong, according to one source with knowledge of the trust, but is simply following where the facts lead him.
Duncan Smith has accused Mould of “scaremongering”, and written acidly: “I understand that a feature of your business model must require you to continuously achieve publicity.” The Department has said that ” ‘if three new food banks are opening every week, as the Trussell Trust says, then ‘it’s not surprising more people are using them’.” This comes close to suggesting that the Trust is becoming dependent on the growth of the problem which it is its mission to solve. Some will claim that this quarrel has no wider political implications at all. This is not a view that the Work and Pensions Secretary himself has taken, both in his time as Party leader and since, about similar rows between the Conservatives and the churches during the 1980s – whose wounds he has done more to heal than any other Tory politician. The ground-breaking policy work done in his time as leader at by Greg Clark; his work in Easterhouse afterwards, his setting up of the Centre for Social Justice – all of these recognised the root of the Conservatives’ reputational problem: the lie that we’re a Party for the rich.
That lie is furthered every time a Labour MP – reading from a handout, all real passion absent – follows his whips’ orders and stumbles through a PMQs question attacking the Government over food banks at PMQs. This, remember, from a Party which inertly presided over a soaring growth of food banks in government; which shirked the decision that Duncan Smith grasped to allow Jobcentres to refer, and which is yet firmly to commit to reversing any of the benefit decisions that it routinely denounces. The question is whether the stand-off between the Work and Pensions Secretary and the Trust is helping or hindering the exposure of that lie. My view is that any impression that Duncan Smith is refusing to meet a church-based charity does more harm than good: most voters may not notice, but more church-goers than one might imagine will certainly do. Moves are apparently under way to fix a meeting. It should take place as soon as possible. As John Glen, the Trust’s local MP, has put it: “I hope that a dialogue can reopen and we can see some progress.”