It is still less than a year since I was elected as the Member of Parliament for Lincoln and it always strikes me how easily you could become used to the trappings of Parliament and the Westminster routine. That is why ensuring you remain a hardworking and interested local Member of Parliament is invaluable - it ensures you remain honest and humble making sure you never forget the people you represent and should stand up for.
Over the past eight months I have been heartened many times by the work that the voluntary sector does in Lincoln: from the street pastors, The Healthy Hub, CAB, Relate, the Nomad Trust and many others. This is despite the fact that I have been a volunteer all my life. But the work that some of the local voluntary groups carry out has been the most troubling when placed in the context of the amount of money spent on our welfare state and the need for good neighbourliness and family networks.
At the end of last year, I visited both the Birchwood Action Centre’s larder and Lincoln’s Community Larder which is open two days a week in an annex of the local YMCA. Opened in 1989, it provides emergency food parcels to people at times of immediate crisis such as redundancy, delays in benefit payments, loan sharks confiscating payment books/bank cards and those where the main breadwinner is now in prison.
Those seeking help bring vouchers provided to them via local agencies who have assessed their needs which they can then exchange for three days’ worth of food provided for them by local people. This Christmas, after a local newspaper appeal, one person even donated 24 Christmas puddings.
What I found troubling is that we have a situation where community larders like this are needed, irrelevant of the tough economic times we are currently in. When Labour left office, after 13 years of a Labour Government, we were spending £87 billion per year on welfare benefits but still the safety net was not working. Partly this was through its inflexibility to deal with situations that some individuals and families face temporarily. Also it has undermined a culture of responsibility where people try and keep a little aside so they can cope if they find themselves in a really tight spot for a few weeks.
I also suspect that because of the dependency culture that has been created and positively promoted by Labour, including one in Lincoln where over 4,000 children are in households wholly dependent on benefits, that much of the traditional help and assistance once provided by family and neighbours has been usurped and ignored.
On the positive side though, I am glad that these ‘larder’ charities and others like them in Lincoln and Lincolnshire actually do exist with people willing to give food and people willing to give up their time to run them. The thought that without the support of such a ‘larder’ some of my constituents would be in such terrible trouble with their basic needs, even for a short time, would give me sleepless nights.
It is this type of voluntary action that does not depend on the permission to exist from the pen of a bureaucrat or the whim of a politician, which forms the bedrock of small cities like Lincoln. It is why the Big Society is such a powerful concept in promoting voluntary action by individuals more widely.
It also gives a powerful message to those that continually thumb their nose at the Big Society concept and volunteerism in general. The message I have for those in the Labour Party, the legions of leftist socialist-type commentators and the usual sections of the media is: would they be comfortable with what would happen to those people in temporary need of help if Lincoln’s Community Larders and other organisations like it did not exist?
Rather than sneering, the sneerers should be encouraging and participating, because that is what millions of good people across our country are doing every week. Just like those who give to and run the larders in Lincoln.
In Lincoln many children and families especially are very grateful for the provision of food and it is not right that with child benefit provision and the welfare system we have in our country that in areas of Lincoln there are in the 21st century children who are often hungry and relying on these charities for their daily food. This to me proves the system is broken and needs fixing.
I believe that in Iain Duncan Smith we have the exact right person with his wealth of experience and knowledge to see improvements for those who are in need and are deserving of welfare, as well as to ensuring the system and society itself works for the benefit of us all in this great country of ours.