Lord Freud, the millionaire government minister and former investment banker, has outraged many in the House of Lords and poverty campaigners by claiming that there is no link between the government’s benefit reforms and the massive increase in the number of people needing help from Foodbanks.
Freud’s statements beggar belief. For example,
The provision of food-bank support has grown from provision to 70,000 individuals two years ago to 347,000. All that predates the reforms. As I say, there is no evidence of a causal link.
Food from a food bank—the supply—is a free good, and by definition there is an almost infinite demand for a free good.
In other words, the massive rise – from around 40,000 to almost 350,000 during just two years of this government – isn’t because of an increase in the number of people a crisis of poverty. No, it’s just because people like getting free food.
Freud’s comments display a staggering ignorance – or an equally staggering combination of incredible arrogance and mindblowing dishonesty.
We all like free stuff?
Not just anyone can turn up and take free food from a Foodbank. It’s not a free-for-all giveaway where those who feel like it can wander in and pick up free stuff.
To obtain food from a foodbank, you have to be referred to one by people who are in a position to assess whether your need is genuine – social workers, citizens advice bureaus, probation officers, police. Even the occasional Jobcentre Plus worker – usually off the record and in their spare time, as contrary to the question posed to Freud in the Lords, Jobcentres are not encouraged to issue Foodbank vouchers. For example, JCP workers in Middlesbrough often phone the local Foodbank on their own time to ask for help for people that they know the system has failed – because of benefit delays or (and this is crucial) sanction.
Anyone who runs, works in or visits a Foodbank as an observer will tell you that those attending them do not stroll in with the smile of someone who’s ‘lucked into’ getting something for nothing. They arrive sheepishly, broken and humiliated to have to be, effectively, begging for food and admitting that they can’t meet even such a basic need for their families without the help of strangers. A key skill for Foodbank volunteers is to be able to reassure people that it’s ok – to reaffirm their humanity and dignity.
This is not some charitable ‘supermarket sweep’ – it’s the last resort of the desperate. And without question, it is beyond ludicrous to even suggest that the fact that the exponential rise in the number of desperate people coincides with our lamentable excuse for a current shows ‘no causal link’.
The restricted access to Foodbank assistance, and the loss of dignity entailed in accepting it, is no accident – and only a fool or a liar would suggest it is.
So is he a fool or a liar? A dunce – or a devil?
Predates the ‘reforms’?
Freud claimed that the rise in Foodbank numbers – to almost 350,000 – happened before the government’s ‘reforms’, and that therefore there could be no ‘causal link’ between the two. But this is simply nonsense.
The reforms to which he refers took place on 1 April this year, with the introduction of the wicked bedroom tax and swingeing cuts to housing benefit and council tax benefit entitlements, while another massive change is about to be rolled out with the introduction of Universal Credit (UC). But these are anything but the first changes made.
In June 2010, less than a month after the General Election, George Osborne announced cuts of £11 billion to the welfare bill in his ’emergency budget’. 4 months later, in October, he announced a further cut of £7 billion. The bulk cuts may not have taken effect while Foodbank use rocketed, but their impact was still huge.
Local government funding
As soon as it took office, the government announced radical cuts to local government funding, with the pain concentrated in poor, Labour heartlands while wealthier Tory and marginal areas suffered only nominal changes. In December of the same year, Eric Pickles announced further deep cuts, and once again the poorest areas were hit hardest, with many of the most deprived suffering cuts of around 9%. This pattern has continued in every spending settlement since.
While these changes have not (until recently) directly affected benefits, councils have been forced to cut provisions and support in order to make ends meet – and these cuts have affected many of the most vulnerable.
The (Mount) Eiger Sanction?
But by far the most crucial change to welfare has come in via the back door – and has been in full and increasing effect since well before 1. April this year: benefit sanctions.
As I and others have reported previously, the number of people hit by sanctions has soared under this government, from 347,000 under the outgoing Labour government to 778,000 in the 12 months to October 2012. These sanctions, which can be issued summarily at the whim of a JCP adviser, come into effect instantaneously, depriving claimants of any income unless and until they are considered eligible for a ‘hardship payment’. Many are not.
Sanctions have become a mountain that dwarfs Mount Eiger’s 13,020 feet – and the number is clearly still increasing. The government delayed the release of the latest data, due out in May, indefinitely without giving any clear reasons.
But it’s not just the number of sanctions that has increased (and continues to). The length of sanctions has increased massively. Since October last year, the length of the minimum sanction increased from one week to four – and the maximum from 6 months to 3 years.
Remember, these penalties can be imposed on a whim – and take effect immediately. And that’s just the deliberate deprivation – many claimants ‘fall between the cracks’ for weeks at a time because of the increased complexity of the benefits regime and the different hurdles they have to overcome.
So, is Freud a dunce or a devil? As a former investment banker, he is clearly not short of brain matter. Any ordinary person with the will to check can find out what I’ve just presented to you – and as a government minister, this kind of information will be handed to Lord Freud on a plate (or more likely, a silver platter).
It’s beyond credence that Freud is ignorant of the truth. Which leaves only one alternative. He is well aware of the ‘causal link’ between the government’s many and brutal changes to the benefits programme and to the support available to disadvantaged people generally, usually in the most needy parts of the country.
Freud misled his fellow peers – quite deliberately, callously and cynically. His denial is completely implausible – but plainly he just doesn’t care, as long as it makes a soundbite.
But the most chilling aspect of his lie is the sliver of it that is true. What we have seen so far is nothing compared to what we will see now that the even more brutal and radical reforms are starting to kick in.
The same goes for the increase in the number of people needing help from Foodbanks. The rises so far will seem paltry compared to what’s about to happen, both in Foodbank attendances and in the numbers of desperate people cut off from the help any decent, civilised society should provide.
There is no ignorance on the part of Freud – and none on the part of his government colleagues. They need to remove their dunce’s caps – and polish their horns.
And if we have any sense, we’ll be on the streets as scale of the lie and of the brutalisation becomes even more apparent.