Monday, April 21, 2014

A Big Society, but keep quiet about it....

"When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist"

You would think that a charity, with a Christian background, working with the poor and reliant upon donations without troubling the state, that would be something that the government would be only too eager to support. 

Sadly, when that charity decides to point out that the increase in demand for their services might possibly be connected to government policy, then the Big Society suddenly looks a lot less attractive. This is not unusual. As I noted in my speech to Birmingham Council over the budget,  the government preaches localism, but only as a way to diluting local democracy to make it easier to subdue. They don't want muscular local communities, but ones that are divided and weakened. 

Similarly, the government likes a compliant and quiescent Big Society - hence the unnecessary Gagging Law that the Lib Dems spinelessly supported, which will have a chilling effect on many charities and will impose extra regulation on a sector that has done nothing to deserve it. 

The problem is that people involved in charities have a nasty habit of wanting to solve the problem behind their very existence and that leads to awkward answers. 

So, when the Trussell Trust, the leading charity behind foodbanks in the UK, has the temerity to point out that their experience is that benefit delays and benefit changes are the biggest causes of referral to their service in the past year and that usage has tripled, the response is swift. 

Graph from the Trussell Trust report

Of course, Dave - with his newly rediscovered Christianity - couldn't be seen to put the boot into a charity that he had recently praised
whether it's provision of food banks, there are some extraordinary organisations run by faith groups and Christians in our country and I want to see the possibilities for that to expand.
So, in the best tradition of Tory governments, he's outsourcing to one of the bootboys at the Department of Work and Pensions, where IDS has a history of disliking the Trust, accu. 
One senior DWP source accused the charity of "misleading and emotionally manipulative publicity-seeking", while another official said the rise in food bank use was down to the Trussell Trust "aggressively marketing their services".... DWP officials last week briefed that Mould [chairman of the Trust] was "effectively running a business".
As the government stopped collecting data on foodbanks - largely because they knew that it might prove embarrassing in the future - they had to rely on an OECD report to prove that food poverty is falling. This showed that the number of people reporting that they didn't have enough money to buy food dropped from 9.8% to 8.1%, although that applies to 2012/13, not the same data period reported by the Trussell Trust, but then we know that the DWP has a flexible attitude to data. 


There's a reason why "doing God" is a dangerous subject for a politician, ably illustrated by the increasing pressure from senior churchmen - including the letter to the Daily Mirror from 27 Church of England bishops and church leaders from the Quakers, Methodists and United 
Reformed Church. This challenged the government
"we must, as a society, face up to the fact that over half of people using foodbanks have been put in that situation by cut backs to and failures in the benefit system, whether it be payment delays or punitive sanctions.... There is an acute moral imperative to act. Hundreds of thousands of people are doing so already, as they set up and support foodbanks across the UK. But this is a national crisis, and one we must rise to"


The leader of England's Roman Catholics, Cardinal Vince Nicholls has also waded in 
"The safety net to guarantee people would not be left in hunger or destitution has been torn apart. And the administration of social assistance has become more punitive"
He was joined this Sunday by the senior CofE cleric, Archbishop Justin Welby
"In this country, even as the economy improves, there is weeping in broken families, in people ashamed to seek help from food banks, or frightened by debt"
This weekend, the government opened another front, using the paramilitary wing of the Conservative Party, the Daily Mail. They sent a reporter undercover to Nottingham, where he wasted the time of a CAB volunteer and lied so that he got the usual three days of groceries - which the Daily Malevolent helpfully priced up for you at £38.35. The Mail went further and headlined the piece "no questions asked" despite detailing the questions that their "journalist" had been asked. At least the food was returned to the foodbank, but that was also legal protection against charges of obtaining goods by deception. Whether there was sufficient public interest in using subterfuge to get the story is a different matter, but that's a matter for the Press Complaints Commission. And it made a change for the reporter, whose previous journalistic high point was approaching someone in 2012 for rarely seen photographs of a young Jessica Ennis - perhaps to satisfy the demands of the 'sidebar of shame."

The paper was shocked that the food banks DARED to hand out food to people who had not provided photographic ID and forensic details of their spending. They fumed that people might turn up more than the prescribed three times a year for help or that some might tour the food banks to collect as much as possible. 

Nobody would support anyone taking food that they didn't need, but the groups that run food banks are there to help and you can't blame the volunteers for stretching the rules when presented with difficult cases. I suspect that they would rather feed a few undeserving cases than turn away some of those genuinely in need. Half of those presenting at Trussell Trust foodbanks are referred by statutory agencies anyway, so have an element of prescreening and for many, going to a foodbank is the last resort when they need food. 

If this was supposed to dull the support of the public, it failed spectacularly, as £15,000 poured in to support the Trust's Easter Appeal, much of it triggered by the Daily Mail coverage. 

Strangely, the article does not find space for examining the reasons why almost a million people turned to foodbanks last year. Even more sadly, despite manufacturing enough moral outrage to fuel Tonbridge Wells for a weekend, the Mail fails to find enough outrage at the fact that food banks have to exist at all. 

That's worth journalistic time and expertise, but it might throw up answers that discomfort the Daily Mail's core readership. Or the Conservative government. 

But no doubt, the government and their allies in the press will continue to play the man, not the ball. And many charities will shut up about what they know for fear of falling foul of this vindictive, unpleasant and unjust government.