The latest figures show that unemployment has fallen to 7.4%, the lowest since 2009 (i.e. now lower than Labour left behind), and an email from Mr Danny Alexander arrives to celebrate that there are now thirty million people in work.
Inflation, down to 2.1% is also at a four year low.
But there’s also been a huge rise in people getting emergency food from food banks – as highlighted in today’s Opposition Day debate in the House of Commons.
We need to cast some light on this debate; we need some understanding of what’s driving this increase.
At the moment it’s all too easy for the Left to cry “Evil Tory Government” as though that was all the explanation necessary (and for some of them, all too often, it is); while the Right respond with “poor people have made poor decisions”.
(In fairness to Gove, he actually said “…so we need to help them”; that is, he meant to be patronising, not dismissive.)
The Tory responses in the debate – essentially to blame it all on Labour – won’t wash. Worse, they’re a cowardly approach, denying that the Coalition has changed anything.
The actual cold, hard, statistics – employment, inflation, interest rates, or my personal favourite the gini coefficient that shows that for the first time in thirty years, and uniquely among Western nations, inequality in the UK has actually fallen (as a result of the Coalition’s changes to taxes and benefits pushing the tax burden up the income scale) – all point to the UK having worked well together to mitigate the harm of the recession and to be moving into recovery.
But people don’t believe statistics.
Or rather, they’ll believe a statistic that says the use of food banks has trebled, but not ones that say the economy is growing.
And with inflation still running ahead of wages it’s easy to see why: a lot of people still have to live with their pay frozen – yes, including MPs’, despite what you’ve heard; IPSA’s recommendation still only being a recommendation so far, but massively unhelpfully adding to the prevalent (and probably untrue) “them and us” narrative. By spreading the pain so broadly we’ve avoided the horror of huge spikes of unemployment that the recessions of the Eighties saw – unlike the Thatcher governments, the Coalition hasn’t “written anyone off” – but at the expense of a whole lot more people feeling the impact of 2008’s economic disaster.
This is why Labour get traction from their “cost of living crisis” rhetoric. It’s a cunning way of turning the Coalition’s “we’re all in it together” into “we’re all hurting” (particularly when tossing in the odd sly reference to the “1%” who somehow aren’t in it together), while stealthily dropping that “Plan B” that they’ve been banging on about since 2010. (And how has borrowing more and super-taxing the rich worked out for France, by the way, Mr Balls?) What it doesn’t disguise is that Labour still only have one policy and that it won’t work. (Hence Ed’s… er… difficult time responding to the Autumn Statement.)
Hysterical commentary from Labour supporters, cherry-picking this food bank statistic and saying “we haven’t had food parcels since the Second World War so things are worse than they have been since the Second World War” simply is not credible in light of the overall picture. We can’t compare the use of food banks now to how they were used in the recessions of the Eighties (or Seventies) because they simply didn’t exist then. In fact, as an extra-governmental route for the “haves” to help the “have-nots” they’re a perfect example of Mr Balloon’s “Big Society” (though the Conservatories have dropped that as quietly as Labour dropped Plan B).
But we cannot in conscience ignore this evidence either.
It’s no good denying that some of the decisions of the Coalition government have caused genuine hardship, either directly by cutting people’s benefits (through the benefit cap, through the second room bedroom tax, through continuing to employ the evil of ATOS) or indirectly by the increase in decisions to freeze or stop payments (decisions often later overturned).
Actually, Mr Iain Drunken-Swerve’s DWP (the Department of Workhouses and Prayer, a ministry well known for their accurate use of statistics) does deny that decisions to freeze or stop payments have led to more people using food banks. Which comes back to begging the question: what does?
The most urgent question has to be are more people in poverty?
(Let’s not mess about with terms like Food Poverty and Fuel Poverty as though people have a meaningful choice between the two; if you’ve not got enough to meet your basic needs you’re screwed one way or the other so what’s the difference.)
There are a number of fairly hefty policies in place that are supposed to stop this: Labour’s minimum wage and tax credits; the Coalition’s triple lock on pensions; Liberal Democrats also managed to strong-arm the Chancellor into indexing benefits in line with inflation through the difficult years when it was highest.
So are these failing? If so which, and how, and how do we stop them failing?
How much of this increase in food bank use genuinely reflects an increase in poverty? Is it possible that there are other factors? I can think of a couple of alternative, not to “explain away” the rise, but to try to think about there being more to the picture.
The most obvious would be people who were previously choosing “eat” over “heat” now have another option: instead of deciding that they must have food and then shivering under a duvet, they can now pay for the heating bill and go to the food bank and get some emergency supplies. What has happened is that an “invisible” poverty has become a visible one.
Another is what you might call the “NHS” effect. If help wasn’t there, people wouldn’t use it. Since its inception, NHS use has grown almost exponentially even as the nation has become fitter and healthier. Similarly, as more food banks are introduced, and more people become aware of food banks, so more food banks are used by more people.
It’s possible that that interpretation is even supported by the authors of that “use of food banks has trebled” statistic: the Trussell Trust, a food bank provider – in fact they describe themselves as “a Christian charity that partners with local communities to provide practical, non-judgemental help to people in crisis”. (Although that’s not an interpretation they would put on it as they’re not as non-judgemental about the Government, whom they blame for the “scandal” of their own success.)
Their accounts (available on the Charity Commission website) say that they’ve demonstrated that their franchise model is “scalable and sustainable”, which suggests that they’re not so much answering an acute need as having found a necessary niche.
(Incidentally, almost all the stories of food banks seem to stem from an October press release of theirs. Though oddly, in researching this, I came across virtually the same story – same source, the Trussell Trust, same number, 350,000 people needing food parcels – but from May relating to 2012.
I’m not saying it’s wrong; it looks a bit weird but it’s probably just a coincidence when the October story compares April to September 2013 with April to September 2012, while the May story is comparing April to March 2012 with April to March 2011. As they say: they helped as many people in six months this year as they did in their whole 2012/13 year. I’m not surprised they have to help more people in Winter when the choice between heat and eat becomes acute.)
Stories about the increase in the use of food banks serve as publicity for food banks; so the Trussell Trust’s press release is not just impartially informing us of the situation, it’s also advertising their product. (Indeed, Tesco, for example, are now encouraging people to donate a shop – at Tesco of course – to the food bank, so turning them into advertising for Tesco!)
You could also say that if people in need are discouraged by shame from looking for “hand outs”, hearing that many more people are using the food bank reduces that disincentive, in a way “permitting” the people who need the food to go and claim it.
Let me emphasise though that just because I can hypothesise alternate explanations for some of the rise in food bank take-up, that doesn’t mean that they’re right. That’s why we need to be asking questions.
I don’t want to rain on the economic parade, but Labour and Labour supporters have latched onto this as “A Big Thing”, and I can’t say that they’re wrong to do so. I know that it’s a big cause for concern, for me and many other Liberal Democrats. We’re concerned for the human tragedy, obviously, but also because it seems to fly in the face of statistics that say the economy is getting both stronger and fairer.
Policy ought to be evidence-based (and unlike Labour I won’t just grab a statistic and say “so there!”), and we need to understand what this piece of evidence is telling us, so these are questions for which we need an answer.