This ought to start with a political disclaimer. All my political inclinations are to the left of centre, so I start with a bias. I consistently (and to no avail) voted against Mrs Thatcher through the 80s, and have never voted Conservative in a general election.
Having said that, I have met and know people who are generous, good-spirited, charitable and hospitable people who support all the mainstream political parties. Just because someone holds a particular political viewpoint doesn't automatically make them a nice or nasty person.
But Wednesday's debate in the Commons on foodbanks left me feeling very angry. Several agencies reported that Ian Duncan-Smith quietly left the debate early, the Daily Mirror even posting the footage on its website. What was even more depressing was to read of MPs on the government side laughing and jeering as opposition MPs described situations that their constituents had been through. It's one thing to have a good old political jousting match about policy and even whose fault the recession actually is, but it's quite another to treat real people's distress and pain with derision. What does it say about our politics that such serious issues end up being treated this way? What has it done to people to make them behave in that way?
And that's not all. Esther McVey (IDS's deputy) claimed "The UK has a population of 63 million and 60,000 people are visiting food banks according to the Trussell Trust." (Hansard) The Trussell Trust reported a figure of 346,992 as being helped by foodbanks for their reporting period 2012/13 and that it was rising. Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty estimate the current figure to be over 500,000. None of that takes into account the additional help being given out at community centres, homelessness projects, churches etc. In Morecambe we have a Trussell trust foodbank, but several other centres (including West End Impact, Morecambe Homeless Action, and the Salvation Army) are giving assistance through the week as well.
Surely it's not too much to ask for a minister to get her facts right about the need and usage in a debate that has had some build-up and preparation? Her best defence was that foodbanks started under the last Labour administration. That's true, but it hardly addresses the issue in the present. The recent massive growth in demand should be a major concern for anyone with her portfolio.
"Hardworking families" is the catchphrase of this government - just listen to the next TV/radio interview. They get it into debates on benefits, immigration, tax and anything else they possibly can. What this misses is that many visiting foodbanks are in work - they just can't make ends meet, and those out of work are often struggling to find jobs. You can't just make the simplistic assumption that a job is the solution..
The final issue is that I sense a rise in the view of the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor. There is a view around that people use foodbanks and other support to 'subsidise' addictions to drugs or alcohol or to enable them to maintain 'luxuries' like a mobile phone. I am sure that may be true in a small minority of cases. But even if were justifiable to talk about deserving poor, how would a voluntary agency staffed mainly by volunteers start to make that assessment. Doing so would also fundamentally change the nature of the relationship between the agency and the client to one of suspicion and investigation, rather than support and reassurance.
Let's imagine for a minute a very successful young business man. He has a big salary, a top car to keep up with his mates, a maxed-out credit card to keep up with the fashions and trends and a lovely house, using a mortgage at the very limits of what he can afford. One day it all goes wrong, the job ends, the car is repossessed, the house is sold etc. If he turns up at a foodbank, it would be very easy to say that he doesn't deserve the help. After all, he should have been more prudent, saved for a rainy day, been less materialistic, etc. We can think of all kinds of criticisms to offer - no doubt in addition to the ones that he is already heaping upon himself.
But rest assured that if he does turn up, a good support agency won't judge, won't condemn and the humiliation he has already had to accept won't be rubbed in his face. He should find a welcome, some food to get by, hopefully some advice on what he is entitled to and maybe an offer of help on budgeting and also support in trying to find a job.
In other words, he'll find some people with compassion. That's a quality our world is desperately short of, and one which shames those who laughed and jeered at tales of pain and need.