I wrote yesterday about the failure of Theresa May to take people trafficking seriously for over 6 years, and then her welcome but unexpected decision to introduce additional legislation during this governmental year, even though no mention was made of it during the Queens Speech as recently as May. Todays example of a disconnected political response is a bit closer to home personally. As I have written previously, on 2nd July a Government Minister, Lord David Freud spoke in a House of Lords debate about the use of food banks. He was doing so as the unelected Minister for Welfare Reform, a role that means he has responsibility for the range of recent benefit reforms impacting our communities. The full debate is available here in Hansard which includes the most significant exchange between David Freud and William McKenzie who held a similar role to David Freud in the previous Government. However unlike David Freud, William McKenzie has had significant experience of fighting parliamentary seats and has been a leader in Local Government.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: My Lords, April this year saw the demise of the discretionary Social Fund and the passing of responsibilities to local authorities. We know that funding for local authorities was not ring-fenced and we learnt last week of a further 10% cut in their budgets. Does the Minister not accept that this, taken together with harsher benefit sanctions regimes and a longer wait for benefits, will mean that the use of food banks will only increase? Despite what he said, is it not a fact that under this Government food banks are looking to be a permanent part of the welfare provision of this country?
Lord Freud: My Lords, there is actually no evidence as to whether the use of food banks is supply led or demand led. 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.
So in effect David Freud is suggesting that foodbanks might actually be stoking up demand, rather than meeting the increasing demand caused by any changes in benefits. It transpired after this debate that David Freud who has no professional background in a context that would enable him to understand the way in which benefits impact our communities, had never visited a foodbank, so was speaking entirely based on any advice he had been given by his civil servants and his own imagination.
I corresponded with a local Conservative MP, Simon Kirby on this issue, raising my concerns that not only was David Freud speaking from ignorance, but also that his views were very damaging, bearing in mind the important role he holds. I agreed to speak to local foodbanks and then make further contact with Simon. The meeting with the foodbanks took place on the 17th July and a robust discussion clarified that whilst there was certainly some evidence of a few people making greater use of the foodbanks than was the intention, that this was at the margins and the substantive experience was that people were presenting themselves for the first time, with need that would not have been the case a year ago. The notes from the meeting are available here. Simon agreed to write to David Freud and to include an invitation for him to visit any of the cities foodbanks, something that the foodbanks readily agreed to, feeling that a visit would help this senior Politician to better understand their world and his brief.
The letter in response arrived yesterday and is available here. It is incredibly frustrating when Ministers appear to speak from a point of view of ignorance and misunderstanding. However as human beings this inevitably happens from time to time. What is harder to understand is the extent to which people like David Freud seem oblivious to the damage caused by their comments and their apparent unwillingness to learn from people who do understand the impact of these comments. In his letter, David Freud did not show any regret, merely pointing out that he had also said positive things about foodbanks during the debate. One can only hope that if David Freud was an elected MP, that the foodbanks in his constituency would have taken the time to show him the sharp end of a causal link. As it is he has no real incentive to follow up letters from local MPs like the one Simon sent him in a meaningful way. His seat in the House of Lords is not under any threat from our votes, nor is there any prospect of Lords reform any time soon.