The truth about food banks: they are desperately needed
Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, says a Government minister is wrong about food banks.
I was incensed by Michael Gove's claim that people who use food banks only have themselves to blame.
This from an Education Secretary who had to pay back £7,000 after the MPs' expenses scandal and whose claims included overnight stays in a £500-a-night luxury spa hotel.
I don't know if Mr Gove has ever visited a food bank or lived on the minimum wage or social security, but I doubt he'd have made such crass comments if he had.
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In 2010, the last year of the Labour Government, 40,898 people across the UK resorted to the three-day emergency supplies provided by food banks. In 2012-13 that had risen to 346,992. That dramatic increase does not take into account the impact of the Government's Social Security changes in April. Testimony from our own local food banks in the Westcountry suggests there has been an even bigger rise since then. When I visited Exeter Food Bank recently, the people using it were not there because of their inability to manage a budget. Most of them were or had been in work and were already on the breadline when unemployment or some other misfortune had struck, plunging them into a crisis. The fact is it's the weakest and most vulnerable people who are bearing the brunt of this Government's policies, while the City bankers and others who caused the global financial crash are not only getting off scot free – they've just been given a generous tax cut by the Government.
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While the economy appears to be finally picking up, most people are not feeling the benefits. Britain is the only major economy apart from Italy that has still not recovered to its pre-crash level and the extreme austerity policies of the last three years have cut 3.5% from our GDP. Real incomes have fallen in 36 of the last 37 months, as inflation outstrips wages and the average worker is £1,350 a year worse off as a result. Labour would re-introduce a lower 10p starting rate of tax, cap soaring energy and rail prices and protect tax credits for working families by reversing the recent millionaire's tax cut.
But we would also do more to "rebalance" the economy. Everyone supported this after the crash – agreeing Britain needed to rely less on services, consumption and house price bubbles and more on investment, production and exports. But the signs are the Government has forgotten that lesson and is now stoking a new housing bubble and consumer-led recovery, which risks repeating the problems of the past.
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Earlier this year, a number of the region's MPs saw off a plan to introduce regional pay to the NHS. Twenty or so Westcountry hospitals quietly dropped the idea after a group of us from all parties raised our concerns with Ministers. But the idea has been resurrected by the Ambulance Service. We MPs still think it's a bad idea, which will lead to lower pay in the Westcountry and take money out of our region's economy. So we're going back to the Minister again. Let's hope he's as receptive to our appeals as last time.
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Westcountry cider makers were celebrating a bumper harvest at their annual parliamentary reception last week. They were also grateful to those of us who helped them see off David Cameron's plan to whack up the price of cider with his minimum alcohol price. That would have been devastating for cider makers and especially for farm gate sales of scrumpy. But there's a new danger facing our local apple growers and cider-makers – the Government's "cider duty escalator." Under the last Government cider duty was first cut by 10% then frozen – which helped created a cider renaissance in Britain. That policy recognised the extra long-term commitment and investment in planting and tending cider orchards (compared, say to beer production) and their benefit to the environment. But under this Government the gap between cider and beer duty is narrowing again and cider makers are getting worried. Given cider is also one of our big and growing export successes, the Government needs to listen.