Ministers need to admit that benefits problems are linked to foodbank use

Trussell Trust Trustee Robert Key discusses how the link between foodbank usage and benefit problems needs to be addressed.

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David Prior (Lord Prior of Brampton) is no toff, he’s a modest man. He had a career in merchant banking then another in the steel industry. In his previous Parliamentary incarnation he was a diligent constituency Member for a not very affluent part of Norfolk. Like most Parliamentarians, he was a good deal closer to ‘real people’ than any departmental officials, journalists, special advisers or spin-doctors. Leaving The House hors de combat in 2001, he pursued a thoughtful and blameless life in the NHS and in education. Now he is a Health Minister. He knows about statistics.

David Freud (Baron Freud of Eastry) is also a modest man. Great grandson of Sigmund, he carved a career first in journalism – as Lex in the FT for four years. Later he floated Eurotunnel and EuroDisney – and saved the Channel Tunnel rail link and National Air Traffic. For Tony Blair, he wrote the review of the welfare to work system. In 2009 he joined the Conservative Party and since 2010 he has been a Minister in the Department of Work and Pensions. He knows about statistics.

Priti Patel is also a good thing. As a new graduate, she joined the Conservative Research Department – but was seduced into running the Referendum Party Press Office for two years. William Hague persuaded her to work in his Leaders’ Office – and Priti is now a feisty Essex Tory MP and Minister of State at the DWP. She knows about statistics.

All three of these good people have wrongly stated, in one House or the other, (no doubt relying on the bottom right-hand page of their Ministerial Questions briefing, in the ‘If Pressed’ section), that there is no statistical link between benefit problems and food bank use.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was as least as successful as any of the above, as an international oil industry executive before his ordination. He also knows about statistics. When he challenged Lord Prior in their House on this issue, Lord Prior said, ‘the issue is more complex than the Most Reverend prelate is suggesting’. Pull the other one, David!

It is not complicated. There is an abundance of front-line evidence from sound figures collected by over 400 food banks in almost every local authority area in the UK. Local councils know the score. The government officials, GPs, social workers and police who sign the referral chits know the figures. It really is time Ministers stopped pretending. And it is time the DWP stopped refusing to meet The Trussell Trust to discuss what is going on, to analyse the figures and to minimise the disruption and distress they are causing to the most vulnerable and poor people in our country.

As I discovered when I was Poll Tax minister, whenever there are changes to government policy affecting tax, spending and benefits, there are winners and losers. As with the change from the Poll Tax to the Council Tax over twenty years ago, transitional arrangements softened the blow to those who lost out. To feign denial is just plain nasty. The Chancellor gets that. Some still don’t, sadly.

Trussell Trust Trustee, Robert Key was Conservative MP for Salisbury from 1983 – 2010 and a Minister in the Governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

This piece was originally published on The Spectator on 17 December 2015.