Thoughts on the foodbank debate, from the public gallery.
It’s taken me almost 24 hours to write this post, as if I had written it after the debate last night it would have probably been a big rant about what a nasty piece of work Esther McVey is – and the work that has gone into the debate and the efforts of 142,000 people who signed and shared that petition was too valuable to waste in a rage.
So I took some time to reflect, rather than leap in, and here I am.
Last night, sitting in the public gallery at the House of Commons, I witnessed the hideous, smirking face of one (yellow and blue) side of the house. Half empty benches lined with braying, jeering, sneering MPs, shouting down Maria Eagle in her opening speech as she attempted to set the terms of the debate for food bank users, volunteers, and struggling households up and down Britain.
To sum up the Tories response, Esther McVey ‘welcomed’ the rise in food bank use. She wasn’t the only one:
Roger Williams (Con): “Food banks have come rather late to my constituency, but I really welcome them.”
Another MP claimed the Government was doing everything it could:
Robert Halfon, Con: “No one denies that there is a problem, but…the Government are doing everything possible to alleviate it.”
Iain Duncan Smith scuttled out after McVey gave what was described by one MP as ‘the nastiest speech I have heard in 43 years.’
Again and again they brayed that ‘food banks opened under Labour’. Yes, they did. Nobody denies that. But if the Tories were so concerned about food bank use in 2005, where was their petition? Where was their campaign? Where was their opposition day debate? And where is their explanation for the surge in their use over the last three years since the Coalition Government began its ‘war on welfare’?
They repeatedly claimed that ‘work is the best route out of poverty’ – refusing to acknowledge the many more unemployed people than job vacancies across Britain. Refusing to acknowledge that a great proportion of food bank users are people IN WORK, part time, full time, on minimum wage, on zero hour contracts. Work is not necessarily a route out of poverty – which is a terrifying indictment of life under this Coalition government.
I realised early on what was happening, as McVey claimed that there were ‘only 60,000 foodbank users in Britain’ – when the Trussell Trust figures and Oxfam figures show that there are almost TEN TIMES that amount. But nobody, NOBODY corrected her. Nobody intervened. It just flew out, another unchallenged lie, thick and fast as she jabbed her finger at the opposing benches and talked so off topic that I wondered if she even knew what debate she was at.
Labour MPs shared, one by one, devastating stories from their constituencies. The man who was using a food bank after being sanctioned for attending a cancer appointment. The man who tried to hang himself. The woman whispering to food bank staff that she needed sanitary towels and toilet paper.
Ian Lavery (Lab): “A gentleman in my constituency…was sanctioned when he was in hospital for a heart condition. He lived for a further three days on field mushrooms and borrowed eggs. Is that what we want to see in the UK in 2013-14?”
Madeleine Moon, Lab: “The working poor are finding it difficult to get basic products as well. My food bank has told me that people sometimes talk to staff quietly to ask whether they have toilet paper or sanitary products. It is not just food that people cannot get, but other expensive products.”
Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): “Figures released this week show an increase in diseases such as scurvy and rickets, and an increase in malnourishment. The Government should acknowledge that in the context of today’s debate. Frankly, it is disgraceful that we have not had a Minister from either of the main Departments sitting on the Front Bench for the whole of the debate.”
But the Tories response was blanket, whipped, a refusal to engage with any of the real world being spelled out before them.
And that’s their whole strategy. Denial. Defiance. Distraction. Not a flicker of emotion as Labour MPs spoke passionately about the desperate situations that their constituents found themselves in. Just a three line whip and a stout refusal to stray from the party line of hardened hearts and outright denial. It’s easier to talk in numbers, in micro-economics, neo-liberalism, national debt, belt-tightening, than it is to talk about starving children, homelessness, destitution and despair. It’s easier to walk out of the debate than listen to the heartbreaking testimonies one at a time.
One Tory MP said: “As a parent myself, I cannot conceive of not being able to feed my child.” And that’s the whole problem. Stuffed suits fighting their way to the front of subsidised bars and taxpayer-funded canteens – jeering about the poor who at the very same time were fighting over reduced fruit and vegetables in their local supermarket. There but for the grace of God they go, but they do not represent their cold, hungry, desperate constituents. Shame on every single one of the 296 who voted against the motion, and I hope that shame follows them to the ballot boxes in 2015. Enjoy your beers in the Strangers Bar, because if fairness and justice prevails, those beers are well and truly numbered.
Jack Monroe. Twitter: @MsJackMonroe