The UK government is balancing its books on the backs of the poor | Jack Monroe

The Guardian
The Guardian
A food bank in Kingston, south-west London Photograph: Vickie Flores/EPA

In a modern-day twist on the age-old riddle: which came first?

The cold, damp housing forced on people with the lowest incomes across the private rental sector or the upswing in respiratory illnesses ?

The lack of funds for a nourishing and balanced diet, or malnutrition and the return of Victorian-era illnesses such as rickets ? The deliberate policies of penury and deprivation over the last 12 years of Conservative-led rule, or the emaciated bodies of those left to rot by the ideologues of unnecessary austerity?

Numbers are cold, stark and loveless things; it’s easy for those in the halls of power to disassociate from a statistic and forget that each and every one of those numbers represents a hungry, traumatised, exhausted human being.

Every one of the 3.8 million disabled people struggling to meet their most basic needs, the 4.3 million children and their parents living in poverty and the millions of people in work and yet are still scrabbling to survive.

The Trussell Trust has reported that nearly half the people referred to its food banks for emergency aid are in debt to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Those numbers have steadily increased; not, as some MPs claim, because availability of food banks has increased. Food banks expand according to the need for them, not the other way around.

Speaking on the BBC’s Politics Live on Wednesday, business minister Paul Scully claimed that the government was not going to balance the books of the economy on the backs of the poorest and most vulnerable. And I – who had only been sneaked on to the panel at the last minute after the work and pensions select committee meeting over the road – could barely contain my contempt for the audacity of the lie.

This government has routinely balanced its books on the backs of those least able to shoulder the burdens, and the macabre and heartbreaking roll call of the names of those who have died as a result of the failures and cruelties of the DWP runs to the thousands. And if their deaths, and lives, are not learned from, than many, many more people will die in the months and years to come.

Every one of these numbers represents a hungry, traumatised, exhausted human being

Nobody who serves in the Houses of Parliament can pretend to be ignorant of the facts around the stratospheric rise in the need for food banks. None of you can pretend not to have noticed the neighbourhood food collection points in every single supermarket in the land.

Not one of you can bluster that somehow the thousands of national newspaper articles about the state of the nation have somehow passed you by.

And I suspect there is not a single member of parliament who has not heard from at least a dozen of their constituents about the increasingly desperate poverty they are living in. Ignorance is no longer a defence.

And as long as one person in this country is going to bed cold, hungry, destitute and increasingly unwell, it is because of a conscious decision by those who claim to serve them not to use the power granted by the poorest of their constituents to make a radical and meaningful difference to their lives.

Because you hold that power. It’s in the stroke of your pen, the votes in your chambers, the voices you can raise, the debts you can table, the whips you can decline. And as long as one single child in this country is going to bed cold and hungry, you’re making a conscious decision every single day not to use that power for those who have granted it to you.

• This article was amended on 19 March 2022. An earlier version said that the Trussell Trust “has consistently reported, for the last 10 years, that more than half the people referred to its food banks for emergency aid are there because they are in debt to the Department for Work and Pensions”. In fact the latest State of Hunger report by the Trussell Trust shows that, in 2020, 47% of referred users had debts with the DWP, up from 26% in 2018, which was the first year this data was collected. The trust also says such debts may combine with broader social security issues in driving these referrals.

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