The Department of Work and Pensions refused to accept money from a European Union fund designed to help subsidise the costs of foodbanks in the UK.
The Guardian reported that British officials working in Brussels have rejected £22m to help some of Britain’s poorest people. ‘The position taken by UK officials means that Britain will draw down just €3.5m (£2.9m) from the fund compared with €443m for France which is around the same size as the UK. Britain is taking the same amount as Malta, the smallest EU member state with a population of 450,000.’
Why were they doing this?
The Lib Dem and Tory Coalition government claims that individual member states are best placed to take charge of such funding.
A document from the Department of Work and Pensions explaining Britain’s position, which has been leaked to the Guardian, says: ‘The UK government does not support the proposal for a regulation on the fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived. It believes that measures of this type are better and more efficiently delivered by individual member states through their own social programmes, and their regional and local authorities, who are best placed to identify and meet the needs of deprived people in their countries and communities. It therefore questions whether the commission’s proposal is justified in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity.’
Well, perhaps that’s true. But this government has done nothing to help the poor, except make things worse. Now they won’t even let the EU help.
What does The Trussell Trust say?
The Trussell Trust is a Christian charity that runs Britain’s largest network of foodbanks. It does not affiliate itself with any political party and receives no government funding. Chris Mould, its executive chairman, told the Guardian: ‘We would welcome an opportunity to have discussions with DWP about how we could use that €3.5m to good effect. If the EU made a decision in the European Parliament that this money should be used for the assistance of people in severe need – and it has got a food aid tag on it – then we hope they will talk to us.’
What does Labour say?
Richard Howitt is a Labour MEP who helped negotiate the new fund. He accused the government of neglecting the needs of the poor.
“It is very sad that our government is opposing this much-needed help for foodbanks banks on the basis that it is a national responsibility, when in reality it has no intention of providing the help itself. The only conclusion is that Conservative anti-European ideology is being put before the needs of the most destitute and deprived in our society.”
What happened next?
On Wednesday 18th December there was a Westminster parliamentary debate on foodbanks. It was initiated by the Labour party in response to a petition backed by The Mirror, the Unite union and The Trussell Trust that attracted 150,000 signatures.
Labour’s motion, proposed by Maria Eagle, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was as follows:
“That this House notes that the number of people using foodbanks provided by the Trussell Trust alone has increased from 41,000 in 2010 to more than 500,000 since April this year, of whom one third were children; further notes that over the last three years prices have risen faster than wages; further notes the assessment of the Trussell Trust that the key factors in the rising resort to foodbanks are rising living costs and stagnant wages, as well as problems including delays to social security payments and the impact of the under-occupancy penalty; calls on the Government to publish the results of research into foodbanks commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs which Ministers promised would be made public in the summer of 2013; and further calls on the Government to bring forward measures to reduce dependency on foodbanks, including a freeze on energy prices, a water affordability scheme, measures to end abuses of zero hours contracts, incentives to companies to pay a living wage and abolition of the under-occupancy penalty.”
The debate, which focused entirely on foodbanks was very well attended, though few Coalition MPs sat through it all.
This would have been an opportunity to announce a U-turn on the acceptance of EU financial aid. The Coalition did not take it.
Rather the debate was notable for the level of hostility – laughing, jeering and barracking – shown by the government benches towards Labour members who were reporting on cases they had encountered in their constituencies. The Trussell Trust said it was “disappointed” by the attitude of those who jeered.
Most of the people who spoke from the government benches were Tories with contributions from just two Lib Dems.
The debate was clearly won by Ms Eagle but the vote was lost.
1. As we have reported before, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Mr Iain Duncan Smith, is the minister responsible for cutting income support for the poor.
He lives rent free on an estate owned by his wife’s family. During the last 10 years the estate has received €1.5m in income support from the EU.
On the one hand Duncan Smith says that the UK’s poor cannot be assisted by the EU whilst on the other his family is happy to trouser an EU fund designed to ensure a ‘fair standard of living for the agricultural community’. Obviously, no issue of subsidiarity for his family, then.
Mr Duncan Smith was seen to be smirking as it was pointed out that half a million people are now using food banks. He left the debate before it was half way through its allotted time, without answering any questions.
The Independent (19/12/13) reported that as Mr Duncan Smith and his colleagues left, the speaker John Bercow was heard to say he had no power to stop them. But he declared that the view that it was a disgrace there was no minister present ”may be widely shared”.
2. Some Tories suggested that Labour was ‘politicising’ the foodbank issue.
As if people starving in 21st century Britain isn’t a political issue. Perhaps the Coalition would like to convince people it is not, but Labour refuses to allow them to redefine politics to exclude such questions.
Yet someone was playing politics here. Commentators from the right and left of British politics have reported on the manner in which Coalition policies are driven by anti-EU ideology. You cannot get much more ideological than refusing to accept money for the poor from an EU fund designed for that very purpose.
3. The Tories have form on this issue of EU funding for the most deprived. Their MEPs voted to cut the fund by one billion euros earlier, an attempt, fortunately, defeated.
But what of the LibDems?
Our Leeds NW, Lib Dem MP is always bigging up those things that he claims the Coalition government could not have achieved without the Lib Dems support.
Well, here’s another one, Mr Mulholland!
LibDem MPs voted with the Tories on Wednesday – as they usually do.
Without them the poor would be £22m better off.
4. According to Hansard Mr Mulholland did not participate in the debate on Labour’s motion. We do not know whether or not he was present in the chamber. We do know, however, that he neither voted for nor against the motion.
Could it be that, when it comes to important issues such as Syria, the bedroom tax and foodbanks, he is just too afraid to be held to account for his vote?
Britain Can Be Better Than This.