Britain is one of the richest societies that has existed in the history of humanity. There are 134 billionaires resident in the country. The FTSE 100 reached a record high at the end of last year. The luxury yacht market is booming, while the average price of properties in Kensington Palace Gardens, west London, is more than £35m. Last year, the fortunes of the wealthiest 1,000 individuals reached £658bn, a surge of 14% compared with the year before.
And yet Britain is a nation in which hundreds of thousands of people cannot afford to eat. Last year, 1.3m food parcels were given to an estimated 666,000 people by the Trussell Trust alone. In areas where the disastrous universal credit scheme has been rolled out in full, food bank usage has jumped by four times as much, or an average 52% increase. Here is a damning indictment not just of a Tory government that has waged a ceaseless war against the welfare state, but also of the entire social order.
Visit a food bank, and the first thing you are struck by is the compassion and commitment of volunteers who surrender so much of their time to look after some of the most vulnerable people in society. But the existence of food banks to satisfy hunger in a society so abundant with wealth – albeit concentrated in the bank accounts, property portfolios and dividends of a few – should shame us all. Food banks should not exist – not a single one – in an economically developed nation seven decades after the construction of a welfare state. There is a danger that food banks have become normalised, regarded as a desperately sad but inevitable feature of the country’s social landscape.
Yes, universal credit is part of the problem: cuts have left many claimants worse off; the fact that it is online-only has left some users struggling to use the service, not least if they have no internet connection.
But there are so many other reasons. The use of benefit sanctions – stripping away benefits as a punishment for often the most arbitrary reasons, such as being a few minutes late for an appointment – has left claimants and their families without money. There have been cases of claimants having their benefits suspended because they missed an appointment while they were in surgery. And in 2013, a former soldier died at home after he had no money to run his fridge to keep his insulin at the right temperature or to buy food to eat.
Another factor is the real-terms cuts to in-work benefits in a country where most of those in poverty are also in paid employment, suffering from the worst slide in wages for generations. Zero-hours contracts have left many workers unsure about when their next pay cheque will arrive, or how much it will be. I got told about the case of one freelance journalist who visited a food bank for a story; a few weeks later, she was there again, this time to receive a food package.
The welfare state was founded to eliminate five social evils, as William Beveridge put it. One of them was “want”; yet generations later, want stalks Britain’s communities. The existence of food banks is a symptom of the gaping holes that now exist, as a matter of government design, in the welfare state. Social provision has been stripped away to balance the nation’s books on the shoulders of disabled people and low-paid workers. The consequence? The coexistence of unprecedented wealth and hungry stomachs. Here is the consequence not just of Tory policy but also of an unjust social order that has surely forfeited its right to exist.