The report that Tameside hospital is setting up a permanent on-site food bank in A&E, with food parcels for needy patients
who are going home, is shocking – but sensible. What’s the point of spending a fortune on operations and drugs for people whose primary condition is poverty and malnutrition?
Other hospitals have already started offering food and clothing, after a sharp rise in people admitted with malnutrition. A national health service has to consider patients’ health in the round – and so should the government, to curb healthcare costs. But the Tory view has been that food is not a state concern. The Trussell Trust
, which organises most of the country’s mushrooming 1,200 food banks, was disgracefully accused
by Iain Duncan Smith of political motivation, as if food banks were only put there to cause him political embarrassment.
Department for Work and Pensions minister Lord Freud sneered
that “by definition there is an almost infinite demand for free food” in a “let them eat cake” kind of way that showed he’d never visited a food bank and couldn’t be bothered to find out how they work. They don’t dish out free food to any passer-by, but to those with vouchers sent by a social worker, doctor, vicar or someone who knows their desperate situation. If he had visited a food bank and seen the rows of basic pasta, tea, tinned tomatoes and baked beans, he would know this is only food of the last resort.
The DWP is the single biggest reason why people fetch up needing emergency food. Up to half of food bank clients arrive because their benefits have been delayed or sanctioned by Job Centre staff working to quotas of people they must punish each month. So Iain Duncan Smith telling the work and pensions select committee he would send in some job advisers to “help” food bank clients was at best disingenuous. In food banks I have visited, clients are sent there with referral notes from Job Centre advisers who have deliberately failed to tell them abouthardship payments
they might qualify for.
There is no link between benefit values and the cost of survival: that was broken long ago. The Child Poverty Action Group records how basic jobseeker’s allowance has fallen by a third since 1979, and is now worth only 15% of average earnings
. The government refuses to give any estimate as to how this can ever cover energy bills, transport and food. Food, families report, is the only flexible bill and the first item to be cut back. The Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty
, published today, provides a wealth of statistics on the lack of availability of nutritious food to hard-pressed families. If you only have £19 left a week to feed a family, you go for maximum calories to keep hunger away - and many parents skip their own meals by the end of the week. Go shopping with a mother scrimping to get by, and you soon see why the cheapest and worst frozen food maximizes meals per penny. Fresh fruit and veg is impossible. The “let them eat lentils” brigade forget mothers need to be sure children will eat what they’re given. Lentils are the modern version of do-gooding Victorians who preached the doctrine of porridge to families surviving on bread and a scrape of dripping. That tradition survives among Tory MPs: if only the poor were better household managers they could live nutritiously on next to nothing a week.
David Cameron’s party conference speech
has aged badly in the three weeks since he made it. His attempt at reprising caring Conservatism in the face of a tsunami of brutal cuts looks both duplicitous and absurd. His promised “all-out assault on poverty”
has been exposed as an all-out assault on the poor. Six times he refused
yesterday at PMQs to answer Jeremy Corbyn’s question as to whether he would ensure the working poor would not lose their tax credits. However George Osborne is forced to soften the impact, it’s plain that people in under-paid jobs are still destined to lose heavily – and this time there will be no disguising it.
The hospital malnutrition story has another alarming ingredient. Many of those patients are the elderly confused, who may or may not have funds to buy food, but need help. The number of over-65s has risen by 11% in the last five years, the number of over-80s is rising at its fastest rate ever, yet at the same time 150,000 fewer of the frail old get any help at all, while many of the most vulnerable get scant 15-minute visits, and no cooking or shopping.
The £4.6bn cuts to local government are, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, about to be worsened with another 40% cut, hitting care for both vulnerable children and old people. George Osborne reached into the public health budget that he had just devolved to local government and seized £200m out of it, mid-year, yet that’s the budget that runs nutrition programmes and catches early problems before they end up on the NHS doorstep. Consider the number of people with mental health problems, learning difficulties and emotional confusions, and the number of children more or less fending for themselves in families with parents suffering those conditions, and malnutrition is just one sign of state neglect that hospitals end up coping with. The NHS dreads a winter of extreme pressure, multiplied by the fall-out from cuts to benefits and care. George Osborne may find his tax credit fiasco is just the first of his austerity pigeons flapping home to roost on the Treasury roof.