Last Friday, former prime minister David Cameron tweeted, with a photo, that he’s spent the last two years volunteering at a food bank. The response was unsurprisingly critical. Some mocked the hypocrisy; others positioned him as a penitent attempting to make up for his past sins.
But seeing food banks as the answer to widespread hunger and poverty is not hypocritical or at odds with Cameron’s past actions. Instead, it’s consistent with the ideology that has informed many governmental decisions since the Tories came to power in 2010 — an ideology that demands that individuals and voluntary organizations provide a safety net rather than the state.
Destroying the Social Safety Net
Through its austerity policies, Cameron’s government oversaw the intentional and ideological destruction of the social safety net.
This destruction was achieved in a number of ways. The government introduced Universal Credit (UC), a new benefits system supposedly intended to simplify things, but that in reality made the benefits system crueler, more punitive, and less generous.
Under Universal Credit, new claimants must wait five weeks for their first payment. There’s an option to take out an advance loan to help with the wait, but the loan must be paid back through future deductions in future benefits payments. There’s also the two-child limit, which limits child tax credit and UC payments to two children. And there’s the benefits cap, which arbitrarily caps the total amount of benefits a household can receive. This was all introduced alongside a punitive sanctions regime that unfairly and disproportionately punishes those who need support.
For much of the past decade, too, there have been real cuts to working-age benefits payments. Between 2013 and 2016, benefit uprating (the amount benefits payments increase by) was frozen at 1 percent. In 2016, payments were frozen completely, and remained so until 2020. Given the inflation rate across this period, this meant payments consistently fell in real terms.
In 2019, a UN report into poverty in the UK summarized the situation, explaining that the government has “systematically and starkly eroded” the social safety net. Disastrous reforms to the benefits system, alongside massive cuts to local government funding and social services, meant it was “deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.”
All of this was done to save money and reduce the role of the state in providing welfare. In February 2021, the New Economics Foundation estimated that £14 billion had been taken out of the welfare system since 2010–11, and that the poorest 20 percent of households were £750 per year worse off than in 2010.
The Consequences of the Destruction
The consequences of these changes have quickly become clear. Food bank use has shot up. The Trussell Trust, the organization that runs around two-thirds of the food banks in the UK, went from giving out 61,468 food parcels in 2010–11, the first year of David Cameron’s government, to 2.54 million in 2020–21. Poverty is at a record high, affecting 14.5 million people — a rise of 1.5 million people since 2010–11.
The destruction of the safety net left us further ill prepared for the pandemic and, alongside the longest pay squeeze in living memory, has contributed to the current cost of living crisis.
When new poverty stats come out later this month, it’s expected they’ll show a drop in poverty in 2020–21. This drop was due to the temporary £20 per week increase in Universal Credit. The uplift has since been cut, and the number of people in poverty is expected to rebound in 2021–22. That alone is proof that the government does have the power to help protect people from poverty through the benefits system — it simply chooses not to.
Fighting for an Economy Without Food Banks
We don’t need to see photos of former prime ministers at food banks. We need to see action from the current prime minister and his government. The upcoming Spring Statement offers them an opportunity to take it.
In the face of the current cost of living crisis, the government must overhaul the benefits system, making it more generous via an immediate boost to Universal Credit and legacy benefits to the value of 80 percent of the real living wage (£266 per week). The cruel aspects introduced over the past twelve years, such as the five-week wait, the benefits cap, and the two-child limit, must be scrapped urgently.
We should be thankful for the service that food banks provide. We should also be fighting to create an economy in which they don’t exist. An essential part of this is recreating the social safety net destroyed by this government.