Can Priti Patel really stand in Barrow-in-Furness, which has some of the most deprived wards in the country, and say that the government isn't responsible for poverty? The Home Secretary's comments to the BBC's North West Tonight have unsurprisingly gone viral because of the juxtaposition between the charity she was visiting and the stridency with which she said them.
It's worth noting that she wasn't, as some have claimed, standing in a food bank. In the interests of accuracy, Patel was actually visiting The Well, which is a local charity helping people with with addiction (I live in the town, and it's a fantastic organisation, like so many of the charities and community groups who tend to be staffed by Barrovians with their own stories of poverty and struggle. It's that kind of bighearted place). But either way, she was asked to respond to the fact that in some parts of Barrow, four out of 10 children are born in poverty.
Patel called these levels of poverty 'appalling', and the reporter pointed out to her that her party had been in government for nearly a decade. The minister replied: 'It's not the government, though, is it?' she said. 'Everybody just says it's the government as if it's this sort of like bland blob that you can just go and blame... It's not because it's all parts of society and the structures. Local authorities have a role to play, education, public services, which are locally-run.'
When it comes to food banks specifically, there is some truth in this: demand for emergency food parcels is not merely driven by government policies. But the majority of demand is, according to the main charity running food banks in this country, driven by benefit delays, cuts and changes, which together made up 38 per cent in the Trussell Trust's most recent statistics on food bank use (20 per cent was down to benefit delays and 17 per cent benefit changes). The single biggest reason was 'income not covering essential costs', which made up 33 per cent of claims. And, as Patel's interviewer pointed out, the government has been in power for long enough, surely, for its ministers to think twice before they claim that what's going on is 'appalling'.
Benefit policy is set by central government. But local authorities do have an important role in tackling poverty in their area. That's what Patel was trying to do when she pointed to the 'role' local authorities have to play. The problem is that over the past 10 years, the Tories have cut local government funding so much that there simply isn't enough money to go around. They did this at the same time as 'handing over power' to councils, with the very compelling argument that local councillors are much better placed than Whitehall to know what the real needs are in an area. But given localism was accompanied by stringent funding cuts, the government has always had a very useful means of shifting blame to councils for decisions its own ministers still took.
But besides the mechanical truth that makes it hard for a Tory minister to claim that the government can't be held responsible for 'appalling' poverty, there is also a presentational issue. Patel's comments read like a rather clunky homage to Margaret Thatcher's much-misunderstood 'no such thing as society' argument, which in context was a far richer and more compassionate line of thought than her opponents ever admitted. Given Thatcher's views about the 'living tapestry' have been so caricatured for decades now, you'd think those who admire her as much as Patel might have worked out ways of articulating them in a manner and a setting less jarring, particularly given this is a seat that traditionally votes Labour but which the Tories hope to gain in just a few weeks' time.