Most people went into Work and Pensions Questions expecting Iain Duncan Smith to be in a tetchy fame of mind following this morning’s report on food banks. As a matter of fact, the Work and Pensions Secretary was very, very keen to tell us as often as he possibly could how ‘seriously’ he was taking that report. And the Opposition, which claims to care a lot more about these matters, completely failed to make productive use of its time grilling him.
Some Tory ministers were worried that an impending Labour reshuffle at some point this term might see Rachel Reeves moved on to their patch, as she’s deemed very good in the Chamber. After today’s performance I’m not quite sure what they had to be worried about as the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary managed to ask a series of rather pointless questions which involved shoehorning the Labour tribal line about food banks into the commentary.
She welcomed his comments and asked if he recognised the picture painted by the Archbishop of Canterbury about hunger stalking Britain. Duncan Smith replied by announcing that he will be launching a programme of publicity on hardship and crisis payments, which Field has already welcomed as a sign that the Inquiry is already changing things.
‘I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but frankly, it’s not enough. The findings of this morning’s all-party report are clear: the rise in food poverty is the consequence of the failing safety net and the worsening cost-of-living crisis. Just a few weeks before Christmas it is shocking that more and more families are worrying about where their next meal is going to come from. Food banks have become the shameful symbol of this Tory-led government, yet another example of Tory welfare waste. Isn’t about time they started to put this right, by raising the minimum wage, ending the abuse of zero hour contracts, getting a grip on benefit delays, scrapping targets for sanctions and cancelling the cruel and unfair Bedroom Tax, and if they don’t do these things, sin’t it about time that we had a Labour government who will.’
IDS replied that this was the ‘same old rubbish’. And it wasn’t exactly worth preserving in the annals of great probing parliamentary questions. Why didn’t Reeves ask someone more revelatory questions? Such as whether the government does plan to comply with the APPG’s request for representatives from each of the eight government departments whose policy affects the number of people at risk of hunger’ to join the new Feeding Britain network? Or why the department won’t adopt the recommendation of a ‘yellow card’ warning for benefit claimants which would allow them to explain why they’d failed to turn up for an interview or an appointment before their benefits were docked?
The first few items in that list of things Reeves demanded are things the government is already doing: putting up the minimum wage, banning exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts and trying to close down benefit delays. The others are not. So why not focus on those last two, if you think they are right, rather than give the responding minister a chance to talk about what the government is already doing, thereby ignoring the awkward bits?
Her response wasn’t as interesting as that provided by Stephen Timms at the launch of the report. Timms wasn’t dull and fluffy by any means, pointing out the absence of any DWP minister when he spoke, but he also talked about the measures proposed rather than shouting ‘we were right’ repeatedly. In the Commons, he asked about the ‘bedroom tax’ and its impact on food bank demand, which the report didn’t exactly dwell on either. But at least he was asking questions about policies.
Incidentally, the new Labour line on welfare is to call the Tories the ‘Tory welfare waste party’, following a number of interventions Reeves has made highlighting overspending by the department, often triggered by poor policy decisions.