Robin Aitken, co-founder of the Oxford food bank, has featured prominently in the debate which has raged in recent months over the reasons for the dramatic rise in people using food banks. Aitken claims that there is no reliable evidence connecting austerity and the increase in food bank use. His views have appeared in the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail and most recently, on the BBC. These media outlets like to contrast his views with those of the Trussell Trust – the UK’s biggest foodbank network – which has insisted repeatedly that welfare reform is the biggest driver of demand for food parcels.
Trussell Trust chairman Chris Mould said in March this year: “We’ve kept statistics for the 14 years we’ve run food banks.
“This gives a powerful answer why people are in need of them. It’s related to benefit changes and low incomes.”
During Aitken`s appearance on BBC Radio 4`s Today programme on February 21st he complained that “this whole debate has become hopelessly politicised”.
Aitken went on to say: “People like to believe that there has been this enormous upsurge in food poverty. My point would be this: I think there have always been poor people in the country. You could have gone back ten, 20, 50 years and there would always be people who don’t get enough good food.”
Aitken`s appearance on the BBC was remarkable as he has written two books criticising the Corporation for Left wing bias. He was a BBC journalist for 25 years, latterly on the ‘Today’ programme itself, and wrote of his experiences in an 2007 article which appeared in the Daily Mail, entitled “What is the loneliest job in Britain? Being a Tory at the BBC”. Aitken was a Conservative party candidate in the 2006 Oxford City Council elections.
The arguments he makes in his most recent book “Can We Still Trust the BBC?” (published May 2013) are also outlined in an article with the same title he wrote for the Daily Telegraph (published 20 Oct 2013) where he makes no secret of his views on the welfare state:
“This drip-feed of centre-Left beliefs has had consequences. Our obese welfare state has not been subjected to proper critical scrutiny.”
Interestingly, Aitken has never offered such a candid opinion when asked to contribute to the debate on food banks! Instead, he has repeatedly claimed that the debate has become “hopelessly politicised”.
But Aitken likes to have it both ways, in an article he wrote for the Sunday Telegraph entitled “Food banks: the unpalatable truth” (published December 15, 2013) he once again bemoans the “politicised” debate on hunger in Britain while holding up the Oxford food bank as an outstanding example of the “Big Society”:
His claim that the “welfare state has not been subjected to proper critical scrutiny” begs a question that Aitken does not want to address – Does the welfare state still provide enough support to prevent people having to use food banks?
Aitken`s article on food banks is devoid of any “critical scrutiny” or indeed any mention at all of the Department of Work & Pensions` (DWP) behaviour last year when it changed the design of food bank vouchers so that they no longer provided any information as to why the vouchers were being issued. Previously the vouchers included three slender boxes in the top third of the form which enable the referring agency to indicate the reason for referral: because of benefit delay, benefit change, or refusal of crisis loan.
This change was unilaterally introduced by Job Centres in April 2013, following the introduction of a several welfare reforms which were forecast to have dire consequences on the most vulnerable. The change went ahead without consultation or agreement, according to Trussell Trust – a claim the DWP has not denied. As a result Chris Mould, chairman of the Trust, wrote to Iain Duncan Smith (IDS), the work and pensions secretary in June 2013, saying that many of the problems people were facing could be tracked back to changes in their benefits, and to delays in the payment of them. Duncan Smith began his reply by criticising the “political messaging of your organisation”, which “despite claiming to be nonpartisan” had “repeatedly sought to link the growth in your network to welfare reform”. Despite further approaches IDS has refused to meet representatives of the Trussell Trust.
Aitken`s article on food banks also criticises Mould:
“On the Trussell Trust website, executive chairman Chris Mould says that food poverty in a rich country is a national scandal. He says the situation is getting worse and lambasts the Government for the lack of a policy response. In doing so, the Labour-supporting Mr Mould is clearly making a political point.”
Once again Aitken is being very selective. In December 2008 the then-Labour government issued a directive stopping Jobcentres from referring clients in crisis to a foodbank. When the Trussell Trust challenged the government over this decision, it initially responded that, among other reasons, all those entitled to benefits received them on the day if they were in crisis and that delay was not an issue.
At the time the Trust said in reply that it is “simply not true that all those entitled to benefits receive them on the day”.
In 2009 and 2010 a series of questions was asked in parliament (on behalf of the Trust) about benefit delay – not by a Labour supporter but by right-wing Tory MP Andrew Selous.
The eventual response given in January 2010 stated that 37,046 people waited 17 days or more for their jobseeker’s allowance, of which 20,068 waited 22 days or more.
“Unless the DWP has a target of reaching 100% of people, there will be thousands of people who will be left in trouble through benefit delay, or for not being eligible for a crisis loan, for whatever reason.
“If you have a family to feed and no money then waiting even a couple of days is too long.”
Violating a fundamental human right – the right to food – is clearly something the last two governments have been quite prepared to do for political gain.