“So I’ll cook a victoria sponge and some shortbread,” I concluded decisively.
Felix looked extremely hopeful.
“Remind me why you’re doing it, Mum?” he said.
“We’re having a cake sale at work,” I said. “But instead of paying money for the cakes, the organisers are asking everyone to bring in something to go to the local food bank.”
“What sort of things would people bring?” my son asked curiously.
“Things from the cupboard: sugar, tins, dried milk, beans, you know.”
Incredulousness hung like a very fine vapour in the air.
Felix thought for very long time. “Let me get this straight,” he said eventually. “I bring in some tin from the cupboard and give it to them, and they will give me a piece of cake?”
To a nine year old, it’s not fair exchange. I had visions of Felix emptying the cupboards and pottering off to the sale with a trailer packed full of cake-currency.
His donations would be well used, if he did. It is unsettling hearing just who is being forced to use the food banks these days. People with jobs; a single mother whose maternity leave pay did not allow her to buy what she needed for her baby. The little pair were living on a packet of rice until she was referred – as all users of the food banks are -by recognised agencies.
It is just possible that the Prime Minister of England is proud of the part the charitable food banks are playing in the current economic downturn. It is a prime example of a pet project of his.
David Cameron dubbed it “The Big Society’.
You give communities more powers, and encourage people to take more of an active role in them. You support co-ops, mutuals, charities and social enterprises. And the third sector begins to run the welfare show.
Cameron persuaded all the big banks to fill the coffers of The Big Society bank to the tune of £200 million. He appoInted a Big Society Tsar. It was all very important.That was in 2010.
Problem is, then swingeing government cuts hit the charities. One of the four pilot areas, Liverpool, resigned from the project in disgust. Then the Tsar gave in his notice.
Chief Executive of the UK Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, Sir Steven Bubb, said the whole thing was a wreck.
Charities being charities, they have soldiered on. But there are warnings that these banks could become ‘institutionalised’ in the same way that they were in Dickensian times.
Just recently, Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University and a former adviser to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the World Health Organisation, told the Independent newspaper: “The morals and motives of people who work in food banks are honourable, but it’s a short-term fix, and the problem is that it’s getting institutionalised and the politicians are buying it.”
“There ought to be a very big political debate about food banks,” he added. ” It should be a sign of shame that the sixth-richest economy on the planet has people who are essentially retreating to a Dickensian world. It’s shocking how quickly it’s been normalised.”
So is The Big Society just a thin veil for a return to Victorian standards?
Let us, to close, just remind ourselves what those standards were through the eyes of a wizened old skinflint.
” Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “ I wish I could say they were not.”
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”