Unite: under pressure over food banks, can MPs just stop it? | Catherine Bennett

The Unite health and social care movement is united in our opposition to “food banks as a means of alleviating poverty”. The Council Tax Reduction Duty (CTRD) can be taken as a cue for…

Unite: under pressure over food banks, can MPs just stop it? | Catherine Bennett

The Unite health and social care movement is united in our opposition to “food banks as a means of alleviating poverty”. The Council Tax Reduction Duty (CTRD) can be taken as a cue for many of our members, who represent millions of low-paid workers in the private and voluntary sectors. The policy has been fast-tracked through the House of Commons with no parliamentary scrutiny. The government should have made sure this bill passed at least three readings and passed scrutiny by MPs and peers.

Our research also shows that low-paid workers are already taking up this CSTD (UK) so that they can begin to pay off what used to be known as borrowing on credit, when a monthly payment would enable them to live a more decent life. This occurs as a result of the rising cost of council tax and other housing costs, the tax deductibility of mortgage interest payments, council tax benefits, the decline in the cost of social housing and many other factors.

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We urge MPs, especially those in marginal seats, to campaign in their constituencies to stop this policy. For example, letters to your local constituency MP – and especially to any potential replacements – should call for an “absolute freeze” on council tax and a reintroduction of pension credit to replace housing benefit. This helps to redress the social justice gap.

Recently, the work and pensions select committee published a report that made a call for restoring housing benefit for people who are working and failing to claim income support. This report also called for work credits, which do not discriminate between working and those not in work, to be reintroduced.

The “making work pay” campaign calls for a basic Universal Credit wage to be paid at the minimum wage to single parents and families with children.

For example, if the government could only restore one of its other key cuts, the one that stopped migrants from getting the freedom of movement rights that everybody was looking for, it would have made a real difference to the daily struggle of many low-paid families in this country.

Finally, re-establishing NHS dental care for the most vulnerable adult and dental children, who have been denied it under the Tories, would go a long way to helping to reverse the stuttering attempts of the NHS to treat these children and people properly. And to make things even better, share the cost of this dental care – and find the money – as an unconditional social security benefit so as to alleviate any stigma these children may feel about being the “poorest people in Britain”.

If we really want to help people living in poverty, we cannot ignore the growing numbers of people who are addicted to alcohol and drugs and continue to drink to the point of destruction. We’ve already seen an uptick in these deaths as a result of the consequences of austerity and a rise in the noxious cocktail of health and drug inequality and injustice.

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Of course there are children in poverty who also need emergency help. They too are being left behind. The “Danish model” has been proposed, which involves emergency cash payments to those children with severe economic hardship. There would be additional support in schools and households with partners, children under 18 and other children under 18.

This truly imaginative approach would be an emergency but it would put a person at ease and lessen the stress. It also allows the vulnerable to see that they are not alone and that the people around them care. This type of emergency funding would help to remove the stigma of poverty for some while taking the pressure off local authorities, whose resources were already strained by the many different priorities that already exist.

We know that cuts to housing benefit are leading to an increase in homelessness. Yet the government continues to hand out housing benefit grants to landlords so they can turn to the voluntary sector to run these types of emergency accommodation for us. That is bad policy. A voucher for food could, instead, save money and reduce further dependence on food banks, which can only do one thing.

We must all help to prevent the government’s food bank strategy becoming reality. We have listened to you and, as part of our “One Forward, Together” campaign, we are calling for an immediate ban on all new food banks across the country.

• Catherine Bennett is a member of the Unite health and social care movement

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