Christmas is traditionally a time for feasts and festivities. But for the millions of British people cast aside by a rigged economy, just ensuring they have enough to eat to survive and a roof over their head will be a struggle this year.
More than 125,000 children face Christmas without a home, while hundreds of thousands more families across the UK will be relying on a foodbank to provide them with their Christmas meal on the 25th of December.
The problem is so severe that foodbanks have become ‘industrialised’ across the country. Foodbanks are a lifeline to those in need but, at the same time, they continue to be a stain on the government’s record on poverty.
Today, I’m launching my latest report looking at foodbank dependency across my constituency of the South East – the wealthiest region in the UK outside of London.
In the four years since I last published my Hungry Christmas report, Conservative ministers have overseen at least a 20% rise in foodbank use in my area alone – with over 110,000 food parcels handed out this year across the South East.
Across the UK, foodbank dependency has soared by at least 65% in the last four years. We have even seen reports of nurses being forced to rely on foodbanks as the reality of Britain’s record in-work poverty levels hit home this year.
Low income is one of the single biggest reasons why people are forced to seek emergency food aid in 2017. In the UK, right now, there are seven million people from working households living below the poverty line. In fact, a record 60% of Britons in poverty are working.
Despite low headline unemployment figures, insecure work and zero hours contracts are soaring while the growth in underemployment reveals the lie at the heart of the official employment statistics.
Similarly, we have seen the number of rough sleepers increase 134% under the Tories, while homelessness has soared. In the South East, there are now more than 27,000 people without a home.
In Brighton and Hove, 1 in 69 people are homeless. Poverty, homelessness and foodbank dependency are issues that are inexorably linked and have intensified in the last seven years. As a result, foodbanks remain one of Britain’s few booming industries.
Amidst all of the statistics, though, it’s all too easy to forget that each food parcel handed out goes to somebody in real and genuine need. From my visits to foodbanks, meeting both clients and volunteers, I have always been struck by the quiet desperation affecting people across my constituency.
During a visit to Portsmouth, I met John: he was volunteering at a local foodbank, after receiving help from them at a time in his life when he was facing lots of problems. He’d lost his job, his accommodation and, subsequently, developed a drug habit and drifted into street drinking, until, eventually, he reached rock-bottom.
He told me he thought that a lack of food was the least of his worries: that he could always resort to scavenging or begging. Eventually, however, he realised he needed to get back to a ‘normal life’ and regular meals. Otherwise, the prospects were very grim indeed.
And I met Mary – a single parent who couldn’t keep up with the cost of clothing and feeding her children. She would often go without food so her kids could eat. For her, the foodbank was a lifeline at a time of desperation.
The hardships facing John and Mary, who live in the fifth largest economy in the world, are in stark contrast to the prosperity enjoyed by wealthiest few in Britain. This inequality between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ in the South East, as across the UK, is startling and must be addressed.
The ‘Hungry Christmas‘ report aims to highlight the hardship faced by thousands of people like Mary and John across the region, and indeed up and down the UK. It reveals a shameful side to the British economy that is deliberately hidden from view by the government.
As wages continue to stagnate, as Brexit continues to push up the cost of living, and as the government forces ahead with its welfare cuts and the disastrous rollout of Universal Credit, there is little hope this situation will improve under this administration.
Some will say that poverty is inevitable, no matter what you do. Greens reject this. Because at the centre of this crisis is one fact: poverty is political. And it’s elimination has to be our top priority. And not just this Christmas.