Lord Freud, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Work and Pensions speaking in the House of Lords on 2 July 2013 rejected a suggestion that the government’s austerity policies had led to an increase in food banks, and said that the increase was ‘supply led’.
‘If you put more food banks in, that is the supply. Clearly, food from the food banks is a free good and by definition with a free good there’s almost infinite demand.’
Tim Thornton, the Bishop of Truro, responded in the Lords saying that ‘the anecdotal experience that I have and the stories that I hear make it clear that there are some real benefit issues, which is why many people are driven to go – they do not choose to go; they have to go – to food banks.’ And Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, questioned the minister’s claim on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, saying that 35% of referrals to church-run food banks came from social services departments, who had assessed users as in need of emergency food aid. The Trussell Trust said that more than 350,000 people turned to food banks for help last year, almost triple the number who received food aid in the previous year.
Lord Freud, who owns an eight-bed mansion in Kent and a four-bed house in London, was responsible for introducing the ‘bedroom tax’ in April 2013, whereby tenants receiving housing benefit, who are deemed to have a ‘spare bedroom’, have their benefit reduced. Since the tax was introduced, large numbers of council tenants have gone into arrears with their rent. Some councils are trying to help residents by re-classifying spare bedrooms as having another use. But Lord Freud is not having it. He has warned councils who re-classify such bedrooms that they risk having their housing benefit budget cut.
Earlier in April 2013, Iain Duncan Smith, Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, was defending on the Radio 4 Today programme, the array of welfare reforms being introduced as part of the government’s deficit reduction plans. Mr Duncan Smith was asked by market stall-holder David Bennett whether he could survive on £53 a week. This was the amount Mr Bennett was left with to live on after the new round of reductions to his housing benefit and council tax assistance, and which is roughly equivalent to the lowest rate of job seeker’s allowance given to adults under 25. Mr Duncan Smith replied ‘If I had to I would’. This prompted an online petition signed by 460,000 people asking him to prove that he could live on £53 a week by doing it for a year. The Secretary of State dismissed the petition as ‘a complete stunt which distracts attention from the welfare reforms which are much more important. … I have been unemployed twice in my life so I have already done this. I know what it is like to live on the breadline.’
Duncan Smith is a millionaire, he earns £134,565 a year as a cabinet minister, and he lives rent-free in a £2 million mansion on an extensive estate in Buckinghamshire owned by his father-in-law, which has at least four spare bedrooms, a swimming pool and tennis courts.