When David Cameron first came into power, he spoke of the Big Society, a vision in which the people of Britain pulled together to help each other. This might take the form of help in times of crisis, it might be pulling together to host an event, it might be popping down the road to get an elderly person’s shopping. Whatever your own definition of the Big Society, it sounded sort of… nice.
Five years on and when I hear the words Big Society, I immediately think of the one thing that makes me feel enormously ashamed of our country – food banks. The King’s Lynn Foodbank has helped more than 9,600 people and that number continues to rise. The manager of the food bank, Kat Taylor told me that the food bank also operates in Hunstanton and Downham Market, and is opening as a trial in schools during the summer holidays.
Kat and her team are amazing people; the companies, the church communities and the individuals who support the food banks are incredibly generous but the fact that the UK – one of the most developed and wealthy countries in the world – has to run food banks is nothing short of despicable.
And then I pick up the newspaper and read the following headlines: “Man stole meat to pay for gas and electricity”, and “Man stole shower gel ‘to have a wash’”. Seriously, how can it be okay to live in a country where our capital city has just been identified as the third most expensive place to live in the world, yet a large number of our citizens live on or below the poverty line, and have to fall back on petty crime to do things as simple as provide heating or keep clean?
Here in Norfolk, there are 31 areas that were identified last year as being in the most deprived five per cent in England. 29,000 children in our county live in low-income families – a figure set to rise as benefits are capped; and 35,000 Norfolk households suffer fuel poverty. These figures were part of a research paper published by Norfolk County Council a year ago. The signs from this government is that things will not improve anytime soon for those people at the lowest end of the economic scale.
People like Kat Taylor embody the Prime Minister’s vision of the Big Society. Here is a problem, here is a person willing to step up and do her bit with energy, enthusiasm, good humour and willingness. She, and thousands across the country like her, are the people who can make Britain work again, but that energy and humanity should not be needed in food banks. I don’t make any claim to begin to read the Prime Minister’s mind, but I wonder how easily can he sleep at night, if he stops to consider in what light the history books will view his terms of office? Will it be an image of the fat cats dining off the profits of the big banks, while thousands of people begged at the doors of the food banks?