Michael Gove sparked anger this week when he said increases in the use of food banks were the result of people not being able to “manage their finances”. The comments were roundly criticised by Labour MPs. Ed Miliband called Gove an “absolute disgrace”, and Steve McCabe branded him “out of touch”.
Gove is not the first person to suggest people forced to use food banks have brought their situation upon themselves. Jamie Oliver courted controversy last month when he suggested food poverty was the result of people spending money on the wrong things. Both his comments and Gove’s have been condemned by charities tackling the issue on the frontline. Rather than pointing the finger at the victims they blame low pay and the cost of living for increases in the use of food banks.
Gove’s words proved poorly timed, with a report released two days later showing the impact of food poverty on education standards. The study found that one in seven children now go to school hungry – a figure described as “shocking” by Pete Mountstephen, Chair of the National Primary Headteachers, and one which has a clear knock-on effect for levels of attainment.
According to Oxfam half a million people have come to rely on food parcels. The issue is particularly acute in London, where the cost of living is greatest. Last week food banks in Kingston-upon-Thames – one of the capital’s more affluent boroughs – fed their 5,000th person.
With small signs of economic growth Gove and other Conservatives are indulging in a premature victory lap. In so doing they show themselves to be frighteningly out of step with the lives of ordinary people, many of whom feel under terrible strain. Gove’s comments can be brushed under the carpet as a ‘gaffe’ which will be forgotten by next week. But his choice of words reveals something deeper about him and his party.