Whether a senior member of the government should formally meet the Trussell Trust food bank network has recently become a matter of absurd diplomatic and political sensitivity, as if the trust was a dangerous terrorist organisation rather than a church-based charity that gives pasta and cornflakes to poor and hungry people.
Notoriously, the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, has persistently snubbed the trust, on the grounds that it is a publicity-seeking, politically partisan scaremongerer. His associates have sought to smear and discredit the trust and its chief executive, Chris Mould, with a venom that is extraordinary, though of a piece with the government's more general contempt for campaigning charities.
A haphazard party line has been created to try to neutralise the Trussell threat: rapid food bank growth happened under Labour (wrong); charity food parcels are free so obviously people want them (wrong and pathetic); other countries have food banks too (your point being?).
The department for work and pensions has tried dirty tricks, unilaterally redesigning food bank referral vouchers issued by jobcentres in an attempt to disrupt the collection of data by Trussell on who uses food banks and why. It has contrived an elaborate formulation by which jobcentres do not "refer" claimants to food banks, merely "signpost" them. Food banks, the DWP insists prissily, are really nothing to do with us.
So why the panic? The Trussell trust reveals, powerfully, an inconvenient truth: that welfare cuts (bedroom tax, the benefit cap), welfare reform (sanctions and increased conditionality, and local welfare) and bureaucratic inefficiency (benefit delays) cause hundreds of thousands of people on low-incomes to go hungry and become dependent on emergency food aid. The trust's "kettle boxes" highlight the misery of "heat or eat". Its data shows low-paid work does not provide automatic release from poverty.
You can understand, then, why ministers fear Trussell. But there's an irony: when food banks entered the nation's consciousness 18 months ago, ministers loved the trust. Indeed, some on the left regarded it as part of a rightwing conspiracy to undermine the welfare state. Back then, Mould (a Labour party member, it turns out) was a welcome guest at a Downing Street reception. A photograph of him deep in conversation with David Cameron can be found on the trust website.
Moreover, the charity says it is affiliated to the thinktank set up by Duncan Smith, the Centre for Social Justice. Mould is a partner in the Shaftesbury Partnership, a social business "incubator" set up by the Tory peer (and former government "big society" adviser) Nat Wei. The partnership is named after the 19th-century Earl of Shaftesbury, a social reformer and poverty activist, whose values Duncan Smith, in a speech only last week, claimed are his own.
Imagine Duncan Smith's anguish and confusion: that the work of a charity successfully built on Shaftesbury's principles provides the single most devastating index of human misery caused directly by his welfare cuts and reforms.
Last week, Cameron was asked in the Commons if he would meet the Trussell Trust. Astonishingly, he said that he would. But he should not stop there. He should speak to some of his more enlightened backbenchers, who understand why people use food banks. He should publish the "suppressed" Defra-commissioned report, which will tell him that welfare reforms are a key element in the growth of charity food aid.
He should listen carefully – and unless he thinks food poverty is a good thing, he should prepare to tell us what he is going to do about it.
Patrick Butler is the Guardian's social policy editor
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image: © Trussell trust