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By their fruits ye shall know them

12 December 2014

Our attitude to the needy reveals our true values, writes Tim Thornton in a new report


Helping: Archbishop Welby, then Bishop of Durham, at the One for the Basket food-parcel initiative at Sunderland Minster, in November 2012 

Helping: Archbishop Welby, then Bishop of Durham, at the One for the Basket food-parcel initiative at Sunderland Minster, in November 2012 

IN 1942, Penguin published a book by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, Christianity and Social Order. It is a remarkable work that was instrumental in the creation of the Welfare State in this country. It is time for another such work to ask fundamental questions in a very different world, in which we need to argue again that, as a society, we show our values by the way in which we behave, especially to those most in need.

We believe it is time to review the fundamental values that led to the creation of our Welfare State. We propose a strategy for renewing the Welfare State so it can better reflect and encourage the relationships which contribute to the wellbeing of our citizens, including the poorest. We think such a rationale is needed at a time when, sadly, we appear to be drifting towards more and more atomisation and less and less sharing of common values.

Whilst it is essential to accept that we all have rights, it is also essential to accept that we all have responsibilities. A sense of being interdependent is a core aspect of being human, yet we live in an age when that fact needs to be articulated afresh and made evident in the way we behave.

The issues people face relating to hunger and food poverty are exacerbated and heightened because there are hardly any of the ways and means that once did exist for people to support each other. We believe that the rise in the use of food banks is a sign of the breakdown of this core value in our society. We see it as evidence that many people are living individualistic and isolated lives, and the natural and vital relationships between people do not exist as once they did. To use shorthand, the glue that once held us together and gave life to our communities has gone.

It became clear throughout our Inquiry that the vast majority of people who spoke to us were people of faith, although some were people of no faith. But, for all of these people we met, their morality is expressed in their helping of others. We want to celebrate this, and to reflect on our hopes of living in a country where people do share values and virtues centred on a sense of interdependence, underpinned in all we do by recognising the intrinsic worth and value of humanity.

We also want to avoid the easy mistake made by reports such as this which all too easily "blame" some groups and point the finger at particular institutions, although there are lessons to be learnt by all. It cannot be right, for example, that in the 21st century children and adults are going hungry whilst many others (including some of our large institutions) waste food in scandalously huge amounts.

REASONS for the (increased) use of foodbanks, other than their more comprehensive provision around the country, include: delays and errors in the processing and payment of benefits, the sometimes heavy-handed issuing of benefit sanctions by Jobcentre Plus, a sudden loss of earnings through reduced hours or unemployment, the absence of free school meals, the accumulation of problem debt or, for some, even a lost purse.

A further group of factors similarly exposes the vulnerability of many poor families. The poor are penalised for their poverty with a raft of disproportionate charges for basic utilities. They pay more for their energy through prepayment meters, are more likely to be charged to withdraw cash from their local machine, and often are unable to take advantage of the best mobile phone contracts - meaning they are likely to be just one bill away from needing to use a foodbank.

There are also structural reasons for the use of foodbanks and a difference between the seeking of help that offers a hand-up to families who quickly re-establish command of their budgets, and individuals and families who have deeper-seated problems.

The first of these deeper-seated reasons for the use of foodbanks is the size of debt with which many families struggle. Debt is often undertaken in order to meet an unexpected bill or replace a broken household appliance. The debts themselves all too often escalate out of control because of the grotesque interest rates that are imposed upon them.

The other force at work is the addictions that many individuals and families have, but which particularly sharply affects the budgeting of low-income families. A family earning £21,000 a year, for example, where both parents smoke 20 cigarettes a day will spend a quarter of their income on tobacco. Budgeting support is terribly important, but budgetary support alone is often not enough to equip families to kick their addictive habits when addiction is being fed and defended by some very powerful lobbies. In our high streets, for example, it is hard to walk a matter of yards without passing payday loan shops, pawnbrokers, home credit retailers or bookmakers filled with electronic gambling machines. Supermarkets and other outlets selling alcohol at rock bottom prices are never too far away.

A considerable number of our poorest families and individuals find themselves trapped thereby in a vicious circle of addiction fed by debt, at the expense of being able to put food on the table. The tackling of these serious addictions is as crucial for the overall health of our society as it is in restoring a sense of dignity and the control individuals have over their own lives and their own budgets. We make recommendations on how food can be used as a way of kick-starting a recovery process for individuals who find themselves in such desperate situations.

The Rt Revd Tim Thornton is Bishop of Truro.

This is an edited extract from Feeding Britain: The Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom.

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