Finger points at benefits system as MPs examine foodbank use

12 December 2014

Keith Blundy AEGIES ASSOCIATION

High interest: Archbishop Welby at a Sunderland foodbank in 2012

High interest: Archbishop Welby at a Sunderland foodbank in 2012

DELAYS in paying benefits are the cause of more than one third of referrals to foodbanks, an inquiry into hunger in the UK has found.

On Monday, the Archbishop of Canterbury launched Feeding Britain. a new report on foodbanks, funded by his charitable trust, and produced by the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom. The response from the Government has been guarded.

The report, based on oral evidence from 155 witnesses and 246 written submissions, rejects previous assertions by the Government that a rise in demand for foodbanks is due to increased supply.

It suggests that the inquiry's very existence would have been unthinkable 30 years ago, when it was assumed that "nobody in Britain could be hungry unless they wished to be."

Foodbanks, described in the report as "a social Dunkirk", were responding to "unprecedented levels of need" in a society in which the poorest had suffered most from rising costs, while being exploited by "rip-off merchants", who charged them more for credit, mobile phones, gas, electricity, and water. Britain's poorest households were now spending 40 per cent of their income on food, fuel, and housing, up from 31 per cent in 2003. By contrast, the wealthiest households were spending 17 per cent, up from 13 per cent.

The panel's 77 recommendations, praised by the Archbishop as "eminently practical" and "not unreasonably expensive", include urgent reform of the benefits system. It suggests that benefits should be paid within five instead of 16 days, and that a "yellow card" warning should be used before sanctions are applied. It has emerged that the length.

The report also calls for a rise in the minimum wage, and increased adoption of the Living Wage. The food industry is also asked to end waste: the destruction of surplus food is described as "indefensible".

Previewing the report, Archbishop Welby wrote in the Mail on Sunday: "Hunger stalks large parts of our country." He said that he had been more shocked to find hunger in the UK than in Africa.

Speaking at a packed launch in Portcullis House, Westminster, on Monday, he said, none the less, that the "complex roots" of the rise in foodbank use meant that "party-political approaches will not work". Politicians across the board were "absolutely committed to ensuring the well-being of their constituents and all the people in their country", and "guided by a strong moral compass".

The report is the latest attempt to explore the reasons for the explosion in the number of foodbanks in recent years. While previous efforts by NGOs have received short shrift from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), the cross-party composition of its panel represents a new tack.

Nor are the Government's welfare reforms left unexamined: "It is the sheer scale of the reform programme itself, as well as the acute financial vulnerability of low-income households affected by the reforms, having just kept their heads above water for the past decade whilst their financial cushion was being steadily worn away, which has turned a crisis into a catastrophe for many people."

Speaking at the launch, the Conservative MP for Salisbury, John Glen, acknowledged the need for "refinements and improvements" in the benefits system, but argued that "instead of getting into shrill attacks on different government departments we need to look more broadly into society and see what we can do."

Also on Monday, Archbishop Welby accepted an invitation to be president of a new network, Feeding Britain. The report envisages that this will be government-funded and include the foodbank movement, the food industry, and representatives from eight government departments.

While emphasising that food-banks should not take the place of statutory welfare provision, it recommends that they "evolve" to provide "constructive, local solutions to food poverty". It observes that: "In a country where the Church is seen as being in long-term decline, it is the churches through their membership who have brought forward this most extraordinary voluntary welfare development."

Despite the Archbishop's desire to avoid party politics, the contributions of the panellists on Monday emphasised the very different viewpoints on the inquiry panel.

Emma Lewell-Buck, Labour MP for South Shields, laid the blame squarely at the feet of the Government. "Since the Coalition brought in their welfare reforms, we have seen a harsh and punitive regime, and a culture that no longer talks to people about their circumstances or tries to understand their hardship but sanctions them without hesitation, and cuts them off from any means of financial support without a care."

A Conservative panel member, Baroness Jenkin of Kennington, a asserted: "Poor people don't know how to cook." She later apologised for any offence caused.

The report suggests that "a number of individuals and families are unable to prepare or cook decent meals from scratch," but notes that "many families manage to cope on a shoestring budget for extended periods of time."

Charities welcomed the report. Chris Mould, chairman of the Trussell Trust, said that, if acted upon the recommendations would "make a massive dent in the problem of hunger".

Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, said that it reinforced the findings of its report last month produced with the Church of England, the Trussell Trust, and Oxfam, and made "a very strong case for reform of the benefits system".

In the House of Commons, the Archbishop's plea for cross-party consensus was largely ignored. The Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Rachel Reeves, described foodbanks as "the shameful symbol of this Tory-led Government".

Her opposite number in the Government, Iain Duncan-Smith, said that it was "rather ridiculous to assume that every single person who goes to a foodbank does so because of what the Department for Work and Pensions does. . . These are often people with dysfunctional lives - people who have been caught in drug addiction and family breakdown, people who have a serious illness and are not claiming benefits and get into difficulty."

He took the report "seriously", he said, and would launch a publicity campaign to ensure claimants were more aware of the availability of short-term benefit advances. 

STORIES FROM THE BREADLINE

 

In an article for The Mail on Sunday, the Archbishop of Canterbury described being more shocked during a visit to a foodbank in Britain than one to a refugee camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo: "It was less serious, but it was here."

The evidence review attached to the report claims that the Inquiry was "touched and overwhelmed" by the testimonies it heard, noting that people driven to use foodbanks felt "ashamed and humiliated".

Among the individual stories featured are:

  • A man sanctioned and without money for 17 weeks. He was scavenging in a bin when the lorry came, picked him up, and he was crushed to death. (YMCA Wirral)
  • In a wealthy town in Berkshire alone, a woman in the advanced stages of pregnancy was discovered with her partner, living in a child's toy tent in winter, with nothing to eat, down a lane less than 200 yards from one of the churches. (Diocese of Oxford)
  • A primary-school governor in Birkenhead said that "For the first time I have ever known, we have had children crying at the end of the day, as they did not want to go home to a cold dark home with no food."
  • A former soldier who had gone 11 weeks without a benefit payment was living on the streets cooking on a makeshift brick-and-wood fire. (Northampton Food Bank)
  • A claimant with serious health problems was sanctioned for not turning up to a job club because he had to look after his young son at short notice. He was driven to begging and stealing for food.

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