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Foodbank hardship more important than party politics, says Welby

08 December 2014


"Reaching out": Margaret Tobin, a volunteer, checks items off a list of food to give out at a food bank in St Luke's, in West Norwood, London, in April 

"Reaching out": Margaret Tobin, a volunteer, checks items off a list of food to give out at a food bank in St Luke's, in West Norwood, London, in Ap...

THE Archbishop of Canterbury has delivered a strong riposte to suggestions that a new report on foodbanks, funded by his charitable trust, represents an attack on the Government.

On Sunday, he wrote in the Mail on Sunday: "Hunger stalks large parts of our country." But on Monday he told a packed room in Portcullis House, Westminster, that "this cannot be a party political issue."

This was a few hours after the Guardian front page announced a "Church v state rift over hunger".                                

Archbishop Welby claimed 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 wellbeing of their constituents and all the people in their country" and  "guided by a strong moral compass".

The report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom 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.

Its findings, however, repeat warnings sounded by its antecedents - who claimed vindication on Monday - notably its discovery of a "colossal weight of evidence" on the impact of benefit delays and errors. More than a third of referrals to foodbanks were due to benefit delays, it estimates.

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."

On Monday, the Conservative MP for Salisbury, John Glen, a member of the panel, 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."                             

The report, based on oral evidence from 155 witnesses and 246 written submissions, rejects previous assertions by the Government that a rise in provision by 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, "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 are 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 are spending 17 per cent, up from 13 per cent.

In his  forward to the report, the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, co-chair of the panel, said that the rise in use of foodbanks indicated "a deeper problem in our society: the 'glue' that used to be there is no longer there in many instances."

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

On Monday, the Archbishop of Canterbury 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 stressing that foodbanks should not take the place of statutory welfare provision, the report 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 emphasis on the avoidance of party politics, the contributions of the panellists on Monday emphasised the very different viewpoints that the two chairs had had to reconcile during the report's gestation.

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," she said.

"Time and time again, people cited the changes in the welfare state as a primary driver to the food bank. It would be an injustice to them not to admit that here today."

A Conservative panel member, Baroness Jenkin of Kennington, a Conservative peer, asserted: "Poor people don't know how to cook". She later apologised for any offence caused, although the report does emphasise evidence from various groups calling for better education on food and meal preparation. It also refers to "the unpleasant truth that some children, we do not know how many, are hungry when they reach school because of the chaotic conditions in their homes."

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, Trussell Trust and Oxfam, and made "a very strong case for reform of the benefits system".

Whether the report receives a more favourable reaction from the DWP than its predecessors have is not yet clear. Stephen Timms, shadow employment minister, pointed out that no DWP minister was present at the launch.

On Sunday, Matthew Hancock, the business minister, speaking on Sky News, said that "before we came to power, food banks were not allowed to advertise their existence."

On Monday, a government spokesperson said that the report was "a serious contribution to an important debate". In the afternoon, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, said that he would launch a publicity campaign to ensure claimants were more aware of the availability of short-term benefit advances. New guidance would be issued to Jobcentre Plus staff to ensure that claimants at risk of hardship were aware of emergency payments.

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, 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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