BRITAIN remains plagued by a "raging fever called hunger", one year after the Government was warned that it had reached unprecedented levels, Frank Field MP, the chairman of a cross-party group on the subject, said this week.
Despite "impressive" responses from foodbanks, utilities’ regulators, and "certain government departments", the progress report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger, published yesterday, says that a "sense of defeat" had taken hold in some parts of the country. In places, widespread vulnerability to hunger is "now accepted as a permanent fact of life".
The inquiry heard of mothers now accustomed to not eating for days and fuel-poor families sitting in blankets in the dark.
Since the launch of Feeding Britain (News, 12 December 2014), the group’s "greatest failure" had been its inability to imbue the Government with the "same sense of urgency" as voluntary groups, Mr Field said.
"The Government seems to treat the scandal of hunger as little more than a boil of no significance on our society," he said in a statement issued on Thursday. "Nothing could be further from the truth. The body of our country is wreaked by a raging fever called hunger."
With heavy qualifications, the Parliamentary Group suggests that demand for foodbanks may have plateaued: "The nation might just be witnessing a turn in the tide."
The true extent of hunger in the UK remains unknown, but most foodbanks that contributed to the report said that demand was stable. Causes mooted by the authors include a "significant fall" in the numbers of benefit claimants being sanctioned, the effectiveness of foodbank advice services, and a reduction in need, after economic growth and a rise in employment. The report warns, however, that "this hint of optimism must be heavily qualified", with concern for those who "suffer in silence", and the "significant increase" in the numbers attending foodbanks regularly ("once a monthers").
"Most families who find themselves struggling to balance the books simply do not have enough money to make ends meet, despite attempting to live within limited means," the parliamentarians conclude.
Among the stories that the group heard with “horror” are those of a mother receiving benefits sanctioned because being rushed to hospital after a miscarriage was “not considered a good enough reason” for missing a meeting. Another claimant sanctioned while in hospital walked for three hours to reach the Jobcentre seven miles from his house.
Of the 77 recommendations made in last year’s report, 30 have been fulfilled. Of the 50 put to the Government, 27 have been rejected or not enacted, including enabling Jobcentre workers to make judgements about whether sanctions were fair.
The delayed payment of benefit remains the commonest trigger for an emergency food parcel, and the group believes that the prompt delivery of benefits, coupled with a "fair and effective sanctions regime", would more than halve the numbers of people relying on emergency supplies. Currently, more than 90 per cent of Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment Support Allowance claims are paid within 16 days, but this remains a far higher limit than the five-day maximum wait called for in the original report, and has left hundreds of thousands waiting for more than ten days.
Mr Field summarised the audit’s verdict as "real progress, but could do better". He praised the speeding-up of claim-processing, and the announcement of trial for a "yellow card" warning system for sanctions. The report also acknowledges the "potentially revolutionary" introduction of the National Living Wage, and welcomes the reversal of tax-credit cuts.
The group’s vice-chairman, the Conservative MP for Salisbury, John Glen, said that rising food prices and low incomes were a problem "across the Western world". There was a "long way to go" before the causes of demand for foodbanks would be eliminated, and it was important to harness the "generous culture" in the UK.
The report’s verdict on other stakeholders is mixed. It praises OFGEN for showing "tremendous initiative" in acting on the worst injustices associated with pre- payment meters, and the Financial Conduct Authority for having "shone a bright light upon some of the industry’s most predatory aspects". But there is still no target for reducing the amount of food sent to landfills, or increasing the amount given to foodbanks. Besides carrying over the recommendations from last year’s report, the Parliamentary Group has made 68 new ones. A priority is that foodbanks host "specialists who are capable of addressing the problems that have led people to be hungry". This "Foodbank Plus" model is already being piloted in five areas. It also seeks to establish a "social supermarket" in each of the 12 regions in the UK, and schemes to tackle children’s hunger during the school holidays.
Personal responsibility is not left unexplored. "Even if wages and budgets were high enough to provide a subsistence minimum, we fear some of our citizens still would fall below our national minimum because of the havoc wreaked on their budgets by addictions to drink, smoking and gambling," the authors write. They cite a recent study suggesting that more than 432,000 children are made poor because their parents smoke.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, whose charitable trust contributed to the group’s original inquiry, said that he was "saddened" to be writing the foreword to the report.
"It is shocking to read both of the scale of food waste and also of the large amount of evidence that sanctions and delays in connection with the benefits system are still causing what would appear to be unnecessary problems," he writes. Those on benefits are "all too easily pilloried or marginalised".
Mr Field left the Prime Minister with a challenge to appoint the equivalent of the COBRA committee, to address the "emergency" of hunger. "There are some evils in this world which we find impossibly hard to counter," he said. "That should not be true of hunger in Britain."
'This is inevitably a political issue'
DESPITE pleas from the bishops present at the launch of the report on Thursday, for fingers to remain unpointed, it was not long before they were directed firmly at the Government.
Members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger joined members of the audience in questioning whether it was even possible for the issue to be divorced from party politics.
“Of course it is political, because it is politically driven policies that are driving people to foodbanks,” said Emma Lewell-Buck, the Labour MP for South Shields. “There is something fundamentally wrong with the pay that people are getting and our welfare state that needs to change. The churches have been at the forefront of this from the start, and I admire those church leaders that have spoken out and got involved in the politics of this.”
The bishops who spoke before her, while scathing about the existence of hunger in 21st century Britain, were less willing to attribute its cause to the Department for Work and Pensions.
“Working together is a much more positive response than pointing at people and blaming them,” the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested. After singling out the “major scandal” of food waste, he spoke of benefit delays and sanctions causing an “unnecessary problem”. While this was neither “deliberate”, nor the outworking of “malice”, it was undeniable: “This is not anecdote, it is evidence.”
The Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Tim Thorton, also sought to head off party-political debate.
“It feels as if we cannot think more than one thing at once,” he said. “To make some claims about the reality of hunger does not mean that we cannot congratulate the Government for the many good things it is doing. . . Politics can descend to a binary level, when you and I know that life is not like that.”
The panellists followed the bishops’ direction to varying degrees. The group’s chairman, Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, described the situation set out in the report as a “mega national scandal”. Children were going to bed hungry, he said. “I don’t sense anger in the tummies around the Cabinet table.”
He was particularly critical of the failture to tackle food waste. “What is the point of Iain Duncan Smith turning around the huge oil tanker called the DWP in paying benefits more quickly, if his colleague, the Chancellor, is using our money to encourage firms to bin food rather than feed the hungry?”
Mrs Lewell-Buck was more blunt in her assessment of the Government.
“What is glaringly obvious is that people are going hungry on their watch because of their policies,” she said. “The Government, in my view, remains stubbornly and heartlessly convinced that foodbank use is not linked to the welfare state.”
Last year she had been angry. This year, in the wake of the General Election, she felt “total despair”.
It fell once again to John Glen, the Conservative MP for Salisbury, to defend the Government’s record. He was “very proud” of the “economic transformation” underway, and pointed to the the speedier processing of benefit claims and the growth in jobs. But there remained, he said, a “significant group of people who have complex needs leading to presenting at a foodbank, and we need to be honest and real about the complexity of these circumstances. and take action.”
Benefit delays were not always the cause of their appearance at foodbanks, he said. Those listed by an Oxfordshire foodbank included domestic violence, bills coming at once, family issues, illness, lost wallets and asylum issues. He spoke of “complicated lives that need forensic solutions”.
In the absence of any representative from the Department of Health in the audience, Dr Philippa Whitford, the SNP MP for Central Ayrshire, provided a medical perspective on the issue. A consultant breast surgeon who has worked for the UN, she warned that the stunting and poor brain development evident in the developing world could appear in the UK population, building up “incredible problems for the future”.
This theme was taken up by audience members, who pointed to peer-reviewed research warning that children in deprived areas are not growing as tall, and to the long-term impact of lunchboxes filled with sugary snacks and drinks. The recipients would not be “unemployed but unemployable”.
Despite the suggestion in the report that demand for foodbanks has plateaued, audience members working on the front-line warned of a heavy burden. Carmel McConnell, the founder of Magic Breakfast, currently feeding 22,000 children a year, spoke in an increase in need from the working poor. The current response was “nowhere near enough”.
Winston Waller, Central Council president of the Southwark branch of the Roman Catholic St Vincent de Paul Society, said that people were “suffering terrible hardship because of benefit delays and sanctions. They are not being made aware of the short-term benefit allowances that are available. They are left alone and helpless.”
There was some evidence, however, of a lessening of antagonism between the Government and the grassroots.
Molly Hodson of the Trussell Trusts asked how it could get more MPs to visit foodbanks. She was told by Mr Glen of an “unfortunate legacy with the politicisation, historically, of foodbanks . . I think we have moved on from that.”
But the tension between the bishops’ call for co-operation, and charities’ desire to hold the Government to account was clear.
“One of the key things is not just for the Church to be running around filling these gaps, but speaking out,” said Jon Kuhrt, executive director of social work at the West London Mission. He cited the Brazillian liberation theologist Hélder Câmara: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a Communist.”
“This is inevitably a political issue,” he said.
Should we treat hunger in the UK as an emergency? Vote now