SIX diocesan bishops and the acting Bishop of London have expressed alarm at the “considerable” cuts to welfare assistance schemes such as food banks, which provide a “vital lifeline”.
In a letter to The Guardian on Thursday, the bishops write: “Local welfare assistance schemes are a vital lifeline for people who find themselves in a crisis and without basic essentials, such as food, electricity, or a working oven. It is therefore very worrying that most of these schemes have been cut back considerably in recent years and that 26 local councils have now closed them altogether, including in many areas that we represent.”
The letter was signed by the Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler; the Bishop of Willesden and acting Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Pete Broadbent; the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith; the Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Christopher Foster; the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell; the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Martyn Snow; and the Bishop of Lichfield, the Rt Revd Michael Ipgrave.
The letter refers to a report published on Wednesday by the Centre for Responsible Credit (CfRC), The Decline of Local Welfare Schemes in England: Why a new approach is needed, which says that a failure to adequately fund local welfare provision could lead to widespread destitution.
While the Grenfell Tower disaster “exposed failings” in the local government response to large-scale emergencies, the bishops write, the stories in the CfRC report “demonstrate the human cost of failing to respond to the smaller-scale emergencies that hit countless individuals and families every day, due to ill-health, the loss of a job, the breakdown of a relationship, or a spell of homelessness.
“Food banks, Citizens Advice offices, and other voluntary sector organisations play an important role in supporting people in crisis, but they are under enormous pressure due to rising demand and funding cuts. This responsibility must be shared with central and local government, who have a moral duty to ensure there is an adequate safety net to stop people from becoming destitute.”
New research published today by the Church Urban Fund (CUF) suggests that close to one million adults in the UK used a food bank last year: one in 50 of the 2048 adults surveyed by ComRes for the report (two per cent). A larger proportion (one in 20 adults; five per cent) said that they had skipped meals in the past year because they could not afford food.
And 14 per cent of people said that they had cut down on fruit and vegetables because of the added expense. The research also suggests that 13 per cent adults in the UK regularly worry that they will not be able to afford food for themselves or their family.
“Spending on food is more elastic than other items of household expenditure such as rent, council tax, and utility bills, so it is often squeezed the most when money is tight,” the report says. “While this may help families to avoid the threat of eviction or termination of essential services such as electricity, it has substantial consequences for the wellbeing of adults and children alike.”
Low income was found to be the main cause of household food insecurity in the UK, with one in three adults in the past year worrying about not having enough money left over each month to save for the future or cope with financial emergencies. This might be benefit delays, ill health, unexpected expenses, or indebtedness.
“Without such a safety net, it is very difficult for households to cope with financial shocks,” it says. School holidays were a particularly difficult time for low-income families. Ten per cent of adults surveyed said that they had missed celebrating a special occasion such as a birthday, anniversary, Christmas, or other religious festival because they could not afford to.
Other factors listed in the report as having contributed to the increase in poverty and use of food banks since the financial crisis included benefit payment delays and changes to benefit sanctions; changes to tax credits and Universal Credit; low wages; and rising costs of fuel, food, and housing.
CUF concurred with the bishops, saying that the responsibility for addressing food insecurity in the country must not be left entirely to faith groups, communities, and charities. “Addressing the macro level drivers of household food insecurity requires a concerted, urgent and sustained cross-sectoral response.
“Responsibility for taking action must be shared by all who have power to make a difference, including government, employers, and individuals: it cannot only be the work of charities, churches, faith groups and community organisations at a local level, vital though this is.”
Responses need to be dignified, rational, just, and varied according to circumstance, it says. “Food poverty is not only a matter of hunger or poor nutrition, it also isolates and excludes people, making it difficult for them to participate socially, and causing considerable worry and anxiety.
“Many charities, churches and community groups are working hard to try to support those experiencing food poverty, isolation and financial difficulties. Most of this work is done by volunteers and resourced by donations.
“However, the causes of food poverty include insecure employment conditions and low pay, housing costs, and food and utility prices, as well as benefits sanctions and delays, and caps to benefit payments. Addressing these drivers of food poverty requires wider involvement and commitment across the state and market sectors, as well as by civil society.”