THE Newcastle West End Foodbank, whose trustees I chair, received a visit last week from the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston. He was examining the Government’s record on tackling poverty, which is an obligation under human-rights law.
That the UN is investigating whether the UK is failing to protect the human rights of its citizens should be remarkable, but it will come as no surprise to those who suffer the hardships of austerity, or live and work with those who do. Jesus began his ministry by announcing good news to the poor. As the Church confronts its own decline, we must not lose sight of our calling to bear witness to those who suffer because of the structural decline of compassion that austerity represents.
In 2013, the Church of the Venerable Bede, where I am now Vicar, founded the Newcastle West End Foodbank. Demand was immediately high, and became almost unmanageable when Newcastle became a trial city for Universal Credit. Thanks to the hard work of our staff and volunteers, the foodbank has thrived, and now operates as an independent organisation, still running distribution sessions from our church hall. We currently feed, on average, a little under 800 people a week.
It was in our church hall that Ken Loach staged the foodbank scene in his film I, Daniel Blake (Comment, 11 November 2016). The desperation felt by the character Katie, as she breaks down after going hungry so that she can feed her children, resonated with the experiences of many attending our foodbank. Those experiences have now been given voice by the Special Rapporteur. He listened to people who rarely feel heard, as they spoke of how they live in fear of running out of food, and of how Universal Credit has been like a “punch in the face”.
We have been hearing devastating stories of the impact of Universal Credit since its introduction: stories of many weeks with no income, and payments delayed by baffling bureaucracy. Whether financial hardship arises out of unexpected challenges such as loss of work, disability, or bereavement, or out of low wages and zero-hours contracts, there is little or no flexibility offered in the welfare system. Other services that those living in poverty might once have accessed have been cut to the point of dereliction. The foodbank is their last resort.
PROFESSOR ALSTON’s 24-page statement on his visit, published last Friday, is damning both of the Government and of austerity. Massive cuts to the welfare state over the past decade have increased poverty, he says, and the benefits system is now “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous”.
The implementation of austerity has disproportionately and unnecessarily affected the most vulnerable and amounts to “social re-engineering”. In today’s Britain, he tells us, “poverty is a political choice.” These are strong words, but in light of the experiences of our foodbank clients, it is clear that Professor Alston’s conclusions are correct — and that the Church must respond.
The Church of England has, within Renewal and Reform, begun to reaffirm its commitment to those living in poverty, both within the estates stream of the process and through the introduction of the Lower Income Communities Funding. Professor Alston’s findings present us with the challenge to think carefully about how to ensure that people living in poverty are not just the target of certain forms of mission, but are inherent to our identity. The Church must be a place where their voices are heard, and where we collectively bear witness to their experiences.
To be credible, that witness must speak difficult truths to political leaders and campaign for concrete change — as has happened in recent work around pay-day loan companies and fixed-odds betting terminals (News, 9 November). To make space for the silenced to speak and to call for justice won’t be easy, especially when power refuses to listen.
The Special Rapporteur is clear about the gulf between the evidence that he gathered from individuals and organisations around the UK, and the response of the Government, which, he says, “has stubbornly resisted seeing the situation for what it is”, and “has remained determinedly in a state of denial”.
FOR its part, the government has “strongly disagreed” with Professor Alston’s analysis. The new Work and Pensions Secretary, Amber Rudd, told Parliament on Monday that the “extraordinary political language” of his report was “wholly inappropriate and discredited a lot of what he was saying”.
The Church must not be silenced by a fear of being accused of speaking in a “political language”. While the Government looks away from the facts of suffering, we must declaim the hardships we see in our communities and resist the policies that cause them. Jesus’s words often caused offence to those in power; to proclaim the good news, we must be willing to do the same.
The Revd Dr Dominic Coad is Team Vicar in the Benwell and Scotswood Team, Newcastle.