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Government should take the lead on tackling poverty, say Synod members

08 July 2024

Sam Atkins/Church Times

The Archdeacon of Sheffield, the Ven. Malcolm Chamberlain

The Archdeacon of Sheffield, the Ven. Malcolm Chamberlain

MASS dependence on food emergency parcels is “a moral scar on our society”, the General Synod heard during a passionate and informed debate on foodbanks and the inadequacy of social security on Monday.

The Archdeacon of Sheffield, the Ven. Malcolm Chamberlain, introduced a motion from his diocese which called on the House of Bishops urgently to engage with the Government to review the adequacy of current social security provision.

Britain was not a poor nation incapable of caring for its most vulnerable citizens, Archdeacon Chamberlain said. Currently, among the largest contributions to social welfare were being made by churches and others through the provision of foodbanks.

“Poverty is causing too much suffering and damage for us to simply accept it as an unavoidable inevitability despite the financial challenges,” he said. “Public policy needs to go further upstream to address the root causes.

“In their election manifesto — now the basis for government policy — we read that Labour is committed to reviewing Universal Credit so that it makes work pay and tackles poverty. So now we have a unique opportunity to work with this new Government to make this commitment a reality.”

He recounted the sobering experience of visiting a church-run food- and clothing bank. It was operating from a damp basement in a housing block on one of Sheffield’s most economically deprived housing estates. People were queuing in the wind and rain for the basic necessities, he said, which were being crammed into every available space.

“We can and we must do better as a nation. These church-run initiatives are indeed good news, but surely the very fact that they are needed is nothing short of a scandal.”

Stark figures from the Trussell Trust and others showed the extent of foodbank use, with the total number of emergency food parcels issued last year estimated to be close to six million. The Children’s Society expected the number of children living in poverty in the UK to reach five million this year.

“The current level of 4.3 million means that an average of nine children in every school class of 30 are living in poverty, with the associated health problems, lack of opportunity, and increased vulnerability to exploitation from criminal gangs,” Archdeacon Chamberlain said.

Many of the contributors to the debate were practitioners running foodbanks, family support, or homelessness charities. The Revd Claire McArthur (Coventry) said that the city’s foodbanks had fed 18,000 people in the previous year, and church-based initiatives included clothing rails in the city centre. Rent increases, food hikes, and utility bills had all resulted in messages from desperate people saying: “I have nothing. Can your church help me?”

Contributors talked about initiatives such as social supermarkets, where a small fee took away the stigma of needing support; and Fareshare, which distributed food from supermarkets which would otherwise have been thrown out.

One of the most powerful contributions came from the Revd Jonathan Macy (Southwark), who said: “You have to name a problem to have it solved.” More than half of households with a disabled person in them were below the poverty line, he said, speaking of “a vortex where people with disabilities are over-concentrated in areas of poverty. Churches with the lowest resources are working with the highest and most complex needs. What they do on a shoestring is staggering.”

Michaela Suckling (Sheffield) spoke of the impact of food insecurity on both mental and physical health, which increased the risk of chronic disease and diabetes, she said. “Some people have experienced panic attacks during shopping in case they don’t have enough money,” she said. “Some foodbank users reject fresh vegetables because they can’t afford to cook them. Church, let us take bold action.”

Sam Atkins/Church TimesThe Revd Chantal Noppen (Durham)

The Revd Chantal Noppen (Durham) moved an amendment which called for the introduction of the Essentials Guarantee (News, 29 February), which would tie the rate of benefits to the cost of basic essentials. “The impact of the cost-of-living crisis is simply not experienced evenly,” she said. “The guarantee is a further step towards acknowledging we care and that everyone should have the same opportunity to flourish. . . Those with resources continue to get and receive more. We should be offering abundance, looking at the bigger picture, and addressing why people are hungry. Let’s seek not just equality, but an equitable society. This would move us closer to the loving, generous care the Church should uphold.”

The Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, supported the guarantee wholeheartedly, and had asked questions in Parliament about it. “It beggars belief but, for so many years, we’ve seen efforts to alleviate poverty not based on reality,” he said, naming one example as “affordable” rents set at 80 per cent of the market value. “Keep on raising the benefits level based on what it actually costs to live in this country,” he urged.

Dr Sarah Batts-Neale (Chelmsford), who ran a debt centre in Colchester, said that her client base had changed completely. She had seen the level of debt increasing and said: “You can’t make a simple budget if you don’t know what your income is going to be. An Essentials Guarantee would go a long way to helping clients with unsustainable debt due to low income.”

The Revd Eleanor Robertshaw (Sheffield) wanted to talk about periods: “There are women in our society who can’t afford sanitary protection. It is an absolute scandal,” she said. “We should be so ashamed that this is happening in our society. Call on the Government to ensure that women do not have to beg for a human right.”

The amendment was passed. Another amendment moved by the Revd Mae Christie (Sothwark) was also carried. It called on the Lords Spiritual to encourage the new Government to end to the two-child benefit limit, which “disadvantages families and forces large numbers of children into the use of food banks or to otherwise go hungry”.

Penny Allen (Lichfield) had spent her working life in schools. She described the picture today: some schools with only 78-per-cent attendance, “partly due to poverty, inadequate food and sleeping arrangements”; teachers funding breakfast clubs; children falling asleep in the afternoon and others needing to sit down in PE; some stealing food from shops and from other children at school; and schools now washing children’s clothes.

“If we all work together in civil society, we will have more effect,” she said. “Ask your local councils whether they’re supporting the food banks. Mine has paid for meals at £1 per child in the local pub or café.”

Martin Auton-Lloyd (Chichester) ran a family support charity with its own food bank. Increasing benefits was only the start for what he called “the chaotic families” — “It’s not their fault. There are many fundamental systems to be addressed,” he said.

Denis Tully (Southwell & Nottingham), chief executive of a homelessness charity, said that the most vulnerable people struggled to access the welfare system at all. Its shortcomings encompassed systemic issues, which exaggerated vulnerability.

“The system can be lengthy and bureaucratic, leaving people with no access to financial reserves, leading them to food banks or loan sharks,” he said. “Without support, a system can punish you. To access benefits, you need access to a computer or smart phone.”

Synod voted through the amended motion: 274 in favour; one against, with no abstentions:

 

That this Synod, mindful that the Fourth Mark of Mission of the Anglican Communion is to “transform unjust structures of society”,

  1. note the major contribution to social welfare being made by the churches and others in the provision of food banks
  2. note with concern that levels of dependence on food banks have been increasing and that inflation is making the situation even worse
  3. note further that 2/3rds of those who use food banks have disabilities or long-term health conditions, who find it nearly impossible to navigate the benefits system and be supported adequately, and so applaud the incredible ministry and example of these churches and others who tirelessly run food banks, whilst lamenting and acknowledging the incredible personal and financial cost to this, which is driving some organisations to breaking point
  4. believe that this dependence reflects serious inadequacies in the social security system
  5. note that the Trussell Trust has said: ‘We stand on the edge of a precipice with a clear decision to make: either we accept food banks as a “new normal” or we work to create a more dignified, compassionate and humane society where everyone has enough money for essentials
  6. welcome the Chancellor’s intervention to help the least well off households with their energy bills but note this will not remove the problem of increased dependency on food banks
  7. call on the House of Bishops to urgently engage with HM Government, in particular the Secretary of State, to press it to review the adequacy of current social-security provision, and consider the feasibility of introducing an Essentials Guarantee
  8. believing that all children are a gift from God and bear the image of Christ, urge the House of Bishops and in particular the Lords Spiritual, to use every opportunity available to them to engage with the new Government and strongly encourage them to do everything possible to bring about an immediate end to the two-child benefit limit, which disadvantages families and forces large numbers of children into the use of food banks or to otherwise go hungry.

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