Today (8th December 2014) an All Party Parliamentary Inquiry published an extensive report into causes of food poverty in the UK and then suggested some responses. Campaigners from End Hunger Fast were invited to the initial launch of this report so here are some reflections on where it’s ended up and what that means for the rest of us.
End Hunger Fast and Food Poverty
In March 2014 I undertook a forty day fast because, like many of you, I could see that the rising tide of hunger in the UK was only going to get worse unless there was dramatic and sustained reversal of government policies and corporate greed.
The public mood was taken up with this idea of an act of solidarity with those who go hungry in Britain. Thousands joined End Hunger Fast in a National Day of Fasting, over a million people were reached by our twitter campaign, dozens of bishops and hundreds of faith leaders, academics and others signed letters and petitions calling on the government to change. At End Hunger Fast our asks were simple and non-partisan. Many of the bishops involved told us how please they were to have had the opportunity to fast with others and to share with the public the growing disquiet they were hearing from their dioceses.
The End Hunger Fast campaign has been calling on the government to ensure:
- That the welfare system provides a robust last line of defence against hunger in Britain
- That work pays enough for working people to properly provide for their families
- That food markets function, promoting long term sustainable and healthy diets with no one profiteering off hunger in Britain.
Those in charge said we were wrong and continued to do so right up until recent months. They said that the reasons people were using food banks were down to their increased profile in public awareness and people’s inability to cook properly.
Since then several reports and research papers have come out. Each has given the same damming verdict of the government’s denial of the problem. The most recent of these – hot off the press – is Oxfam’s “Emergency Use Only: Understanding and Reducing the use of food banks in the UK”, dismissed by the government like all the others. A much better response to that report can be found here.
APPG Report Background
The panel was co-chaired by Frank Field MP (Labour) and Bishop Tim Thornton (Truro) and included two conservative MPs and one other Labour MP. The Inquiry was formally launched at Lambeth Palace and their “Terms of Reference” tried to balance systemic and functional responses to hunger while tried desperately (impossibly?) to be non-party-political.
Today (8th December 2014) the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) inquiry into food poverty publish a long-awaited report into the causes of the rise in food poverty and what we might do in response.
Working with Church Action on Poverty, FareShare, The Trussell Trust and academics such as Elizabeth Dowler and Hannah Lambie-Mumford, as well as referencing government and NGO reports and stories the report gives us the most thorough overview of the increased crisis of hunger in the UK in the last 15 years.
Key Findings in the Report
The stories alone tell us that we have lost our way and our humanity. For example:
“The Inquiry was told of one man in Birmingham who had made a mistake on his application for Jobseeker’s Allowance. He received no money for twelve weeks. During the twelve weeks he was seen rummaging in the bins behind a chip shop. When the owner of the chip shop got fed up with him rummaging through the bins and phoned the police, the man was arrested for trespassing.” (page 13).
The APPG were careful – perhaps too careful – not to confirm or validate any of the statistics they’ve read and instead wrote in cautious terms of trends and emphasis. There is a very occasional slip into the party political line that the use of food banks are “driven by the growth” of food banks but in such a long document these are rare and are superseded by observations like this summary:
“The number of people in this country relying on food banks and other forms of emergency food assistance is unprecedented, and has increased significantly in recent years. The evidence received by the Inquiry suggests that this cannot be accounted for simply by the growth in the sheer numbers of food banks, as new and well-established food banks alike told the Inquiry that demand for their services has grown.” (page 12).
The Daily Mail notoriously took food from a food bank under false pretenses under the pretext of exposing them as places where the lazy and feckless get free food from big hearted mugs. But the inquiry demonstrates that the real mug is the editor of the Daily Mail.
“The experience of having to take up this ‘last resort’ option, often following days of hunger, had made people feel ashamed and humiliated.” (page 13).
At End Hunger Fast we called for a specific inquiry into the rising cost of food and the APPG Inquiry should persuade most readers that this is still needed.
“Britain’s poorest households spent 31% of their income on food, fuel and housing in 2003. This had increased by 9 percentage points to 40% by 2012. By contrast, the wealthiest households spent 13% of their income on food, fuel and housing in 2003. This had increased by 4 percentage points to 17% in 2012, meaning it was a little under half as steep as the increase in inflation felt by the poor.” (page 26).
Pointing to delays and sanctions we called for a “welfare system that works for the most vulnerable”. The report finds that increased delays and sanctions are a major cause of hunger.
“Against the long-term weakening of poorer households’ ability to absorb shocks, the Inquiry encountered in its evidence a wide range of triggers behind the growing reliance on food banks and other forms of food assistance. Chief among these were those experiences with the benefits system which, in some cases, had left people with no money whatsoever.” (page 68).
We also said that more should be done to make work pay since so many of those who visit food banks are in in-work poverty. In radio and TV studios around the country and in print in national media we argued that replacing the Zero hours contract with something fairer and promoting the Living Wage as a real and practical way to reduce the benefit bill and increase prosperity for those who work hard at the lowest paid jobs would be good for us all.
The APPG inquiry agreed that “too many people earning the National Minimum Wage today are relying on help from food banks” (page 43) and included in-work poverty as one of it’s three headline causes of hunger in Britain:
“Long-term trends in the prices of the three basic utilities – food, fuel and housing – have eroded the real value of the National Minimum Wage and working-age benefits. In doing so, they have exposed low-income households to the likelihood of hunger and food poverty – particularly as food tends to be the most flexible item in one’s household budget.” (page 30).
It is clear from this report that, when it comes to hunger, food banks are not a long-term solution and that better local and national provision for those most vulnerable to going without food and other basics is needed urgently.
No one should go hungry in Britain. No one should go to school or work hungry in Britain. No one should be made to feel ashamed or forced into theft and scavenging because of hunger in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.
Gaps in the Report
This report is radical more because of where it comes from than because of what it says. In this report we have the establishment admitting to something that others have been saying for a long time. Although this report is extremely comprehensive there are some things to be cautious about.
This report seems to ignore the weight of evidence of the effect of welfare reform on the most vulnerable; particularly those being assessed as ‘fit for work’ when they are disabled or have vulnerable mental health. No mention is made of the carnage caused by the scheme delivered by ATOS and Capita. It’s difficult for a panel made up of Conservative MPs to put their name to something that admitted to this huge moral and bureacratic failing that has literally cost lives. Difficult but necessary and sadly absent.
Much is made of the waste of food but less is said about the movement of food on national supply chains and international markets. This is a huge area that needs an inquiry of its own.
Finally (for now!), I would have liked to have seen more about what I and others call ‘corporate welfare’ and the scapegoating of the poorest. While there was some reference to the shame felt by those who go hungry in Britain we could have heard more about the role of some elements of the media and of government in generating and maintaining the link between poverty and shame.
Is “Feeding Britain” really “Beveridge Plus”?
The ‘headline summary’ of the report is a joint venture it calls “Feeding Britain” partnership between state and voluntary sector. Without irony it calls this “Beveridge plus” (p. 102) even though it is plays into this governments scaling down of Beveridge’s vision of full employment and centrally adminstered welfare.
There is a danger in this that the voluntary sectors role as “welfare on the cheap” will be formalised and the hunger crisis we’re currently facing will turn into a chronic and acceptable norm.
Furthermore, emergency food relief has emerged because of the failure of the government to manage the economy for the common good and to administer welfare in a compassionate way. There must be some concern that state interference with voulntary sectors will only screw up the good work being done and volunteers taking over the role normally taken by the state will only legitimise government apathy towards the working poor.
I can’t look at “Feeding Britain” and simply raise a cheer. Above all the recommendations in the report this one needs the most scrutiny. For one thing, and Professor Liz Dowler has made this point well in interview. To see the masses of food thrown out by supermarkets as waste that can be utilised by the poor is deeply dehumanising. In an emergency – great! – but as a long term strategy: dystopian. Social Supermarkets buy us time and charity but eventually we need justice for the hungry not just crumbs from under the table.
We need to do more than have efficient ‘hand-outs’ and ‘leg ups’ for the poorest people in our communities. The food gap is also a democracy deficit and a anti-working class narrative that comes straight from government. What David Cameron calls ‘red tape’ has been fought for over generations of organised working people and needs defending so that we can put an end to working poverty.
As long as corporations run governments, governments will not stand up to corporations. If we want to end hunger we have to start building an authentic democracy in our work places and in our public square.
The full APPG report can be downloaded here.
Revd Dr Keith Hebden is the author of “Seeking Justice: The Radical Compassion of Jesus”