Thank you for contacting me regarding yesterday’s debate on food banks in the House of Commons. Such was the demand for time to speak that despite putting my name in as soon as the topic was announced, I was sadly not called, and reduced to making an isolated intervention.
Thank you for contacting me regarding yesterday’s debate on food banks in the House of Commons. Such was the demand for time to speak that despite putting my name in as soon as the topic was announced, I was sadly not called, and reduced to making an isolated intervention. This was most frustrating as this is an issue I have a long-standing interest in.
As a consequence, rather than enclose a copy of my speech yesterday, I am enclosing a copy of an article from the Manchester Evening News which I wrote back in October, and I will also seek to respond to some of your wider points here.
Firstly, let me make clear that food banks are a manifestation of the wider problem of food poverty, and I find it unacceptable that we should live in one of the world’s richest nations, but have people unable to feed themselves to an acceptable level. The only way to tackle this is for all sides to agree the problem is there, and seek to understand the underlying issues. I know that the volunteers in food banks themselves want politicians to address their concerns rather than treat food banks as a political football.
I am very grateful to the volunteers who work to sustain local food bank provision. I recognise that they do it out of compassion, but I know from talking to them that they are motivated by seeking to ensure that this mode of provision does not become the ‘norm’ in our society. I do not believe the vast majority want to see food poverty normalised in the UK, nor food banks become part of the welfare state, funded by the Government. It is wrong in my view to seek to nationalise compassion.
Like many other MPs, I have stood in Tescos and Sainsbury’s collecting for the Fareshare food charity, and realises that some of those walking past may well constitute the ‘hidden hungry’.
I believe one of the key functions of food banks that yesterday’s debate overlooked was their role as a signpost to other sources of help. Having brought the churches in Blackpool together some 18 months ago now with a view to trying to set up a more co-ordinated approach to tackling food poverty, I am more than aware from my visits that both the Blackpool Food Bank and the Salvation Army’s Bridge Project regard the advice they offer as being as important as the first bag of food.
I am very clear that we should never generalise why someone has recourse to a food bank, other than at the root of it will be a lack of income for one reason or another. We need to struggle to end the demonization of those who find themselves in need of such help, not least because there but for the grace of God go we.
It is for that reason that I have strongly supported the work of Frank Field, and have joined his nascent All-Party Group on this issue. I want to see the DEFRA report published as soon as possible, but I believe there is great merit in a deeper Government enquiry to better understand what is behind the rapid increase in the need for emergency food aid. There is much expertise in our social policy think tanks that can be drawn upon to improve the quality of the evidence-base and thus the decision making.
Food poverty did not appear in May 2010, indeed food banks have been growing since 2003, but they have certainly expanded more rapidly in recent years. They have grown to the extent that perhaps it is time to try to measure usage on a like-for-like basis just as supermarkets themselves do when they report sales levels. This would allow us to avoid simplistic explanations such as ‘more people are using them because more are opening’. There are questions worth investigating about the extent to which greater awareness of food banks is increasing the number of customers. That is why I specifically asked in yesterday’s debate whether the Labour Party regarded unmet need for food relief as currently increasing or decreasing, as opposed to ‘met need’ in the sense of people attending food banks.
I also wanted to make two specific comments about the benefits system which I believe are contributing to increased demand. Whilst I welcome the fact that the Government has now enabled referrals from Jobcentre Plus to food banks, there has clearly been an increase in benefit sanctions. I am concerned that not every sanction is accompanied by a referral, where it is often beneficial. Moreover, the current approach of ‘sanction first, evidence later’ is seeing many of the more illogical sanctions overturned on appeal – having placed people in extremis with no good reason. I remain convinced that conditionality has a fundamental role to play in the administration of benefits, but it has to be fair to both claimant and taxpayer alike.
The Trussell Trust’s figures demonstrate that ‘benefit delay’ is the major cause of need – and it is worth stressing that this is different from changes in the benefit system. Many of these will be people not so much waiting for a benefit decision, nor are they people who have for some reason lost a benefit, but rather people where a decision has yet to be made or payment has yet to commence. I have seen Written Answers indicating benefit payments have been speeded up by 5% recently, which can only be a good thing. But most importantly, we need to have greater confidence that Short Term Benefit Advances are being offered by staff where appropriate. I would like to think more could be done, but I am equally aware from speaking to DWP staff at Warbreck, that the right decision first time is better than a speedy but wrong decision that traps someone in an appeals process that costs them and the taxpayer far more. Getting this right could actually have a significant impact on the need for emergency food aid.
I remain optimistic that we can start to tackle the underlying problems of food poverty, using tools in the future that go beyond food banks without requiring massive state intervention. Earlier this month, a Social Enterprise called Community Shop opened in Barnsley. It is the first of its type in the UK of what is known as a ‘social supermarket’. Here people on a range of benefits can apply to become members, and then have access to a typical range of supermarket food at around 70% off. This is not ‘cheap food’ or low quality, but rather a consequence of minor labelling errors, poor seasonal forecasting, or short shelf life, and follows on from existing models in the food processing industry.
It is not only a shop though, but also an opportunity to use a cafe, learn cookery skills, access CV workshops, or utilise a credit union. It is a helping hand towards financial stability.
The Community Shop is heading for London next, and then Blackpool is on the agenda. It is something I very much welcome as an example of how non-state initiative can tackle such an engrained social problem.
The idea builds on a range of similar ‘social supermarkets’ in Austria and France. The ‘épiceries solidaires’ of France, and the SoMa shops run by the Hilfswerk and the Samariterbund in the suburbs of Vienna not only provide access to those on benefits, however, but rather to anyone who falls below a specified threshold in relation to the national poverty line. Whilst the Barnsley shop is very much about proving the concept, I hope the model can move beyond being ‘benefits’ only so as to avoid any accusation of stigma, some of which I have seen in the coverage of the Barnsley initiative.
On a wider note, I would point to the Church Urban Fund which has done much creditable work here in Blackpool and across the country in moving faith-based foodbanks from a relief model to a development model – teaching skills, such as the Cupcake Crusaders cookery class they refer to in Merseyside, rather than just handing over food parcels.
No-one should we be in any doubt that the pressure on food prices is set to continue due to the changing nature of global food security. We should take seriously the fact that the Food Ethics Council predicts that food remains too cheap and looks set to increase further in price. That’s why we can’t talk about this issue without focusing on food waste. This is not just about the immense amount that the so-called ‘wealthy’ throw out of their fridges uneaten each week, but the amount that never gets into the food chain in the first place. I have been mocked in the past for talking about Tesco’s attitude to funny-shaped fruit and vegetables – yet if those were to make their way into the food chain, it might just do something to ease the pressure on prices. Groups such as Feed the Five Thousand are to be praised for their participation in ‘gleaning’ exercises in the market gardening fields of Lancashire, for example.
The biggest challenge of all to tackle in my view is the Poverty Premium that so many are having to pay. Poverty angers me as a Conservative because, above all, it represents a lack of choice for the individual in how they live their lives. In the poorest areas, often food deserts with little access to fresh food, those who rely on small stores often find themselves paying that bit more. I have a ‘One Stop’ in Grange Park in my constituency nicknamed Harrods because it costs so much more – and people consequently buy less. I understand that smaller stores have higher costs per square foot – hence the higher prices. But I am also struck by the millions the supermarkets spend on marketing themselves to us, as well as on Corporate Social Responsibility. Whilst it is good to play a role in their food drives for local foodbanks, I wonder why they can’t as part of that CSR ensure that the residents of Grange Park pay no more to shop at their local One Stop than do those who are able to make it to the out-of-town supermarket? Surely that would actually genuinely express Corporate Social Responsibility. It is a challenge I suspect they will duck.
I am sorry this has been a lengthy response, but I wanted to cover all the issues associated with food poverty that I would have raised within the debate. Should you wish to discuss the issues further, I would be happy to do so.