It’s time to act on food poverty

Our aim must be to make the UK a Zero Hunger Country, writes Fiona Twycross AM.

The latest figures released by the Trussell Trust showing yet another dramatic rise in the number of people forced to rely on food banks in Britain are both shameful and deeply concerning.

What is most shocking is that the number of people fed by food banks has tripled before the added pressure put on people already struggling to make ends meet by recent welfare changes. All emergency food aid charities contributing to a recent investigation I led for the London Assembly anticipate the welfare cuts and changes, which will affect 2.6 million families in the UK, will further increase demand on their services. My report into food poverty has one simple aim, to make London a Zero Hunger City.

Given that Britain ranks as the seventh richest country in the world, our aim must be to make the UK a Zero Hunger Country. The government must change course and take urgent action for this to happen. To stand by and watch, or deny there is a genuine and growing problem, is not an option.

Children should not go to school hungry, older people should not be admitted to hospital suffering from malnutrition, parents should not have to choose between feeding themselves and feeding their children. Nobody should go hungry. These statements might seem obvious, but in London and across the UK children are going to school hungry, older people are being admitted to hospital suffering from malnutrition, parents are being forced to go hungry so their children can eat.

This is disgraceful and should shock us all out of complacency. What kind of country have we become? How can we go about our daily lives knowing this is happening? How can the government glibly slash benefits and support to children and parents – both in and out of work – without the least bit of shame?

Rather than just bemoaning the state of the country under the current shower of a government, what can we do to make things better? My London Assembly report sets out four initial steps to start tackling this problem within the capital many of which would work for other areas of the UK as well.

First, increase strategic oversight of food poverty. The London Food Board, responsible to the Mayor, should take on strategic responsibility for addressing food poverty with the aim of making London a Zero Hunger City. This responsibility should be included in a revised London Food Strategy that monitors risk factors for food poverty (including welfare changes and low income), facilitate the sharing of good practice and ensure a coordinated approach across the city. The Food Board should publish a paper on possible models for delivering Universal Free Healthy School Meals in London.

Second, make the new Health and Wellbeing Boards (HWBs) central to delivering a zero hunger city. Food poverty contributes towards health problems like diabetes, malnutrition and obesity that will be priorities for many the new HWBs and they should take strategic responsibility within boroughs over the need to take action on food poverty. HWBs should lead a food poverty action plan and designate a link worker for the multiple organisations responding to food poverty.

We also need to work with schools to reduce child hunger. Schools should identify and address hunger in schools throughout the school day and support families in food poverty. Schools should engage with their local authority’s food poverty link worker, maximise registration and take up of free healthy school meals and use their Pupil Premium money to ensure the availability of free breakfasts and to provide after-school cooking activities.

Finally, get people who need help the help they need. Less than 1 per cent of food bank users are over 65 but increasing numbers of older people are finding it harder to afford food and the level of malnutrition in older people is unacceptably high. Emergency food aid organisations should seek out groups, such as the elderly, that face barriers to accessing their services.

Many food banks now provide advice and support beyond food, for example in relation to welfare, debt and employment. In providing these services, food banks go above and beyond their initial purpose and it is therefore inevitable that this support is not provided by all food banks. Although these services show a welcome recognition of the need to address the long-term needs of clients living in food poverty, food banks cannot and should not be expected to fill what appear to be gaps in state provision.

More needs to be done to get people the help they need, and food aid organisations should liaise with statutory authorities, and vice versa, to ensure people access the support they are entitled to. A key plank is rolling out universal free healthy school meals, as a start we can do this in our primary schools. Southwark, Islington and Newham Councils have already done this, it is possible.

There are solutions to the growing problem of food poverty, food banks should not become a new formal or informal part of our welfare state. We must act to stop people going hungry in the first place.

Fiona Twycross is a Labour Member of the London Assembly.

Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The twelve tricks in George Osborne's spending review

All Chancellors use chicanery, and George Osborne is no exception.

There is no great shame to a wheeze: George Osborne is no more or less partial to them than other Chancellors before him. Politicians have been wheezing away since history began. Wheezes aren’t even necessarily bad policy: sometimes they’re sensible as well as slightly sneaky. And we shouldn’t overstate their significance: the biggest changes announced yesterday were described in a clear, honest and non-wheezy way.

But it’s fun to try to spot the wheezes. Here are some we’ve found so far.


  1. Give people less time to pay their tax bills. Yesterday the Chancellor announced tax rises that will raise, in total, a net £5.5bn in 2019-20. A sixth of that total – £900m – results from the announcement that, from April 2019, anyone paying Capital Gains Tax (CGT) on the sale of a house will have to cough up within 30 days. Has the Chancellor made a strategic decision to increase taxes to pay for public services? Not really – he’s just moved some tax forward from the subsequent year to help his numbers stack up, at the price of bigger hassle for people who are selling houses. Not necessarily a bad thing – but a classic wheeze.


  1. Dress up a spending cut as a minor bureaucratic change. The Treasury yesterday announced what sounds like a sensible administrative change to the Government’s scheme for automatically enrolling people into pensions: “to simplify the administration of automatic enrolment for the smallest employers in particular, the next two phases of minimum contribution rate increases will be aligned to the tax years”. Nice of them to reduce bureaucratic hassle for the smallest employers. This also happens to save the Government £450m in 2018-19, because instead of paying an increased subsidy into people’s pensions from January 2018, it will do it from April 2018.


  1. “Tuck under”.  The phrase “tucking under” is a Whitehall term of art, best illustrated with an example. We learnt yesterday that “DfID [the Department for International Development] will remain the UK’s primary channel for aid, but to respond to the changing world, more aid will be administered by other government departments, drawing on their complementary skills.” That sounds like great joined-up government. It also, conveniently, means that the Government can continue to meet its target of keeping overseas aid at 0.7% of Gross National Income, without having to increase DfID’s budget at the same rate as GNI: instead, other departments pick up the slack. Those bits of other departments’ budgets have thus been “tucked under” the ODA protection. See also: the Government is “protecting” the schools budget in real terms, while slashing around £600m from the funding it gives to local authorities to support schools, so that schools will now have to buy those services from their “protected” funding – thus “tucking” the £600m “under” the protected schools budget. (See also: in the last Parliament, the Government asked the NHS to contribute to social care funding, thus “tucking” some social care “under” the protected health budget.)


  1. Cumulative numbers. Most of the figures used in the Spending Review are “in-year” figures: when the Government says it is giving £10bn more to the NHS, it means that the NHS will get £10bn more in 2019-20 than it got in 2015-16. Then you read something like: “The Spending Review and Autumn Statement provides investment of over £1.3 billion up to 2019-20 to attract new teachers into the profession.” That’s not £1.3bn per year – it’s the cumulative figure over four years.


  1. Deploy weasel words. The government is protecting “the national base rate per student for 16-19 year olds”. Sounds great – and it will be written up in many places as “Government protects 16-19 education”. But the word “base” is doing a lot of work here. Schools and colleges that educate 16-19 year olds currently get a lot of funding on top of the “base rate” – such as extra funding for disadvantaged students. Plans for that funding have not yet been revealed.


  1. Pretend to hypothecate a tax. The Chancellor announced yesterday that – because the EU won’t allow him to reduce the ‘tampon tax’ – he’ll instead use the proceeds of that tax to pay for grants to women’s charities. This sounds great – but all he’s really saying is that, among all the many other millions of pounds of grants issued by the government to various causes, £15m will be given to some women’s charities, which might have got that funding anyway. It’s not real hypothecation: it’s not as if women’s charities will get more if there’s a spike in tampon sales. See also: announcing that local authorities can raise council tax so long as they use it to pay for social care – LAs would probably have spent just as much on social care anyway (and other services would have suffered).


  1. Shave away a small fraction of a big commitment. The Conservative party made great play in the election campaign of its commitment to provide 30 hours of free childcare to 3 and 4 year olds in working families. In the July Budget, it made more great play of re-committing to this. Yesterday, it announced that “working families” excluded any parent working less than the equivalent of 16 hours at the minimum wage, or more than £100,000. That sounds like a fairly small change – but it saves the Government £125m in 2020.


  1. Turn a grant into a loan. If government gives someone a grant, that is counted as spending and increases the public sector deficit. If instead the government gives someone a loan, that doesn’t count against the deficit, because it’s assumed that the loan will be paid back (so the loan is like an asset which the Government is holding). Recently we’ve seen a lot of government grants turning into loans – in the July Budget it was student maintenance grants; yesterday it was bursaries for trainee nurses.


  1. “Reverse” a decision that hasn’t happened yet. In 2012 the Government announced that, from April 2016, it would remove the 3% “diesel supplement” that puts a higher tax on company cars that use diesel than on others. Yesterday, it cancelled this, saving over £265m per year for the rest of the Parliament. People complain less about you cancelling a tax cut when you haven’t done the tax cut yet. (Perhaps this doesn’t qualify as a full wheeze, but there’s something wheezy about it.)


  1. “Protect” things in cash terms. If you really want to protect an area of spending, you should at least increase it in line with inflation, so that it can still buy the same amount of stuff. This government – like the Coalition before it – enjoys protecting things only in cash terms. Examples yesterday included the basic rate of funding per 16-19 year old in education, and the entire children’s services budget.


  1. Freeze things in cash terms. Yesterday the government announced that the repayment threshold on student loans – the level above which ex-students must start paying back their loans – will remain frozen in cash terms for 5 years, instead of increasing with earnings (which is what has happened to date). This saves the Government £200m in 2019-20. In a particularly bold move, the Government has even applied this rule to loans that have already been issued – changing the terms on which students took out the loans in the first place.


  1. Hide all these wheezes in sweeping statements. The first chapter of the Spending Review tells us that “£3 billion [of reduction in the deficit] is being delivered through reforms such as Making Tax Digital and further measures to tackle tax avoidance.” The innocuous phrase “reforms such as” covers the bringing forward of £900m in Capital Gains Tax (see number 1 above) and the £450m saved by delaying automatic enrolment into pensions (see number 2 above).

Catherine Colebrook is chief economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research