Justin Welby is supporting Frank Field MP's hunger report. Photo: Getty
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The Archbishop of Canterbury demands state support for food banks

A new report into hunger, supported by Justin Welby, blames benefit payment delays for increased use of food banks.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, says the plight of people in England using food banks is "more shocking" than the refugee camp he visited in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In an article for the Mail on Sunday over the weekend, Welby staged his intervention off the back of a new hunger report by the Labour MP Frank Field and his All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty. Welby calls for state backing of food banks, as the report blames delayed benefit payments and excessive utility bills for the massive increased use of food banks in Britain.

The report calls for benefits to be paid faster, the extension of free school meals, and a living wage in order to reduce hunger and to stop people having to choose between eating and heating. According to the BBC, Downing Street has responded by saying it would "seriously consider" these recommendations.

Welby, in support of the report, wrote:

We need to build a society that helps people take responsibility for their own lives and for their families. A society where those who are in need at one time can get their lives back on track and give to others in the future.

This cross-party report is practical, clear and effective. Its recommendations should be put into action quickly.

That would be a wonderful Christmas present for everyone who cares about the future of our country.

The intervention of Field's APPG, backed by Welby and other Church figures, could be a big headache for the government. Its Autumn Statement last week led to the Office of Budget Responsibility reporting that the bulk of cuts would be yet to come, and welfare spending is one of the major budgets that will have to bear the brunt of future cuts. How can the government even begin to address the problem of hunger and huge rises in food bank use in the UK if it is relying on money saved from reducing financial help to those who need it most?

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.