Food banks are a social gateway to discussing wider problems in someone’s life. Photo: Getty
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Food banks: why can't people afford to eat in the world's sixth richest country?

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty have published a new report into food banks, and how best to feed impoverished Britain.

Fourteen years ago, in the city of Salisbury, Paddy Henderson was fundraising for a little known local charity called the Trussell Trust, which focused on helping orphaned children in Bulgaria. One evening, he received a phone call from a desperate local mother, who said, "my children are going to bed hungry tonight – what are YOU going to do about it?"

This was the incident that sparked the birth of a movement and the creation of the Trussell Trust’s first "food bank". It was a natural compassionate response to discovering that somebody in 21st century Britain could not afford food.

The Trussell Trust now includes 400 food banks, and there are hundreds more locally based initiatives across the UK. This rapid growth sparked a wider debate about hunger in the UK that evolved as commentators tried to apportion blame.

We established the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty to comprehensively investigate this phenomenon, looking beyond the headlines and the immediate statistics to the deeper issues. We wanted to answer two questions.

Firstly, why are people skipping meals because they can’t afford food for their children in the sixth richest country in the world? Secondly, what can politicians do to help the charity movement that had responded so magnificently to this need?

We heard often harrowing testimonies from over 150 witnesses in evidence sessions around the country, and received written submissions from 250 more. The more we heard, the clearer it became that few food bank referrals are the same. Although they can be broadly categorised on a tickbox form, the human stories behind the statistics were often complex tales of successive hardships, culminating in a crisis.

We also heard stories of people who had been let down by the state. Unlike some commentators, however, we do not subscribe to the view that the need for food banks would be eradicated overnight by simply throwing money at the welfare state. As Jack Monroe told us, "if my benefits had been paid quickly, in full and on time, I would have been able to meet my living costs".

Benefit delays have long been an issue. In 2006/7, benefit delays accounted for 34 per cent of referrals to Trussell Trust food banks. In 2013/14, 30 per cent of referrals were due to benefit delay. We have a welfare state that is positively creaking under the strain of adjusting entitlements in response to everyday relationship changes in modern life, and in need of holistic reform. Without a more thoughtful and flexible safety net in place, constant gaps in payments will remain whilst the system "processes" life changes – and so too will the problems they cause.

But it also became apparent that there was a perfect storm brewing over the last decade that reached far beyond those living on benefits.

Britain experienced the highest rate of inflation amongst advanced western economies between 2003 and 2013, which had a disproportionate impact on those on the lowest incomes. In the last decade, the price of food rose by nearly 50 per cent, the price of fuel by a staggering 150 per cent and rents by a third. Wages in the same period increased by just 28 per cent.

The reality is that too many of the poorest in society did not benefit from economic growth and were still living from one pay cheque to the next: where the slightest change, such as needing to find extra money for lunch in the school holidays, could be disastrous, and often marked the start of a vicious cycle of debt.

But the most shocking fact that our inquiry uncovered was that just 2 per cent of edible surplus food in this country is given to charities like FareShare. One food bank manager told us he was offered 9,864 Cornish pasties because a lorry was 17 minutes late delivering them. Our frustration at the scale of needless waste in this country is compounded by the unacceptable taxpayer subsidies that are given to convert perfectly good surplus food into green energy, which must end.

When a family turns to the food bank in a time of need, they are met with warmth and compassion that is qualitatively different to what the state can provide. So when they are provided with food, it acts as a social gateway to a discussion about the wider problems in someone’s life.

We believe this offers a valuable opportunity for us to redesign a fragmented approach to support. We want to help more food banks evolve into hubs where services like debt and welfare advice are in one place, and end the system where people are sent from pillar to post in a constant cycle of referral.

We therefore propose a practical solution. We will bring together the voluntary sector, stakeholders and retailers in a new national voice: Feeding Britain. This will have three key goals that have been difficult to address by individual food banks in isolation. First, we will seek to double the redistribution of surplus food. Second, we will pilot twelve regional hubs that bring local agencies together. Third, we will pilot schemes to tackle school holiday hunger.

This is not about bureaucratic intervention from central government to wade in and impose a solution, or a talking shop so politicians can be seen to be doing something. We strongly believe that the best solutions are locally conceived and driven by the voluntary sector. We want to help connect the resources and the expertise that exist. The greatest asset of our food banks is not a stock of tins and packets, but the people staffing them: we hope that they will help us tackle the scandal of 21st century hunger.

Frank Field is the Labour MP for Birkenhead and co-founder and chair of All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty; John Glen is the Conservative MP for Salisbury, PPS to Eric Pickles and co-author of the evidence paper for the group's inquiry with the Trussell Trust

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Jeremy Corbyn's fans must learn the art of compromise

On both sides of the Atlantic, democracy is threatened by a post-truth world. 

Twenty years ago, as a new and enthusiastic Labour MP, I wrote an article for The Observer in praise of spin. I argued that if citizens are to be properly informed and engaged in their democracy, politicians - and in particular governments - have a duty to craft their messages carefully and communicate them cogently. It was a controversial notion then but less so now that we have entered the era of post-truth politics. In the old days, we used to "manage" the truth. Now we have abandoned it. 

We’ve probably come further than we think, for when truth is discarded, reason generally follows. Without a general acceptance of the broad "facts" of any matter, there can be little basis for rational debate nor, therefore, for either the consensus or the respectful disagreement which should emerge from it. Without a commitment to truth, we are free to choose and believe in our own facts and to despise the facts of others. We are free too to place our faith in leaders who make the impossible seem possible. 

We condemn the dictatorships which deny their citizens the right to informed and open debate. But in our own societies, unreasoned and often irrational politics are entering the mainstream. 

The politics of unreason

In the UK, the Leave campaign blithely wedded brazen falsehood to the fantasy that Brexit would cure all ills – and millions of voters enthusiastically suspended their disbelief.  “We want our country back” was a potent slogan - but no less vacuous than the pledge to “make America great again” on which Donald Trump has founded his election campaign. On both sides of the Atlantic, people want to take back control they know they never had nor ever will.

Both campaigns have deliberately bypassed rational argument. They play instead to the emotional response of angry people for whom reason no longer makes sense. Since the time of Plato and Aristotle, democracy’s critics have warned of the ease with which reason can be subverted and citizens seduced by the false oratory of charismatic leaders. Trump is just the latest in a long line of the demagogues they feared. He may not make it to the White House, but he has come a long way on unreasoning rhetoric - and where he leads, millions faithfully follow. He has boasted that he could commit murder on Fifth Avenue without losing votes and he may well be right.

But if Trump is extreme, he is not exceptional. He is a phenomenon of a populism of both right and left which has once more begun to challenge the principles of parliamentary democracy.

Democracy in decline

All over Europe and the United States, consumer-citizens are exasperated by democracy’s failure to meet their demands as fully and as fast as they expect. If the market can guarantee next day delivery, why can’t government? The low esteem in which elected politicians are held is only partly the consequence of their failings and failures. It is also evidence of a growing disenchantment with representative democracy itself. We do not trust our politicians to reflect our priorities. Perhaps we never did. But now we’re no longer prepared to acknowledge their unenviable duty to arbitrate between competing political, social and economic imperatives, nor ours to accept the compromises they reach - at least until the next election.

We have become protesters against rather than participants in our politics and, emboldened by hearing our chosen facts and beliefs reverberating around cyber space, have become increasingly polarised and uncompromising in our protest. 

The Trumpy Corbynites

Which brings us to Labour. Despite the obvious political differences between Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump, there are striking similarities in the movements which have coalesced around them. For many of their supporters, they can simply do no wrong; each criticism provides further evidence of a corrupt establishment’s conspiracy against them; rivals, including those who share many of their beliefs, are anathematised; unbelievers are pursued across the internet; inconvenient facts are reinterpreted or ignored; rational, civil debate is shut down or drowned out. 

There are other similarities in these insurgencies: both mistake slogans for policies and mass rallies for popular support; both are overwhelming and quite possibly destroying their own parties – and both, ultimately, are movements without practical purpose.

Trump may give vivid expression to his followers’ grievances but, other than building a wall along the Mexican border, his plans for government are obscure. Similarly, while Corbyn and his supporters know what they’re against, they have not yet articulated a clear vision of what they’re for, much less how it can be achieved. For many of them, it is enough to be "anti-Blairite". 

But in disassociating themselves from a Labour prime minister’s mistakes, they are also dismissing their party’s achievements under his leadership. Their refusal to acknowledge the need for compromise may well enable them to avoid the pitfalls of government. But government’s potential to bring about at least some of the change they want does not come without pitfalls. In wanting it all, they are likely to end up with nothing.

The art of compromise

Democracy cannot be sustained simply by what passionate people oppose. And though movements such as Momentum have important roles to play in influencing political parties, they cannot replace them. Their supporters want to be right - and they often are. But they are rarely prepared to test their principles against the practical business of government. The members of political parties want, or should want, to govern and are prepared, albeit reluctantly, to compromise – with each other, with those they seek to represent, with events -  in order to do so. Parties should listen to movements. But movements, if they are to have any practical purpose, must acknowledge that, for all its limitations, the point of politics is power.

We have to trust that the majority of American voters will reject Donald Trump. But closer to home, if Labour is to have a future as a political force, Corbyn’s supporters must learn to respect the historic purpose of the Labour party at least as much as they admire the high  principles of its current leader. There isn’t long for that realisation to take hold.

In the UK as in the US and elsewhere, we need to rediscover the importance of common cause and the art of compromise in forging it. The alternative is a form of politics which is not only post-truth, post-reason and post-purpose, but also post-democratic. 

Peter Bradley is a former MP and director of Speakers' Corner Trust, a UK charity which promotes free speech, public debate and active citizenship.