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 faces a dilemma as Brexit solidifies: which half of his voters should he disappoint?

He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club.

Imagine a man who voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1975. A man who spoke out against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, saying that it “takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers”. A man who voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.

You don’t have to imagine very hard, because that man is Jeremy Corbyn. When campaigning for the Labour leadership in 2015, he told a GMB hustings, “I would ­advocate a No vote if we are going to get an imposition of free-market policies across Europe.”

When Labour’s Brexiteers gathered to launch their campaign in 2016, several seemed hurt that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were not there with them. “It is surprising, when we voted against the advice of the chief whip on a number of European issues over the last decades, that Jeremy and John, who have always been in that lobby with us, that they would want to lead a campaign that isn’t even asking for a renegotiated position,” said the MP Graham Stringer.

I mention this because since the election campaign started in April, I keep having an odd experience – people insisting that Corbyn is not a Eurosceptic, and that he will use Labour’s new-found strength to argue for a softer Brexit. Others claim that Labour’s current position on freedom of movement (ending it) is the obvious, common-sense – even progressive – choice.

This matters. Look, if the evidence above doesn’t convince you that the Labour leader is intensely relaxed about exiting the European Union, I don’t know what else would. Yet it’s clear that some Labour activists strongly identify personally with Corbyn: they find it hard to believe that he holds different opinions from them.

The second factor is the remaking of Brexit as a culture war, where to say that someone is a Eurosceptic is seen as a kind of slur. Perhaps without realising it, some on the left do associate Euroscepticism with Little Englanderism or even flat-out racism, and see it as a moral failing rather than a political position.

But I’m not impugning Jeremy Corbyn’s character or morals by saying that he is an instinctive Brexiteer. He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club. You can disagree with that premise but it’s a respectable line of reasoning.

Also, the Euroscepticism of Corbyn and his allies will undoubtedly give them an advantage in the months ahead; they are not consumed by fatalism, and the members of McDonnell’s shadow Treasury team feel that the removal of European state aid restrictions can help revive ailing bits of the British economy. They have a vision of what an ideal “Labour Brexit” would be – and it’s not just sobbing and begging Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to take us back.

We do, however, need a reality check. Now that the necessary humble pie has been eaten, Labour’s unexpected revival at the ballot box means we can begin to treat Corbyn as a normal politician – with the emphasis on the second word. He’s not the Messiah, but he’s not a joke either. He is a charismatic campaigner who is willing to compromise on second-tier issues to achieve his main objectives.

From the general election, we can see just how good a campaigner Corbyn is: he can fire up a crowd, give disciplined answers to interviewers and chat amiably on a sofa. That throws into sharp relief just how limp his performances were last year.

He might have little else in common with Theresa May, but they both looked at the EU referendum and thought: yeah, I’m going to sit this one out. He called on activists to accept the EU “warts and all”; and said he was “seven, or seven and a half” out of ten in favour of staying in it.

For both leaders, this was a pragmatic decision. May did not want to be overtly disloyal to David Cameron, but neither did she wish to risk her career if the result went the other way.

Anyone in Labour would have been equally sane to look north of the border and back to 2014, and remember just how much credibility the party immolated by sharing stages with the Conservatives and allowing itself to be seen as the establishment. By limiting his involvement in the Remain campaign and whipping his MPs to trigger Article 50, Corbyn ended up with a fudge that gave Labour some cover in heavily pro-Brexit regions of the country.

That’s the politics, but what about the principle? I can’t shake the feeling that if Corbyn campaigned as hard for Remain in 2016 as he did for Labour in 2017, we would still be members of the European Union. And that matters to me, as much as left-wing policies or a change in the rhetoric around migrants and welfare claimants, because I think leaving the EU is going to make us poorer and meaner.

That’s why I worry that many of my friends, and the activists I talk to, are about to be disappointed, after waiting and waiting for Labour to start making the case for a softer Brexit and for the single market being more important than border controls. As Michael Chessum, a long-standing Momentum organiser, wrote on the New Statesman website, “Recognising the fact that immigration enriches society is all very well, but that narrative is inevitably undermined if you then choose to abolish the best policy for allowing immigration to happen.”

Labour’s success on 8 June was driven by its ambiguous stance on Brexit. To Leavers, it could wink at ending freedom of movement when they worried about immigration; to Remainers, it offered a critique of the immigrant-bashing rhetoric of recent times. But can that coalition hold as the true shape of Brexit solidifies? Over the next few months, Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest decision will be this: which half of my voters should I disappoint?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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