A permanent fixture? Photo:Getty
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What can be done about the rising number of food banks?

The number using food banks continues to rise. What's being done about the problem of public hunger, and what must we do next?

The politics of hunger in Britain has shifted dramatically over the past 18 months.

Poverty reappeared at the top of the political agenda in 2013, on the back of the rise in the numbers of our fellow citizens needing to rely on food banks. But too often what people heard was politicians from all parties blaming each other. And yet who could honestly say that any one of these exchanges made a serious contribution to addressing, let alone countering, hunger in our communities?

Partly out of frustration with the nature of the debate on hunger, but, more importantly, because of the grave concern we felt at the numbers of people in our communities who couldn’t afford to feed their families, we set up a cross-party inquiry to investigate the unprecedented need for food banks.

Our inquiry’s main findings were recently echoed in the New Statesman’s brilliant recent article; a lack of food, or money with which to buy it, is merely the tip of the iceberg. It remains true that every food bank referral is complex and no two individuals arrive with the same circumstances: whilst delayed or suspended benefit payments, low or irregular wages, and a loss of a child’s free school meals during the holidays often trigger a period of hardship, we also need to remember that behind these prominent triggers lay a myriad of deeper seated problems.

The poorest in our society often find it harder to afford the essentials because they are disproportionately likely to be penalised by rip-off charges levied upon basic utilities. From the market failure in the gas and electricity industry where prepayment meter customers have been unable to switch easily to better deals to the companies which charge three times more for simple household goods like tumble dryers; from chronic debt and low household savings to a long term decline in budgeting and cooking skills, there remain a whole range of factors involved in the rise of food bank use.

In December 2014, we set out a strategy to tackle not just the immediate triggers of hunger, but to grasp the root causes too. Feeding Britain was, and remains, a cross-party initiative. We believe that hunger should not be a partisan issue – and whatever the outcome of the general election, we will continue to lobby the Government to implement our strategy to eradicate hunger by 2020.

Over the course of our inquiry, and since we published Feeding Britain, we have noticed a welcome change in the tone and content of the political debate on food banks. It has begun to swing away from futile tribal warfare and towards, instead, a genuine attempt from all sides to come up with solutions to abolish the need for food banks by 2020.

Each of our 77 recommendations was made with the objective of rebuilding and maintaining our national minimum standard of living, below which we believe none of our fellow citizens should be allowed to fall. And we are pleased that, in the first 100 days since we published Feeding Britain, one third of our proposals have been put into action.

To those who feared Feeding Britain would be just another talking shop, or who say that we have not made much difference, we would say that nothing could be further from the truth. We made sure our recommendations landed on the desk of every Cabinet Minister responsible, and followed up rigorously on individual points. Our approach continues to be one of consensus: we believe that more is achieved through partnership than political point scoring.

As a result, we have secured some key reforms from the Coalition Government and the utilities regulators, as well as some major commitments from the Labour Party. Ofgem, for example, committed itself to reviewing a series of rip-off practices in the energy industry that penalise the poor. The Department of Energy and Climate Change is extending the Warm Home Discount scheme to poor working families with young children, and the Financial Conduct Authority is addressing some of our concerns by clamping down on poor practice by payday loan brokers.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), to which we addressed a large number of our recommendations, has also taken some early strides. It has committed itself proactively to informing people whose benefit claim has been delayed about emergency payments, which, we found, can play a crucial role in fending off hunger. It has also given Jobcentre Plus offices the freedom to hand out guides on utility deals and budgeting advice to people on low incomes when they make a new benefit claim, and we are collating such materials for our local areas.

We were also informed that the DWP intends to pilot a new approach to sanctions using warnings and non-financial sanctions following a first offence – which would go some way towards the recommendation we made to introduce a ‘yellow card’ warning system. They will also be introducing a clearance time target to process all benefit claims within a certain timeframe. 

Even so, there is still a long way to go and we will maintain our commitment to tackling hunger in the new Parliament.

In the meantime we have been practically implementing a number of Feeding Britain’s recommendations through local pilot schemes in Birkenhead, Devon and Cornwall, South Shields and Salisbury.

We are, for example, piloting effective responses to school holiday hunger and working with local councils to make sure no poor children are left off the register for free school meals during term time. We are also encouraging the rollout of a ‘Food Bank Plus’ model, with the provision of welfare rights and advocacy, and debt advice, being offered alongside the charitable giving of food. Our evidence suggests that for many people this might help swiftly to address one, or some, of the problems which leave them without money to buy food.

And, for those households near to crisis point but not yet in need of a food bank, we are applying for premises and funding for a raft of new Community Shops and similar projects which operate as social supermarkets. 

Our cross-party group continues to lobby those in the voluntary, private and public sectors to whom recommendations were made in Feeding Britain, and we will hold our first national meeting of interested parties in June, by way of kickstarting the national fight back against hunger.

Frank Field is the Labour General Election Candidate for Birkenhead; John Glen is the Conservative General Election Candidate for Salisbury

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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.