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

A protest in 2016. Getty
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Fewer teachers, more pupils and no more money. Schools are struggling

With grammars and universal school meals, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking.

If you ask people in Britain what the ­biggest political issues are, schools don’t make the top five. Yet last week Labour set its first party political broadcast in a fictional classroom where a teacher described Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for schools’ future. Without a Labour government, the teacher opines, there will be no more libraries, or teachers, or school trips. Though the scenario is a flagrant breach of the law – teachers must remain politically impartial – education isn’t a bad place for Labour to start its campaign. Schools really are quite screwed.

Three things are hitting hard. Schools have less money, fewer people want to be teachers, and an avalanche of under-sevens is hitting the playgrounds and won’t stop for several more years.

How did we get here? In 2015 the Conservatives pledged to keep school funding at the same rate per pupil over the lifetime of the parliament. Yet while the money coming in has remained flat, schools have faced huge hikes in costs, particularly staffing. Big increases in mandatory pension contributions and National Insurance have taken their toll; so has the apprenticeship levy. The
Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that all told, schools will have lost about 8 per cent of their budget by 2020. That’s £3bn of savings that must be found. Or, more bluntly, the starting salaries of 100,000 teachers.

It is worth remembering at this point how huge the schools sector is and how many people are affected. About half a million teachers work in the 20,000-plus state schools. A further 300,000 people work in allied professions. There are eight million children and an estimated 12 million parents. Lump in their grandparents, and it’s fair to say that about 20 million voters are affected by schools in one way or another.

The budget squeeze is leading many of these schools to drastic measures: firing teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting music from the curriculum, charging parents for their child’s place on a sports team, dropping transport provision, and so on. Begging letters to parents for donations have become commonplace; some have asked for contributions of up to £60 a month.

On top of money worries, teachers are abandoning the profession. In 2015, an additional 18,000 went to work in international schools – more than were trained at universities over the same year. They joined the 80,000 teachers already working in British schools abroad, attracted by higher pay and better working conditions.

Graduates are also snubbing teaching. With starting salaries increasing at less than 1 per cent a year since 2010, new teachers are now paid about 20 per cent less than the average graduate trainee. Changes to higher education are also such that trainees must now pay £9,000 in order to gain their teaching qualification through a university. The government has missed its target for teacher trainees for five years now, and there is no coherent plan for hitting it.

No money and no teachers is less of a problem if you are in a demographic dip. We had a bizarrely low birth rate at the turn of the century, so we currently have a historically small proportion of teens. Unfortunately, the generation just behind them, of seven-year-olds and under, is enormous. Why? Because the “baby echoers”, born in the 1970s to the baby boomers, had children a bit later than their parents. Add to that the children recently born to immigrants who arrived in their twenties when the European Union expanded in the early 2000s, and Britain is facing an El Niño of toddlers. By 2025 a million extra children will be in the school system than in 2010.

To keep on top of the boom the government has been creating schools like a Tasmanian devil playing Minecraft. But 175,000 more places will be needed in the next three years. That’s the equivalent of one new secondary school per week from now until 2020.

In fairness, the government and councils have put aside money for additional buildings, and roughly the same number of parents are getting their first-choice school as before. The free schools policy, which delivers new schools, has not always been well managed, but it is now more efficient and targeted. However, many more children combined with squeezed budgets and fewer teachers typically leads to bigger class sizes. Most classrooms were built to house 30 pupils. Exam results may not get worse, but no parent wants their child working on a makeshift desk improvised out of a windowsill.

Instead of addressing these challenges, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking. Theresa May wants more grammar schools, ostensibly because they will give more choice to parents – though these are the only schools that pick pupils, as opposed to the other way around. And she says they will aid social mobility, though all the evidence (and I really do mean all) suggests the opposite.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is offering free lunches to all seven-to-11-year-olds, which sounds worthy until you realise that children from low-income families already get free lunch, and that feeding every child a hot sit-down meal is virtually impossible, given the limited space and kitchen facilities in most schools. Plus, the evidence this £1bn policy would make any significant difference
to health or attainment is pretty sketchy. Labour has also sensibly talked about cash and promised to “fully fund” schools, but it isn’t clear what that means.

What’s missing so far from the Conservatives and Labour alike is a set of policies about teacher recruitment or place planning. The sector needs to know how schools will be built, and where the teachers will come from for the extra kids. In other words, the message to both sides is – must try harder.

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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