Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

For too many families, Christmas is a time of hunger

In Wrexham, something is being done about the problem - but it needs support from the government to go further. 

Before David Cameron became Prime Minister, food banks were rare. Now their presence is a standard aspect of our country today.

In my own community of Wrexham, our food bank opened in 2012. Now, in addition, we know that school holidays mean real hunger for some of our children. This isn’t just a seasonal problem around Christmas – it happens whenever schools close for holidays. The provision which is made in schools to help provide children with food is – by definition – not there once school doors close for the holidays.

There has been a growing recognition of the problem of holiday hunger across the UK in recent months – an All-Party Parliamentary Group has been established and produced a report which can be seen here. To date, the problem has not been recognised, let alone addressed, by the Tory Government.

One of the All Party’s Group’s suggestions is to share work and ideas, and with that in mind, I wanted to set out the work that we have carried out in Wrexham.

To address the problem of Holiday Hunger which is not being recognise or addressed by our Prime Minister, Wrexham volunteers acted.

Wrexham’s project came together when an experienced community worker observed the existence of the problem locally around two years ago. As the UK Government appeared oblivious to the problem, there was no structure in place to help make sure that the many children who receive up to two school meals per day during term time were catered for in the school holidays. These children were going without food, and Wrexham volunteers wanted to change that.

The project began slowly at first – I approached breakfast cereal manufacturers Kelloggs, who have a factory in Wrexham, and asked if there was anything they could do to help. They provided some cereal bars and volunteers helped to distribute them.

From there, the project developed. Volunteers from churches, charities and community organisations provided food and activities once more at Christmas, applying lessons learned in earlier projects to make the scheme more effective. By the Easter holidays this year, a clear approach to a pressing issue was agreed.

Rather than set up different community schemes with food, we would provide food to existing holiday projects.

Led by Sarah Wheat, a Church Worker for the St Asapah Diocese, we worked to set up a scheme where a packed lunch – a simple filled roll, fruit, raisins and a snack such as a scone – was prepared at a local church. These lunches were then sent out to play schemes in the area. This formula proved such a hit that it was repeated throughout the summer holidays. A local school also opened to give children an opportunity to prepare a simple meal and then sit down, eat and enjoy it. 

This Christmas, hot, chunky soup will be made by volunteers and again distributed to local play schemes.

Throughout this year’s summer holidays, the scheme provided thousands of meals in Wrexham and will do so again this Christmas.

From its small scale beginnings, more and more groups have got involved, led by Sarah and her Church in Wales unit. Wrexham council staff volunteered over the most recent summer holidays; 51 volunteers in all gave their help to the project; local faith groups, community groups and other organisations all pitched in in some way. The enthusiasm and commitment of Church in Wales employees went way beyond their brief. Donations and grants came from the Transformation Fund from the Dioceses of St Asaph in North Wales, Kellogg’s, Tesco and the Salvation Army.

Individuals, businesses and community organisations of different types have come together to take practical steps to address a problem affecting the Wrexham community.

What was most important about the scheme was that it was effective. Children were fed, and their behaviour was improved by having a regular, nourishing meal available. Some, who were convinced they did not like fruit, found by the end of the summer holidays, that, in fact, they did. Groups and individuals bonded over meals and good healthy food was discovered by some children for the first time.

The project provided a chance to simply sit and eat together – a very valuable moment for some.  A report back from one play scheme said: “staff on the playground specifically wanted it stated that instances of bad behaviour were very much the exception rather than the norm and they put this fact largely down to the food available during the course of the day.”

The project has proved to be a success here in Wrexham and is doing good work locally. Volunteers believe that their work has many lessons that could be learnt by other groups doing similar work across the country.

Wrexham’s success has addressed the immediate issue in the town, and by the hard work of many volunteers, helped provide food where, before, there was hunger.

We now need to take that work on across the country. The All-Party Group suggest that the Government: “fund the development of resources and training for organisations to deliver and support new and existing holiday provision programmes; research into the scale of child hunger in the UK and its effects on learning; and develop policy to support holiday provision programmes that include meals and enrichment activities.”

The challenge for David Cameron now is to take the work being done in places like Wrexham – set up by volunteers themselves in response to a problem they identified in their own community – and to think about how to apply it across the country, without cutting across others’ work. Our Prime Minister also needs to reflect on why it is that, under his Government, these projects are necessary when prior to his Premiership, they were not.

After Christmas, it will be our duty to put a system in place in 2016 to confront the real problem of holiday hunger across the UK. Government should be playing a central part in that important task.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.

Getty
Show Hide image

"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

0800 7318496