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20 April 2015

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?

By Frank Field

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.

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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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