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5 October 2015

How should church and state balance looking after the poor?

The state has retreated - leaving religious groups to take the strain. That has to change.

By Stephen Bush

The Labour party, it’s often said, owes more to Methodism than Marxism.

That historical one-liner has, under the Coalition and now under our new, Conservative-only government, become an increasing truth of the welfare system under David Cameron.

Marxism – or at least, state-backed social democracy – is out. Methodism – in the shape of food banks and other voluntary organisations, largely run by the Trussell Trust and other organisations which might not have a proselytizing mission, but they are overwhelmingly run by both staff and volunteers who are driven by a faith-based mission – is in.

Food banks didn’t come into being in 2010, of course, but both their numbers – and the number of people relying on them – have skyrocketed since then.

My own personal perspective: raised on my own by my mother, we were often poor – Mum was out of work and working irregularly for the first seven years of my life. But food banks were not part of our reality even though we were, at times, reliant on state aid.

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Later, my mum became a Anglican priest, and again, foodbanks were not part of her day to day work.

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But as an adult, when I visit home – which my mum would say doesn’t happen often enough – the administration of food banks has become an increasingly large part of the day-to-day of parish life, not just for my mother but for her fellow members of the clergy.

Food bank collections, sorting of food to make sure it’s usuable, training to make sure that she knows how to comply with regulation, and identifying food poverty in families who might be ashamed, or nervous of the Church – these have become just as much a part of my mum’s working life as funerals, weddings, baptisms, and regular Communion.

The pattern at food banks my mum has helped administer has been fairly typical: the overwhelming reason people turn to food banks is a delay in benefits being paid in, with precarious low income work a close second.

Is this increasing role for the voluntary sector a good thing? The church has, on the whole, done a better job of upskilling people – and has treated them with more dignity than Job Centres have managed.

One common problem among repeated users of food banks is that they are unable to cook, either because the necessary equipment – stoves, fridges and so on – remains out of reach due to the cost of new items, or, in many cases because the necessary knowhow to prepare meals cheaply has not been instilled at home or in school.

But there are, I think, reasons to believe that – while the role that organisations like the Trussell Trust, and churches of all denominations have played in recent years is one to be proud of, the move away from state to church provision is undesirable and needs to be reversed.

All too often, food bank donations amount to a redistribution of wealth to the precariously poor to what you might call the coping poor: people who are unable to take foreign holidays, only able to turn the heating on in times of extreme cold, occasionally spending the end of the month in their overdrafts – but able to spare the cost of an extra tin of tomatoes for the foodbank. For many people, who felt embarrassed giving only a pound or two a month to charity, being able to contribute tinned food and their time has been transformative. But a service for the very poor paid for the slightly-less-poor simply isn’t an acceptable state of affairs in a country as wealthy as Britain.

It also takes away from where the Church’s social mission can be most useful: acting in areas where the state genuinely can’t, perhaps because people live their lives out of bounds. Time spent on social mission on food banks – on bailing out the state, effectively – is time the Church can – and has in the past – spent helping people fleeing their pimps, people who are perhaps escaping gangs, are using illegal drugs, or for one reason or another, are out of bounds of the state. Providing enough to eat, however, should absolutely be in the state’s business.

So to answer the question, I’d say that the balance between the state and the church has slanted far too far away from the state and needs to be revisited.



I spoke at a Trussell Trust fringe at Conservative party conference on the role of the Church and State in combating poverty and hunger. This is a condensed version of what I said, minus the bit where I ovveran and finished in a panic.