It has been quite difficult for anyone following the growth food banks over the past few years to avoid growing dispirited. The debate in Parliament runs along the lines of the Tories pretending food banks and food bank demand don’t exist and Labour claiming that food banks and rising food bank demands are all the Tories’ fault. This makes for the unedifying spectacle of both parties throwing mud at one another about people going hungry in this country without appearing to make any progress on addressing the many different factors driving families to food banks.
This morning’s report, Feeding Britain, from the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom, is an opportunity for the parties to move on and get something done rather than bickering unproductively. It was chaired by Frank Field, a very thoughtful Labourite who is often well-respected by the Conservatives for his attitude to welfare reform and poverty. Its membership includes two Tory MPs, Sarah Newton and John Glen and Tory peer Baroness Jenkin of Kennington. Field’s colleague Emma Lewell-Buck and the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton were also part of the panel. And Justin Welby both started the debate yesterday with his Mail on Sunday piece and will launch the report this morning.
This is clearly not a report seeking to score political points. The Archbishop is not a partisan man. He is someone who understands business and the real world as much as he understands theology and therefore his endorsement of the report is far more potent. The Tories look up to him - indeed, they are often agitated when he makes interventions without their knowledge. His involvement makes them more likely to pay attention to the report, not less. Similarly, Labour thinks that Welby’s emphasis on social justice makes him one of theirs, though he has always insisted he is a swing voter.
Field is clearly very keen to move things on from the current toxic stand-off: when I asked him whose fault food banks and the toxic row about them was, he made quite clear that he thought there was little point in going back over this and that this report was an attempt to get things done.
It is a thoughtful report, and very difficult for the sort of people who like lazy point-scoring on either side of the political spectrum to use as a weapon. And given it is only 55 pages long, it is quite easy even for hot-headed partisan types to read in half an hour. Here it is.
The APPG has not fallen into the trap of wringing its hands about hunger in this country without also confronting what the wider food situation is. Some argue that when there is clearly enough food to go around and public services are adjusting to a growing obesity crisis, there cannot be hunger. This is as easy an argument to make as it is wrong. It would be like assuming that poverty in modern Britain has the same causes as poverty in Uganda and applying the same practices. Just because a modern phenomenon like the food bank movement has complex causes doesn’t mean it isn’t a necessary phenomenon.
Instead, the Feeding Britain report is furious about the scale of food waste in this country, writing:
‘Thirdly, our anger knows no bounds that hundreds of thousands of tonnes of perfectly edible food which is euphemistically termed ‘surplus’, is destroyed at a substantial cost, when it, alone, could eliminate hunger in our society.’
A substantial chunk of the recommendations from this group are on reducing food waste, calling on supermarkets to work more closely with food banks and work out ways of passing on unused fresh food to charities so that it can be used as emergency help rather than thrown away. It wants the Waste and Resources Action Programme to set a target for retailers to double the proportion of surplus food they redistribute to organisations providing food to people in crisis. It also makes recommendations for Ofgem and Ofwat, given many people going hungry are also struggling with their utility bills (many of which are higher for people on low incomes). It also looks at resilience and recommends better teaching of budgeting and cooking, and at debt.
And while some on the Right may be very uncomfortable with the recommendations the group make on the government always looking to raise the minimum wage, it can hardly be said that this would break the political consensus. The Tories are now signed up not just to the idea of a minimum but the importance of raising it, which is why they have announced rises in the rate and have articulated a desire to raise it further. There remains a debate about whether this is right, but the political consensus is that it is, so this part of the report should hardly hold much fear for any party
But the APPG does address one of the biggest drivers of demand for food banks, which is changes and delays to benefits. This is not, as Labour likes to argue, the sole reason people turn up to food banks, but it is one of the biggest and fastest-growing. It is also one of the most difficult areas for the Tories, who have adopted an extremely defensive attitude to any criticism of their welfare reforms, even those that ministers privately accept were poorly-designed.
I have a hunch that Field’s APPG could have gone further in its recommendations on benefit cuts but that there was a fear that this could have broken the cross-party consensus on the issue before the report had even come out.
It is a shame that politicians today do not have sufficient humility to accept that something like the underoccupancy penalty (‘bedroom tax’) has been poorly-designed. It is a shame that some in the Conservative party try to argue that benefit changes are not causing people to turn to food banks as it makes them appear delusional. In some cases, those benefit changes are poorly-designed and should not be causing the hardship that they do. In other cases those changes are right and yet people still end up needing emergency food because of the initial shock that the cut places on their finances. This is something Labour would have to accept in government too, and Field is quite clear that his party would not be able to abolish the need for food banks, nor would it be able to bring in benefit cuts that never leave someone needing short-term food assistance.
But there are already at least amenable noises coming out of government on the recommendations on benefit delay. The report says this is a ‘key reason as to why individuals have turned to food banks over the past ten years’ and demands that the government ‘must urgently reform the benefits system so it is able to deliver payments quickly within five working days’. It says there is a ‘clear moral case’ for doing this. Number 10 appears to agree: a source tells me this morning that ministers are ‘always willing to look at delays’.
But the state will never be as responsive as community, and even if 99.9 per cent of benefit claims are processed and paid on time, that still leaves a small group of people in crisis. This is why the report looks as much at strengthening food banks as it does at addressing the reasons people turn to them. It wants to set up a national network called Feeding Britain. This would include food banks, food charities such as FareShare, the food industry and representatives from each of the eight government departments with some bearing on this issue. It also wants food banks, councils, retailers and schools to work together in groups that might be called ‘Food Bank Plus’. The aim of this is to strengthen the network of organisations helping hungry people so that those organisations themselves can be more resilient. The risk, of course, is that new networks and public money from the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived stops food banks being quite so responsive and lithe. Clearly the APPG feels this is a risk worth taking to strengthen the way our society responds to families without food.
A Downing Street source says to me this morning that this is a ‘useful report with lots of ideas about how to reduce food waste etc. We will look very closely at it once published’. I note that it will be Rob Wilson, the minister for Civil Society, responding on behalf of the government at the launch in half an hour’s time. This represents the conclusion of the internal government row I reported on in March, whereby food banks were shunted from one unwilling department to another. It also means that the DWP, the most defensive department in Whitehall, will not be present at the launch, which is a good way of avoiding Esther McVey or Iain Duncan Smith, both respected ministers who suffer from an ability to grow antagonised rather quickly, getting into a fight.
The challenge now is for the political parties to restrain their worst instincts and to use this report properly to address real hunger in this country, however complex its causes. This is a desperately important political issue that needs a political solution. But ‘political’ does not mean shouting, name-calling, eternal and pointless blame games and defensiveness. Both sides have been as guilty as the other on this. It is time for them to stop using food banks as a way of proving their own points and for them to listen to those who have researched their causes and the ways to help them and help people at risk of going hungry.