Forces joined in hunger battle

Published: Monday 8th December 2014 by The News Editor

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Leading church figures including the Archbishop of Canterbury have joined politicians from across Parliament to launch a blueprint to eliminate hunger in Britain by 2020.

The Feeding Britain report was prompted by concern over the “unprecedented” numbers of people depending on food banks in the UK.

It called for action to speed the processing of benefits to ensure new claimants are not left for weeks without an income; stop “rip-off” companies charging higher prices to the poor; and end the “scandal” which sees millions of tonnes of waste food destroyed by supermarkets and food manufacturers.

Despite the “astonishing” levels of food being binned, hunger “stalks large parts” of the country, the Most Rev Justin Welby warned ahead of the publication of the report.

The All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the UK found that, since the establishment of the Trussell Trust network in 2004, numbers of emergency food assistance providers have grown to at least 1,500, including 800 food banks – around half of them operated by the Trust.

Citing evidence from the Trussell Trust that its 420 food banks alone provided help to 913,138 people in 2013/14 – up from 128,697 in 2011/12 – the report said it was “clear that demand for emergency food assistance is increasing, and sometimes increasing dramatically”.

And it said: “Although practically every respondent to this inquiry has asserted that the food bank movement should not form a new version of a residual or Poor Law kind of welfare state, it became clear from our evidence that food banks are here to stay – for more than the immediate future.”

The proportion of poorer households’ incomes which is swallowed up by housing cost, utilities and food has soared from 31% to 40% between 2003 and 2012, leaving them little margin to cope with emergency expenses, found the inquiry. Inflation in these areas has been worse for the poor than for more comfortable households, due in part to “rip-off” deals which penalise those who are unable to settle bills by direct debit or pay for services in advance and impose massive interest rates on emergency loans.

“In order to prevent a court-directed eviction for rent arrears or a court order to cut off their utility supplies, many families go without food and therefore see food banks as reintroducing that buffer in their finances which many have lost,” the report said.

The inquiry team said that their “anger knows no bounds” at the destruction – sometimes with state subsidies – of 4.3 million tonnes of edible food deemed “surplus” by the UK food industry each year, just 2% of which is diverted to charities to feed the hungry.

Many people turn to food banks to avoid hunger during “unimaginable” waits for benefit claims to be processed, while others are forced to ask for help after being left without an income for weeks or months because of benefit sanctions, said the report. And the support networks of family and community which would once have stepped in to provide help for those facing hunger appear to have “diminished”, leaving individuals “isolated and exposed” at times of financial crisis.

The inquiry’s co-chair, Anglican Bishop of Truro Tim Thornton, said: ” We heard stories and gained first-hand experience that led us to the conclusion that the rise in the use of food banks does indicate a deeper problem in our society – the ‘glue’ that used to be there is no longer there in many instances…

“We live at a time when many of the givens by way of family life, social networks, friendship groups, and self-help infrastructure are simply not there. This means that the issues people face relating to hunger and food poverty are exacerbated and heightened because there are hardly any of the ways and means that once did exist for people to support each other.

“We believe it is time to look again at the state of our country and to review the fundamental values that led to the creation of our welfare state. We propose in Feeding Britain a strategy for renewing the welfare state so it can better reflect and encourage the relationships which contribute to the wellbeing of our citizens, including the poorest.”

And the second co-chair, Labour MP Frank Field, said: “There is clear evidence that something terribly disturbing is happening… People are near the abyss and the smallest thing can tip them over into the abyss.”

Mr Field added: “I would love there to be a welfare state where no one went hungry. At the end of the day, I doubt whether in the course of the next Parliament we are actually going to be able to achieve that, sadly.”

Mr Welby revealed yesterday how he had been left more shocked by the plight of Britain’s hunger-stricken poor than suffering in parts of Africa.

In an article for the Mail on Sunday, he told of the “deeply shocking but, tragically expected” scenes he had witnessed in Democratic Republic of Congo refugee camps.

A few weeks later he watched a family in England that was struggling to make ends meet turn to a food bank.

He added: “I found their plight more shocking. It was less serious, but it was here. And they weren’t careless with what they had – they were just up against it. It shocked me that being up against it at the wrong time brought them to this stage. There are many like them. But we can do something about it.”

The report called for the establishment of a national organisation, also called Feeding Britain, to drive a campaign to end hunger, and urged the Government to help fund 12 pilot projects covering each region of the UK.

The organisation would aim to increase the amount of “surplus” food donated to the hungry; push for more speedy and responsive handling of benefit claims; help food banks offer wider support such as debt advice; ensure good food is available affordably throughout the country; and help poorer households learn cooking, budgeting and parenting skills.

The report also demanded an end to rip-off charges for credit, mobile phones, gas, electricity and water.

And it called for a “co-ordinated response” from government to reduce hunger, including by ensuring schools take action on children arriving in the morning unfed; increasing wages at the bottom towards the living wage level; and aiming to deliver all benefits within five days of a claim and give claimants a “yellow card” warning before imposing sanctions.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: “This report is a serious contribution to an important debate, with many good ideas, and recognising that the reasons behind demands for emergency food assistance are complex and frequently overlapping.

“As a country we have enough food to go around, and we agree that it is wrong that anyone should go hungry at the same time as surplus food is going to waste. There is a moral argument as well as a sustainability one to ensure we make the best use of resources.”

Matthew Reed, chief executive of The Children’s Society, said: “Families are facing a quadruple whammy of depressed wages, a malfunctioning benefits system, cuts to state support and unaffordable bills for energy, food and housing. It’s a national scandal that ever more families are resorting to food banks to feed their children and it’s imperative that this report’s call for action is answered.

“Problem debt is a key reason why families seek support from food banks, so urgent steps must be taken to provide families who are struggling to make ends meet with an alternative to payday loans. All families in poverty must be able to access free school meals and receive help with heating their homes.

“And the Government must withdraw its threat to scrap national funding for local welfare assistance schemes, which help thousands of the most desperate families cope with crises.”

Andrew Opie, British Retail Consortium director of food and sustainability, said: “We understand the challenges faced by people on low incomes and our members continue to do everything they can to help but redistribution of surplus food at retail level only makes a small contribution to alleviate poverty and it’s not a solution to hunger in the UK.

“As the report highlights there are many issues that need to be addressed to tackle the underlying causes. However, we currently have both food poverty and food surpluses and retailers have proved very willing to step up and make sure that useable excess stock goes to charities and redistribution organisations across the UK.”

Published: Monday 8th December 2014 by The News Editor

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