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This Christmas season is seeing lots of reporting and comment about food banks, as is bound to be the case.  In this context, we therefore highlight the full text of a speech by Tony Baldry, the MP for Banbury, about the issue. As is sometimes the case in the Commons, the debate itself generated more heat than light, but Baldry’s speech was among a number of contributions from the Conservative side that did the reverse.

“May I commend to the House the report by the Church Urban Fund, published in September this year, entitled “Hungry for More: How Churches Can Address The Root Causes of Food Poverty”. As part of their mission to the communities which they serve and as part of their mission as the national church, thousands of parish churches around the country play an active role in their local community, running Lunch Clubs for the elderly, After School Clubs for children, and increasingly, running Food Banks.

These various activities, and many other community activities like them are commitments of parish churches and local volunteers, quietly supporting disadvantaged or vulnerable members of their local community. The majority of Food Banks have been running for less than two years, indicating the rapid growth of the Food Bank network in recent years.

But, as the Church Urban Fund say in their report “ . . there may be several reasons for these results. Food Banks are relatively cheap to set up, do not require specific professional expertise to deliver, and they help to meet an immediate need. The report of the Church Urban Fund suggests that if churches are to contribute to a long term solution to food poverty, there is a need to rebalance church-based activity away from emergency crisis support, and towards long term work that tackles the underlying problem.

The Church Urban Fund report calls for “A new framework for responding to food poverty” and prays in aid the framework devised by two International Development experts, Corbett and Fikkert, in their book entitled “When Helping Hurts”, published in 2009, in which they propose that all poverty alleviation work falls into three categories: relief, rehabilitation and development.

And the Church Urban Fund suggests that these categories can act as a useful framework for churches and community groups seeking to respond to food poverty. So a relief response, such as a Food Bank, provides support during a period of crisis, when someone is unable to feed themselves or their family a rehabilitation response works with people to restore the positive elements of a pre-crisis situation – for example, debt advice centre, helping people to pay down their debts so they can afford to buy food in the future; and a development response, such as cookery courses, and tackling underlying problems such as poor nutrition but also help to build relationships and break down distinctions between “helper” and “helped”, changing and shaping all those involved.

And, of course, it is no good teaching people to cook if they are too hungry to concentrate, so whilst I think it is important that the Church, and indeed others, should think more strategically and do more development work, I emphasise that this should be “as well as”, and not “instead of” Food Banks. I also think it is important to observe that whilst the churches are willingly and even sacrificially putting energy into Food Banks, they do so not for kudos either here, or indeed in heaven, but because they cannot “walk by on the other side” and I think those in church groups and others who are running Food Banks are acutely aware that they are not necessarily a long-term solution. Indeed, I think there are those in the church involved with Food Banks who would say that there is a danger that the rate of increase in demand for immediate Food Bank relief, is outstripping the capacity of the churches to balance relief work with rehabilitation and development work.

There is a policy conundrum here, which I think we all have to recognise. Food Banks do not tackle the root causes of food poverty. Food Banks do not aim to resolve any of the underlying problems of food poverty, and I suspect that everyone in the House would agree that we should view food aid only as a short term emergency response to problems of food poverty.

The root causes need to be tackled in order for the situation to be resolved. In April of this year, an online survey was sent to 3,000 Church of England incumbents, i.e. the members of the clergy responsible for parishes, and in that survey the Church Urban Fund asked the clergy questions about their perceptions of food poverty and what was actually going on in their own parishes.

More than four in five of the respondents indicated that their church supports a Food Bank in ore or one ways. 75 per cent collect food for Food Banks. 38 per cent provide volunteers. 29 per cent help to manage a Food Bank and 21 per cent distribute food vouchers. Of course many of these Food Banks are run by groups of churches of various denominations and about a quarter are run by churches working in partnership with non-church organisations.

The respondents were invited to indicate what they considered to be the causes of food poverty based on their experience of being involved with running Food Banks. 62 per cent chose low income. 42 per cent chose benefit changes. 35 per cent chose benefit delays. These three issues match those identified by the Trussell Trust as the most common reasons for Food Bank referrals last year.

I think it is important also to point out that in addition to the structural causes of food poverty, a number of respondents believed individual behaviour to be a contributing factor, so 27 per cent selected poor household budgeting as a significant cause of food poverty, and 14 per cent selected a lack of understanding of good nutrition.

However, as the Church Urban Fund observed, “comparatively few churches are attempting to tackle the causes of food poverty. Only three in ten respondents indicated that their parish churches run organised activities to address one or more of the social issues that I have just identified, or run organised activities to address one or more of the five most commonly perceived causes of food poverty”.

And as the Church Urban Fund indicates in their report, “The largest gap relates to the rising cost of living; 67 per cent of respondents say that this is a “major” or “significant” problem in their parish, but just three per cent of churches are running organised activities to address it, and just 24 per cent are responding informally when asked for help. Similarly, while 54 per cent say the high level of personal debt is a real issue in their parish, 14 per cent are providing and organised response, and 24 per cent are responding informally.”

And the report concluded that “ . . these survey results indicate that current church-based responses to food poverty are focused on short term emergency activities such as food banks, rather than long term projects that seek to address underlying causes. There may be several reasons for this; Food Banks are relatively cheap to set up, do not require specific professional expertise to deliver, and they help to meet an immediate need. Churches may also feel unsure about how to address structural problems, such as the rising cost of living, low income, or benefit changes. These results suggest that if churches are to contribute to a long term solution to food poverty, there is a need to rebalance church based activity away from emergency crisis support and towards long term work that tackles the underlying problems.”

And the report makes, I think, some interesting and important observations we should be careful not to lose sight of. That, “a key feature of (rehabilitation) is the dynamic of working with people as they participate in their own recovery. This way of working breaks down the provider-receiver dynamic and helps to bring people alongside one another to seek solutions. Effective rehabilitation work involves people at every step. For example, instead of volunteers from a church serving a pre-cooked meal to night shelter guests, they would instead work with the night shelter guests to plan the meal, shop for ingredients, cook the meal and they would then eat it together”, and the report of the Church Urban Fund defines development as “process of ongoing change that moves all the people involved – the helper and the helped – closer to being in the right relationships with themselves and others.

And a key feature of development is that it is not done to people or for people, but with people. Effective development is an empowering process in which all the people involved work together to become more of what God created them to be.” And notes that “The failure to determine which type of response is needed, Corbett and Fikkert argue, creates the potential for causing harm both to the “helper” and to the “helped”. For example, if a relief response is inappropriately given, perhaps in a situation where someone is able to help themselves, it is likely to cause harm to the “helped” by creating a sense of dependency and a belief that they cannot contribute to the solution. It is also likely to harm the “helper” by contributing to a false sense of superiority, or perhaps a growing “compassion fatigue” where they begin to doubt that their efforts are making any impact. If we are to avoid such negative consequences, it is important to discern the appropriate response to different situations.”

And the Church Urban Fund goes on to give a whole number of examples of development courses that are taking place. So, for example, Nigel Perrott, who runs a Food Bank in Middlesbrough, observes “It is easy to set up a Food Bank. . and end up with a queue out the door…but what we want to do is to look at the bigger issues because to be honest the food part of it is just the tip of the iceberg”. There they have identified debt as one of the most common reasons for Food Bank referrals in Middlesbrough, and so they have developed a close working relationship with the debt charity “Christians Against Poverty”, and Young, the local debt advisor observes that “Most of the people I meet are in debt because something out of their control has happened to them, maybe a partner leaving unexpectedly, losing a job, or a child getting sick, so the parent can’t work. People on low income just don’t have the extra cash to deal with a crisis like that, but we offer a holistic support service that empowers them to live a life free from debt.”

On Merseyside, they concluded that many single mothers were struggling to provide a nurturing home environment and often didn’t cook nutritious meals which the whole family could sit and eat together leading to poor nutrition, so they launched the first Credit Crunch Cookery Course, which is a five-week, basic cookery course, where participants are able to cook a simple two course meal to take home to their family. Course participants pay just 50p per family member per session and on finishing the course, each participant receives a cook book containing the recipes they have tried in the classes. The book is written very straightforwardly, includes plenty of photos and Marion Hayes, who organises the course says “It is really important to understand your community in designing a course like this. We have made it cheap with simple ingredients and an informal environment to welcome people in. We try to make it fun.”

So whilst this course focuses on developing cooking skills, it also aims to tackle long term problems such as poor nutrition, family breakdown, and unemployment and last year Comic Relief came to film one of the cooking sessions and a local radio show has interviewed a number of the mums, and this TV and Radio exposure has built the self-confidence and self-esteem of those taking part.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in their recent roper on monitoring poverty, observed that “making comparisons of people using Food Banks over time is not easy as there are simply more Food Banks now than five years ago. They may well be meeting a need that was previously going unmet.” Governments can’t control wages but they do control taxes and personal allowances, and as again the Rowntree Foundation report observes “ . . one factor pushing the other way is the increase in the personal tax allowance by £630 in 2012-13, and £1,335 in 2013-14. This combined increase of nearly £2,000 is very big and pushes up weekly net earnings by up to £8 a week”.

However, there is obviously a need to have a look at the impact of benefit changes and particularly benefit delays. A word of caution in all this. All main Parties have agreed public spending limits and totals to at least 2016-17. Alth ough the Labour Party have opposed every single welfare change by the present Government, I don’t think that the Opposition are suggesting that they would, if elected, significantly increase the overall welfare budget, and in those circumstances, it is disingenuous to suggest that somehow a future Labour Government would increase individual welfare spending any more than a future Labour Government would have the ability to control food and commodity prices.

Also, I am sure the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is as frustrated as everyone at the time it is going to take to introduce Universal Credit, but all political Parties support Universal Credit and everyone recognises that this is a complex programme where it is important to test and get right, rather than introducing wrong, and I think those of us who have been in the House for some time, can remember when almost daily we were receiving representations from constituents concerning problems with failures of the Tax Credit system. There are another couple of important points which I think need to be made in the context of this debate.

Whoever is in power after the next general election, public spending is going to be difficult. Indeed, as far as I can discern, all three main political parties are agreed on the public spending limits to at least 2016/17. My Rt. Hon. Friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer the other day told the Treasury Select Committee that “Welfare spending can’t be excluded from the difficult decisions”, and the Chancellor made it clear that if one is to protect spending on education, the NHS, and other priorities, as he observed “ . . . we have got to make difficult decisions to save money further in Whitehall, but we should accompany that with savings in the welfare budget”.

So this is inevitably going to mean whoever is in Government having to make sure that welfare spending is as well-targeted and as fine-tuned as possible and it means needing to have the best possible understanding of why people are using Food Banks and doing our best to address those specific policy concerns. The Church of England has just embarked on a one-year joint research project with Oxfam and CPAG in partnership with the Trussell Trust and Church Action on Poverty. This project will explore the reasons people are using Food Banks with the aim of identifying interventions that would reduce the need for Food Bank use in the future. The research will involve detailed data collection and in-depth interviews with Food Bank users at six Trussell Trust Food Banks across the country, as well as additional analysis of data collected by an in-house benefits advisor working in the Tower Hamlets Food Bank in London. The findings will be published in September next year.

Personally, I think it may in part require a new compact, a different compact, between the Church and perhaps other parts of what policy makers now tend to describe as the “third sector” between them and the State as to how some support is provided to the more vulnerable in our communities but that, I think, is a much longer debate, perhaps for another day. However the Res Publica Think Tank have recently produced an extremely interesting paper on this topic. What I don’t think is an adequate policy response is simply to say “because people are using Food Banks that this means there needs to be a massive increase in welfare spending at a time when I think everyone is agreeing that as a nation we have to get welfare spending under control.”

40 comments for: Tony Baldry MP on food banks: “We need to tackle the root causes of food poverty.”

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