John Glen is PPS to Eric Pickles, a member of the Policy Board and MP for Salisbury and South Wiltshire.
Today, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Hunger and Food Poverty reports on the reasons behind the growth of food banks in this country, and makes recommendations of how we can move forward to tackle 21st century hunger.
When we launched our inquiry in April this year, the food bank debate was mired in party political rhetoric. Food bank statistics were being used as ammunition in an unseemly battle in what is an extremely emotive policy area. This mode of discussion prevents a full and dispassionate assessment of the complex reasons people turn to emergency support in a crisis. The APPG took evidence from over 150 people, in Parliament and in sessions around the country.
Our principal recommendation is to establish a new body known as Feeding Britain, which will provide better co-ordination amongst civil society, Government departments and supermarkets – which struggle to make effective use of the enormous food surpluses they generate. This would make a practical difference to the food banks which have become embedded in many local communities as the first port of call in a crisis. We want to ensure they have a sustainable supply of food, are linked to other services that will be able to address underlying issues, and enable a healthier dialogue to take place between Government departments and political parties.
Broadly, we found it is possible to define two categories of food bank usage. Firstly, there are those who are coping on a low income for a long time, who live “hand to mouth” and therefore have insufficient financial resilience to cope when the car or the boiler breaks, or when unemployment hits. Secondly, there are those who have more complex underlying needs – who are struggling with extensive debt, health or addiction problems, and who rely on the state for income and support.
We need to acknowledge the lack of financial buffers amongst the lowest earners in society. For those on a low income, it is critical to continue to make sure they can keep more of the money they earn. Our Government has made significant strides in this direction by taking 3.2 million of the lowest paid out of tax. A future Conservative Government should go further, and work towards delivering our commitment to take those working full-time on the minimum wage out of tax altogether, and to ensure that we support savers.
But we should also remember to make the case for a strong economy that distributes prosperity fairly. Despite an unprecedented unbroken period of economic growth up to 2008, Britain still experienced the highest rate of inflation amongst similarly advanced western economies between 2003 and 2013. During this 10 year period Britain saw the highest inflation across food, fuel and housing – wages grew by just 30 per cent in this decade; but the cost of food alone rose by nearly 50 per cent. Our report shows that for the poorest 10 per cent in our society, the amount of their income spent on food, utilities and housing rose from 31 per cent in 2003 to 40 per cent in 2012. Clearly, this leaves considerably less in household budgets to deal with unexpected expenditures.
Reducing the use of food banks for low earners will not happen overnight. It requires a sustained long-term economic plan that bears down on the cost of essentials. We are now beginning to see the fruits of growth: food inflation this year fell to an annual rate of -0.6 per cent: the first time it has fallen since 2006. Average earnings for those in continuous employment rose by more than double the rate of inflation last month: the start of “real pay growth” according to the Governor of the Bank of England. Our childcare reforms will also save low income families up to £500 each month.
We also need to talk about welfare. Our existing welfare system will benefit from the specific changes already in delivery to make it more responsive to people’s unpredictable lives. Universal Credit is not an easy reform, but the evidence we heard underscored the clear case for it to be successfully and fully implemented. We make some suggestions of how the administration and delivery of benefit decisions could be enhanced further.
As I reported in my joint submission with the Trussell Trust, the hardship caused by any changes in benefit payments is not a new phenomenon: in 2006/7, benefit delays accounted for 34 per cent of referrals to Trussell Trust food banks; in 2013/14 it accounted for 31 per cent of referrals. It is not so much about the amount being paid, but needing to ensure that all that can be done is done to remove the gaps in payments as life changes are “processed” by the state.
As Jack Monroe told the Inquiry in July: “if my benefits had been paid quickly, in full and on time I would have been able to meet my living costs”. DWP can point to significant improvements: 92 per cent of claims are now processed on time (up from 86 per cent in 2009/10), but clearly there is more to do in this respect. For those who are not processed in a timely manner this is not a statistic but a personal crisis.
Food banks are beginning to respond to the wider needs of the most vulnerable: we heard about debt advice, cooking classes and welfare support services alongside food parcels. Civil society will inevitably be able to offer a more personalised and less time-constrained approach to welfare than the state can – but we want to embed partnership working to ensure that the best overall provision into the future.
We need to ensure that alongside making the case to stay the course and secure a stronger and growing economy to reverse the trend of 21st century hunger; we also have the humility to acknowledge the complexity of the challenges facing the poorest in society. By taking active steps to improve co-operation between business, civil society and the state the fullest range of help will be made available to those who are in greatest need.