Robert Key was MP for Salisbury from 1983 until 2010, and is a trustee of the Trussell Trust.
Poverty is always with us. For some of the world, it is absolute. For most of the world, it is relative. Wherever it exists, both kinds are unacceptable and immoral in the twenty-first century.
With the emergency budget nearly upon us, the new Conservative Government has an opportunity to get on the front foot tackling poverty on our own shores. To ensure real progress in this parliament, there are six things it needs to do.
Firstly it must show a balanced approach on welfare reform and in-work poverty. It must help to bring welfare recipients out of poverty but at the same time ensure the poorest in society are supported and not left to go hungry. It must also tackle the low pay issue, exacerbated by the last financial crisis. A balanced approach would break the negative cycle of claim and counter claim on poverty and inequality.
The second thing the Government can do is seek consensus on how to quantify poverty. Many charities working in poverty alleviation can count the number of clients, record their circumstances and account for the numbers of people helped, how often and in what ways. Government, central and local, also records information on all those in receipt of benefits.
Whitehall and town halls should man-up and share that (anonymised) information and work with, not against, anti-poverty charities. Food banks and charities like the Trussell Trust are part of the solution, not part of the problem.
The third task for some in Government is to stop pretending that food banks are left-wing, anti-government troublemakers. The 42,000 volunteers who turn up each week to staff Trussell Trust food banks are predominantly practising Christians (who see this voluntary work as part of discipleship and duty in terms of Matthew, Chapter 25).
According to a Church Times poll in April, 48 per cent of Church of England church-goers are likely to have voted Conservative, and 27 per cent Labour. The trustees of the biggest foodbank network, the Trussell Trust, have their faith in common but are politically and professionally diverse.
Fourthly, it will help the people we serve if the statutory agencies and the voluntary sector can analyse and agree upon the causes of poverty and address them in a mature way. Scroungers are always with us – and always unwelcome. It is wounding to those in real need, to say that more food banks simply encourage “the undeserving poor”.
Recipients of emergency food are assessed and referred by doctors, social workers, schools and staff of the Department of Work and Pensions itself. Each food bank is an independent charity.
The 422 Trussell Trust food banks are franchises, which each offer an annual contribution of £360 in return for professional support in back-office functions like legal advice, marketing, compliance, retailing and website management. For most of them the challenge is more than food.
They form partnerships with Age UK, credit unions, housing authorities and associations, and Citizens Advice, to address complex needs with respect and dignity. Local charities run by local people are best placed to respond quickly to local needs and to find out why a person risks the humiliation of charity.
So fifth, the Government should help by incentivising the creation of social enterprise companies to offer skills training for men and women in, for example, carpentry, furniture up-cycling, retailing, painting and decoration, textile reclamation and recycling, computer literacy and many, many other activities to help people out of hunger and poverty and back to work.
Last, the Government must remember that whenever there is a major change of policy, even when the motives are sound and the policy is right, there are always winners and losers. Take that from me as the last poll tax minister Margaret Thatcher appointed!
To try to prop up the community charge, we spent hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ pounds a year on poll tax relief. Then hundreds of millions more on council tax benefits.
The relief available following changes in social security policy has been and still is badly targeted and insufficient. The first reason why people are driven to seek help from food banks is the Government’s own administrative delays – and the second is genuine poverty. Both these failures can be mended if there is a will to do so.
In spite of their own financial problems, the big supermarkets make a huge contribution to feeding the poor, in cash and in kind, in partnership with food banks. There are exciting new partnerships working to make best use of time-limited and perishable fresh food. Transport, logistics and some energy companies are also working positively with us to develop poverty-focussed need.
This is national volunteering that makes sense. It is popular community action. It is, for goodness’ sake, the Big Society. And it works – so a Conservative Government should embrace it – please!