John Glen is MP for Salisbury.
When I wrote for Conservative Home in April 2014 about food banks I described a different landscape. The Trussell Trust had just announced the number of parcels they gave out had almost tripled, and the economy was only just beginning to turn a corner. I lamented the state of the political debate about food banks, and how polarised it had become. Two years on, it is worth reflecting on how this has changed.
The first welcome change is we now have far more data than we did two years ago, and a greater level of detail. That the headline food parcels figure the Trussell Trust reports this year is broadly similar to last year shows there is still more work to be done – but nonetheless this is welcome progress from the substantial increases we were seeing just two years ago. It is particularly welcome that the average number of referrals has fallen significantly this year.
I believe this progress is a reflection of the way food banks are starting to work, both inside and outside the Trussell Trust. When I was on the APPG, we saw some examples of incredible projects that sought not just to give people food, but to address the reasons they were going hungry in the first place. We saw how Community Shop in Lambeth was pioneering an approach that offered affordable food in exchange for a transformation programme, focused on building cooking confidence and self-esteem, dealing with debt and finding work. Crucially, this support was not cut off just because somebody got a job. Instead, the focus switched to transitioning to independence and budgeting.
This approach recognises that too often hunger acts like a thief in the night: it sneaks up and overpowers families whose resilience has already been gradually chipped away. As the Bishop of Salisbury powerfully noted, ‘hunger can happen to any of us. It stems from low pay, lack of self-esteem, family breakdown, unemployment, addiction, mental illness, sickness or bad luck. Most of us can survive any one of these, many can survive two, but actually most of us can’t survive three together if they come together’. If we do not look at the interaction between multiple factors and simply at headline causes, then we risk treating the symptoms rather than the underlying disease.
We see today the results of the Trussell Trust’s investment in its More Than Food programme, which is now being delivered in 56 food banks. This shows that the holistic approach which the APPG recommended in 2014 works. The challenge now is to extend this beyond the food bank sector. Our approach as Conservatives has always emphasised that there is a wealth of expertise in the voluntary sector which can deal more effectively with the underlying pathways to poverty. If the progress in the food bank sector has taught us anything, it is that we need to move to a system that focuses on building fences at the top of the cliffs rather than sending ambulances when people fall and responding to an endless succession of crises.
This is the approach that the Government’s pioneering Troubled Families programme also took – with many of the most complex families in our society turned around. This is a programme that provides value for money, but more importantly, completely changes the lives of some of the most vulnerable. Every family turned around means more children in school and more parents in work. The Government’s social justice programme should have this comprehensive approach at its core.
But a holistic approach is also one that follows the example set by the Community Shop: earlier this year the Prime Minister talked about a ‘life cycle’ approach to social justice, one that takes people from their ‘earliest years, through schooling to adolescence and their adult life’. Support shouldn’t stop just because someone walks out of the Jobcentre and into work one day. On the Work and Pensions Select Committee, we heard recently about the pioneering work Priti Patel is leading to help people in low paid work progress and grow their earnings. Moving from a reactive approach to welfare to a proactive one is a more compassionate approach that will help people transition to independence, rather than simply throwing them in the deep end and expecting them to swim.
I recognise, however, that there is more work to be done improving the administration of benefits – and the Work and Pensions Committee has not shied away from this. The Conservative government has made real progress in benefits administration, and this needs to continue. The Department for Work and Pensions processed 89 per cent of Jobseeker’s Allowance claims within 10 days in 2014/15, up from 68 per cent in 2009/10, and has improved again into 2015/16. I have every confidence that this number will continue to diminish. Crucially, the new Secretary of State has re-affirmed his commitment to rolling Universal Credit – which will represent a huge advance in accurate and prompt payment thanks to the simplification of benefits and Real-Time Information.
Two years ago, when I wrote for this site, I said that we need to look at the complexity of individual family circumstances. Today, we are constructing a comprehensive system to deal with all the challenges families face simultaneously, rather than fragmented interventions when different crises happen. We must not let debates over individual policy changes distract from the broader narrative of a compassionate and comprehensive approach to welfare. Just as two years ago we said the causes of food poverty needed a more involved and less partisan debate, the progress that has been made by the foodbank sector shows this is the right approach as we strive to deliver a welfare system that works for the most vulnerable in society.