The political narrative that we’ve seen develop over the last couple of years relating to welfare and poverty has changed considerably as the impact of spending cuts, rising prices and stagnating wages have begun to bite. It’s really not that long ago since politicians were happily referring to benefit scroungers and the lazy unemployed. Fortunately things have moved on; the debate has matured and rather than painting a picture that plays on our prejudices, the focus is now more on the realities of life on the breadline.
What many people have not realised is how much impact the church has had on this agenda. Looking at recent news stories we have seen plenty of talk around the practices of payday lenders which was triggered by Justin Welby’s warning that he intended to put Wonga out of business. Foodbanks run almost entirely by the Trussell Trust through churches around the country have rapidly become a regular talking point. Even last night the Daily Mail reported on Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions getting very annoyed with a Church Action on Poverty advert with political overtones blaming the Government’s welfare changes for thousands going hungry.
Ed Miliband’s pledge to crack down on Fixed Odds Betting Terminals that have been described as the ‘crack cocaine’ of gambling and are more commonly found in areas of low income is nothing new. The Evangelical Alliance has been lobbying in parliament to have their impact curtailed since February. The list expands if you consider Justin Welby’s influence on the Banking Standards Commission calling for morality to be a stronger influence in the banking and finance sector.
Of course the church is not the only voice on these matters. One particular individual, Jack Monroe has found herself as a poster girl representing those struggling to get by on benefits and low incomes. Her rise to prominence was highlighted recently when a petition in her name launched by the Mirror calling for a parliamentary debate on hunger and food bank use in the UK reached over 100,000 signatures in less than two days. The Labour party subsequently raised it as an Opposition Day Debate in the House of Commons on the 18th December.
Foodbanks are a highly emotive issue and the response to the petition demonstrates that despite what the press may say about the public’s support for benefit cuts, there is still a strong compassionate streak running through our society that finds extreme poverty and hunger unacceptable. The high levels of charitable giving, especially for situations like that faced in the Philippines, even when money is tight confirms this. Over 350,000 people received three days’ emergency food from Trussell Trust foodbanks between April and September 2013. This has tripled since the same period last year. The public wants to see politicians considering the reasons for this even if the conclusions may make for uncomfortable reading.
This is in fact happening behind the scenes despite indications from some politicians and papers that this is not the case. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has commissioned research into foodbanks which was reportedly submitted in June. The Government has said the conclusions will be published once necessary review and quality control processes are completed, but disappointingly as things stand there is no sign of them appearing any time soon. A new All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty – co-chaired by Frank Field MP (Lab) and Laura Sandys MP (Con) – is now investigating “the root causes of hunger and food poverty” and the increase in British demand for food banks.
The Opposition Day Debate could have been a genuine opportunity for MPs to make progress on politicians’ attitudes and respond to the increasing demand for foodbanks. Instead as Isabel Hardman, the assistant editor of The Spectator summed it up in a tweet: ‘This food bank debate is not edifying. And I mean on either side of the House. This debate is becoming poisonous.’
Too much of it became political point scoring and arguing about whose fault it is. Iain Duncan Smith did nothing to help himself or the view of some that the Government does not care by walking out halfway through. Labour’s decision to include in the motion a number of their own policies rather than just stick to the subject in hand meant there was no way coalition MPs were going to vote for it, which was then incorrectly used as evidence that they are against further investigation into foodbanks.
Despite Labour’s attempts to frame the Government as callous and insensitive, there can be no winners. The Government has no option but to cut public spending because the rate of increase in its levels of debt are huge and unsustainable. This inevitably leads to pain for most of us to a greater or lesser extent, but if Labour had not enjoyed borrowing so much when they were in power, these cuts would not need to be so severe. If Labour could be honest enough to admit this perhaps their attempts to draw out government failings might have more credibility. At the same time if the Government could show it was doing more to try to do more to reduce delays in benefit changes and payments, which are one of the most common reasons for referrals to foodbanks, it would show a genuine attempt to engage with the issue that we are seeing little of at present.
However, if you scratch beneath the surface of last week’s debate and listen to what several MPs from both sides, including Field and Sandys, who have made the effort to consider foodbank use in an informed and intelligent way, there are signs of hope and a desire to make progress. There is not space to expand on this here, but these two articles cover the best aspects of it very well in a relatively non-partisan way:
When Paddy and Carol Henderson started the first Trussell Trust foodbank in 2004. Could they have imagined where we would be now? We may prefer it if foodbanks didn’t need to exist, but in reality there always has been a need for them. As Isabel Hardman wrote in the Spectator after the 18th:
‘Food banks are good things in that they at least help people deal with very bad things and are an organised community response to crises that in some cases have been occurring for years, with families previously at the mercy of social workers or teachers who had a few spare pounds to offer. Because people will always have crises, from suddenly losing their job to a sudden bill, we will probably always need food banks to a greater or lesser extent.’
We can continue to argue the reasons why the number of people being referred to foodbanks is increasing, but unless serious consideration is given to how the situation can be improved, most of that talk is meaningless. in some circles foodbanks have become a political football for politicians to use to score cheap points against each other. Iain Duncan Smith may think that the Trussell Trust has a political agenda against welfare reform, but to give this too much attention is to ignore the truth.
Foodbanks are mostly run by churches and Christians who care about those in need. It is a practical response trying to do something good because Christianity teaches that we should not forget the poor. The real agenda is making an effort to improve people’s lives. Sometimes the church gets close to being party political about this (as in the Church Action on Poverty adverts) which can unhelpfully complicate things, but even when there is no political motivation, politicians coming at it from their own standpoint have a habit of misreading the signs.
Jesus wasn’t party political in his situation. He just talked about the Kingdom of God and God’s values. He criticised injustice and as a result the authorities took it personally and denounced him. Hopefully those in charge of the welfare system here and now will have more sense and not take foodbanks and the reasons for their use as a personal attack. They have a good and important role that offer more than just free handouts. One quote from the Opposition Day Debate was that foodbanks “give emotional support almost as good as the food”.
The methods of the welfare system can never provide the range and depth of individual support and understanding that those at a local community level can. If foodbanks were ever to be swallowed up by the state, it would be a disaster. Although the concept of Big Society has dropped out of fashion, these are the perfect example of what happens when groups just get on with helping out those around them without any state interference. This is the best of society and in particular the church being active within it. The more politicians (and sections of the press) acknowledge this for what it is rather than placing their own partisan spin or preconceived ideas upon it, the more they listen rather than pushing their own agenda, the more they embrace the good that churches are doing for the benefit to others out of their own pockets, the more chance there is for us to make real progress and find the answers we need.