Last night I sat down to watch Panorama on BBC 1 as it delved into the world of foodbanks and poverty. Most of the programme was spent in Bristol as it observed the various charities and groups (50 in that one city alone) giving out food to those in need. It was yet another blunt reminder of the difficulties of not having enough money to feed yourself.
The programme went over a lot of well-trodden ground, but there’s a reason why this issue won’t go away, much to some politicians’ irritation, and that’s because it cuts to the core of what kind of society we want to live in. Is the fact that hundreds of thousands of people around the country will be unable to feed themselves at some point this year a problem for us? Do we care and if so, who do we expect to deal with it?
The Government finds itself in an awkward position at present. Despite the efforts of ministers and MPs to argue away the rapid increase in foodbanks, which have gone from 50 to 400+ in the last five years, as being a result of increased awareness of their existence and referral rates from professional bodies, it doesn’t take away from the growing body of evidence that a largest proportion of those visiting foodbanks are there because of problems with benefits in the form of delays and sanctions. According to Panorama in the last year to September, the Department for Work and Pensions handed out 875,000 sanctions to benefits claimants although in 11 months 133,000 of these were overturned. Those under sanctions can apply for hardship payments but these will usually take two weeks to go through and challenging unfair sanctions can take even longer to resolve. Living on zero income when you have previously been living on next to nothing leaves you with very few options, some of which, such as borrowing money will just exacerbate the situation. For many foodbanks are the best option available to avoid a dire lack of food. So when former Junior Health Minister, Edwina Currie was interviewed on the programme and described foodbanks as unnecessary, denying that food poverty even exists, it left a sickening feeling in my mouth at the scale of ignorance.
This is kind of attitude and response we’ve too often come to expect from those defending their party in government. When Cardinal Vincent Nichols claimed last month that the basic safety net of welfare has been torn apart leaving some in hunger and destitution, David Cameron felt the need to go on the attack dismissing the Cardinal’s views and describing his government’s reforms as right and moral. When the 27 bishops signed a letter calling on the government to ensure that the welfare system provides a robust last line of defence against hunger, two MPs responded by writing articles in the Telegraph going on the offensive questioning the bishops’ thinking.
In politics too often the default reaction to any perceived criticism is to pull it to pieces, rubbish it and throw it back in your opponent’s face. Being open to the opinions of others and admitting you may not have all of the answers is not the done thing (at least in public). What makes this exchange of blows different to usual political battles, is that it is the Government against church leaders. In contrast to the Cardinal and bishops, Labour have remained relatively silent over the last few weeks on this as if they are happy to let others do the talking. Unfortunately the Government is struggling to realise that these leaders, whilst challenging it to act, are not in this to score party political points. They are simply drawing attention to the state of the lives of so many they are interacting with from day-to-day. If anyone has any doubt about the authority with which they speak, you just need to see those who were interviewed on Panorama. Every single group providing for those in need on the programme without exception was Christian.
Many of those involved with foodbanks will know the limits of what they are capable of achieving. One commentator on the programme described foodbanks as an inadequate plaster over a gaping wound. This is not far wrong. So many foodbanks have been created in response to a seen need, but they are not the solution; they can only be part of it. Foodbanks will never be able to fix food poverty, just provide some temporary help for those desperately in need, which is why those involved in running them want to see further action.
It is a great shame that the government has responded so negatively towards what has been said by the church leaders, especially as not all of its actions are as heartless as perceptions may appear. This government inherited a bloated welfare system that was and still is a bureaucratic nightmare. Labour, despite their promises had done little to rectify the situation whilst in office, but now at last Iain Duncan Smith has begun to turn his vision into reality through the new Universal Credit that has the potential to benefit all those who have dealings with it, if it can eventually be implemented successfully. The concept of work always paying more is finally being seriously addressed even though it will come at a financial cost to the government. There is much that can be called moral in all of this.
And yet when no government department agrees to give an interview to Panorama or Iain Duncan Smith refuses to meet with those in charge of the Trussell Trust foodbanks or when there is a lack of willingness to admit that the system isn’t working as well as it could then is it any surprise that the government is too easily portrayed as hard-hearted? The irony of this is that if the government was willing to listen and engage more readily, it would more than likely gain respect as voters saw that there was a level of compassion alongside the façade of swinging cuts. When the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats came together after the last election to form a coalition, we were told it was for the good of the country. So too are some basic aspects of welfare that our society has committed itself to, even though there is no written contract. The ability of all to eat something each day is not a party political issue; it is far more important.
There is an opportunity right now with all that is being debated to lay down the political squabbles and to talk of answers and solutions, bringing those who have on the ground experience to sit alongside those who make the decisions and seek to make progress.
There have been some signs of this over the last few days. David Cameron has invited representatives from the Trussell Trust to speak to him at 10 Downing Street. and the Bishop of Truro has been asked to co-chair a parliamentary inquiry into foodbanks and food poverty in Britain which has been established by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty. This is the kind of response that we need to see more of.
Welfare and the reasons why different people come to rely on it are incredibly complex. The recent DEFRA report on food aid found that the biggest issues facing many accessing food aid are low-income, increasing living costs (including food prices) and personal debt. One of the foodbanks featured on Panorama, the Matthew Tree Project, asks those receiving food to bring their bank statements because they understand that many visiting them need more than help with their food. It’s only when some of the underlying causes of poverty can begin to be addressed that significant progress can be made.
The state will never be able to produce a system that can meet every individual’s needs. It has to operate with a broad brush approach in order to function effectively. Conversely churches and charities have the potential to give that pastoral support that many need in a much more holistic way. Without a level of mutual appreciation and trust, both will be less effective. Foodbanks have not expanded so rapidly because demand from benefits claimants has increased. It’s because more churches have seen a need and decided that they can get stuck in and do something to address it. Christian social action takes many forms, but at its heart is serving those who need support and love. If this results in occasional slightly clumsy challenges to government policy, it should be seen more as an encouragement to make things better and remember welfare is about real people and not just numbers, rather than a sign of aggressive criticism for the sake of it.
If this debate is to make progress, rather than endlessly going round in circles then a bit less hot air and backbiting with a bit more humility and openness will go a long way to achieving a form of welfare provision that is increasingly sustainable and compassionate. And if we can bring this about it’s not just those short of food on their plate who will benefit.