Food banks are never far away from the news, not least because it’s hard to believe that so many people are reliant on their provisions in one of the richest countries in the world. Despite the Government failing to respond to this growing scandal, Frank Field and the Church of England launched their own inquiry, and this week the resulting report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group, Feeding Britain, was launched.
Interestingly, the authors of the report say that this: “our first and most important point is that we want to call all people again to consider how we want to live together as members of this society and how we can encourage one another”. In the light of the report, and in my experience working as a debt advisor and with a food bank, I’d like to offer my considerations.
I think we need to live together in a society which values and respects people in work. I do not think this is the case in a country where people are working, sometimes several jobs, and are still not earning enough to pay the bills. I’d like to see a society where people are not exploited for their labour, where zero-hours contracts are a happy adjunct to busy lives for a few and not a systematic way of keeping costs down while people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. I’d like to see a minimum wage which rises as the cost of living goes up. I’d like to see national and local government encouraging the implementation of a Living Wage for their own staff, contracted staff and through their procurement and tendering procedures, as well as ways to encourage other businesses and organisations to pay a Living Wage. I’d like to see protection of the rights of workers and strengthening of Unions, rather than a steady erosion of terms and conditions in the name of “flexible working”. I’d like to see a society which values people above profit, where money and growth is the means to an end and not an end in itself.
I think we need to live together in a society which values and respects people who are not in work. I do not thinks this is the case in a country which has become so focused on the very few who play the system that it has forgotten to take care of everyone else. I’d like to see a social security system which is a genuine safety net for those who are struggling and going through a tough period in their lives. I don’t want to live in a society where a man with learning disabilities who is trying hard to live independently after he lost his Mum and his job in a Remploy factory has his income taken away for four weeks because he struggles to read the letters sent to him from the Job Centre, and where he finds himself in debt because no-one took the time to explain to him that benefit changes mean he has become liable for part of his council tax bill which has previously been fully covered. I don’t want to be part of a society which counts and celebrates the number of people in work, and counts the number of people on benefits, but where those people who are not in work but have been cut adrift from the benefit system become people who no longer count. I want to live together in a country where we understand that our contribution to the state through tax and national insurance funds the way we share our responsibility for the well-being of all. I don’t want to be part of a country which is driven by an ideology which believes state spending should be as small as possible, and in the pursuit of this goal fails to protect the vulnerable and leaves all of us in fear of crashing through the gaping hole in the social security safety net if anything should happen.
I think we need to live together in a society which recognises the responsibility of Government to invest in the welfare of its citizens. I don’t believe we need to pursue austerity at all costs. I don’t believe that continuing to cut, not just benefits, but the services we rely on to help us navigate through life and Government bureaucracy, is the way to build up our common life. I believe that people want to share in our collective responsibility towards one another and would be happy to contribute. I think that there are people at the wealthier end of the spectrum who could shoulder a bigger portion of this responsibility. If we really need to tackle the deficit (though if Government borrowing is so cheap at the moment, perhaps it is not the imperative we are told it is) then increasing income is just as valid an alternative to reducing costs. Serious effort should be applied to closing tax loopholes and increasing transparency so we can collect the billions in taxes currently being avoided by multinationals operating in this country. We could introduce a “Robin Hood Tax” like our fellow citizens in Europe are doing, so that we benefit more as a country from the enormous financial markets in the City of London and so that there is at least a small application of the brakes on damaging speculative short term trading.
The Feeding Britain report makes other suggestions about benefits, tax credits, access to credit, energy and water bills, access to the internet and mobile phones. All these things are key to easing the financial squeeze faced by poor households. It also suggests something which it calls Food Bank plus. The theory is once some of the measures above are put in place, households with a short term crisis will not need to use a food bank, freeing the service up to offer more support to those with longer-term needs. The report identifies that the issue of food, being such a basic physical and social need, means that people have come for help who are otherwise “hard to reach”. With a more joined-up, co-ordinated approach, Food Bank plus would offer a portal to provide better support for these people, including debt advice, benefits advice, help for mental health issues, access to credit such as via credit unions, back to work programmes, help and advice around cooking and nutrition.
I can see what they are saying. I recognise that people came to the food bank I worked for who were very suspicious of anyone from the council or social services or the job centre, but were reassured by the staff and volunteers who made them a cup of tea, listened to their problems and gave them a bag of food. But… food banks cannot become an institutionalised part of our welfare system. We must be a country where the state takes responsibility for its citizens. If people are going hungry, the system is broken and needs to be fixed. If the appropriate funding was invested in job centres and advice staff, then people would have access to the advice they need and the benefit system would be navigated successfully. If mental health services were accorded the value and funding of their physical health counterpart, then people would have confidence in the services that were offered. Likewise for social services.
We are back to discussing the kind of society we want to live in, how we want to live together. The report speaks of a lack of social glue holding society together. I don’t think it is possible to say this is all down to government cuts. However, I do believe that the way the Government is behaving is symptomatic of the reason for the lack of social glue. Business, politics, economics – it is all driven by the pursuit of growth. It is all about the bottom line. We are all here to be efficient economic units – efficient in production and insatiable in our consumption. The value of people and the relationships between friends and neighbours are sacrificed on the altar of growth. But I want to be part of a society which values people above profit. Where government policy is decided on in the light of its impact on people and communities. Our trust in one another is eroded when inequality rises, when our status is under threat, our jobs are insecure and the social contract between a government and its people is broken. We could hope that civil society will do the job of government, will pick up the pieces and look after those in need. But I thought we’d moved on from that. I thought we’d decided as a society that we would like our collective responsibility to one other to be fulfilled through the instrument of the state providing education, health and welfare equitably and justly for all of us throughout the country, regardless of status or background. Otherwise we’ll end up like the Post Office, complaining now that it has been privatised, that it is not profitable to run services in remote areas for the same price as everywhere else. We surely knew that before it was sold, that’s why it was nationally owned. As a metaphor for the current regime, the Post Office debacle tells us pretty much what we need to know.
Other interesting comments on the Feeding Britain reports can be found below
And if you want to read some books about growth, equality and the creeping reach of market capitalism I can recommend these:
The Spirit Level by Richard Wilson and Kate Pickett
How Much is Enough by Robert and Edward Skidelsky
What Money Can’t Buy by Michael Sandel