Tag Archives: Archbishop of Canterbury

Food Banks and Society

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.

If you’d like to read more, some great work exploring the real lives of food bank users can be found in the Listen Up report and in the Emergency Use Only report.

Other interesting comments on the Feeding Britain reports can be found below

Joint Public Issues: Feeding Britain

The Safety Net: in urgent need of repair

A Way Forward on Food Banks

As Children Starve, Where’s the State?

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

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Radical Mutuality

Palace of Westminster

I was surprised and delighted to be invited by Christian Aid to attend their dinner reception for Christian Aid week (at the House of Lords!). And it was a privilege to sit and listen to Dr Rowan William’s lecture after dinner. It was full of wisdom, rather too much to take in from one listen! It has, however, taken me a while to go back to the lecture to read and digest it further. The full text is on the Christian Aid website, and is well worth a read. In the meantime, these are my edited highlights.

In keeping with the Christian Aid Week theme, the title of the lecture was “Tackling Violence, Building Peace”. Bringing together global poverty and global conflict makes for a vast and complex subject. In the face of a title like this, it’s tempting to switch off and feel there’s nothing an individual can do. But Dr Williams addressed the subject in ways that were inspiring and relevant to individuals as well as to organisations.

The basic premise of the lecture was that our security is bound up in the security of those around us. Dr Williams explained that to feel secure, people need to “feel an adequate level of confidence that they are not at the mercy of unknown others or unseen events to the extent that they must give their best energies to self-protection and forestalling every imagined threat”. Where resources are scarce, or people feel it is difficult or impossible to have an impact on their situation, then they may feel they have nothing to lose by resorting to violence. If my neighbour is not secure, then my own security is compromised by the risks they may take in trying to improve their own situation.

All this means there needs to be a relationship of trust, trust between people, and trust in the systems in place to keep people safe. As Dr Williams put it:

“To be secure, I need to know that my neighbour shares with me both problems and solutions and that it is possible for us to identify these together; that there are dependable procedures for managing conflict or rivalry; that justice will be done to those who have violated the safety and well-being of others; that there is redress for injury and unfairness.  If none of these can be taken for granted, I will be more likely to be tempted to pre-emptive attacks on those I see as rivals, unofficial action to punish aggressors and so on; and the spiral of destruction continues to wind itself around our necks.”

None of this, however, is possible without a serious shift in the distribution of power. People feel helpless and hopeless about their circumstances if they do not have the capacity to make a difference because they have no voice or power. As Dr Williams stated, “Inequalities of power, in the form of radically unequal levels of access to decision-making, process of law, education and civic freedoms, are often described as forms of ‘structural’ violence.” To change this will involve “a shift towards a refusal to discuss and decide in the absence of the poor, a refusal to hold on to unexamined habits of patronage, keeping others dependent – ‘knowing better’.”

So while there is much here that concerns governments and other organisations, our security is still built on trust between people, between individuals, families and communities. Dr Williams suggested that the church as the body of Christ should be a model of what this community should look like. He used an amazing phrase which has stuck with me ever since, that the community of the church should be based on “radical mutuality”:

“this community is based on a complete and radical mutuality; there is no one who has nothing to give, no one who has nothing to receive, no one flourishes without all others flourishing, all are damaged when one is, all are equipped by the Spirit to be able to make some transforming gift to the life of the whole.”

I love this! What a description of who we should be! That the church could be a model of this, and radical mutuality be the way the whole of humanity relates to one another.

Archbishop of Canterbury, Wonga and Credit Unions

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has created quite a stir with his comments about payday loan company Wonga.  This is my attempt to process my positive feelings about the fact that he has spoken out about this issue, alongside other feelings of discomfort about what he said.

I agree with the Archbishop when he says that we are not aiming to “legislate” Wonga out of business. Some kind of outright ban on companies like this is not a helpful solution. For people on the most precarious of incomes, this kind of credit is often the only credit they can get. And while it might be nice to suggest that people should save up for the things that they need, unexpected outlays (such as fixing a broken down boiler), by definition, cannot be planned for, even if saving were possible.

This does not rule out some legislation which would be helpful.  Church Action on Poverty, along with MP Stella Creasy, have long campaigned for a cap on interests rates and charges and greater transparency when loans are agreed, as well as data-sharing between companies so that people can improve their credit rating and access to mainstream credit.

So while people need alternative means of borrowing money, it is great to hear the Archbishop argue that we need to expand Credit Unions, and offer the Church of England as a resource for this. And it’s clear that this is not going to happen overnight, so while Credit Unions are growing, we should continue to campaign to make payday loans better for the people who use them. For me, the worst thing about these type of lenders is the way advertise themselves. I loathe the new Wonga adverts, which normalise and sanitise a way of borrowing money which could be considered extortion. But worse is the way that people are bombarded with offers of money over and over again, without any clear explanation of what it will cost to repay.

So what’s my problem? I agree we shouldn’t ban Wonga and its like, although I think some legislation would be helpful. I agree that we should expand Credit Unions and think the church is a great resource to help do this. I think my problem is with the word “compete”. This leaves the debate firmly in the transactional frame. Yes, I know we are talking about money and debt, but the debate could be framed in terms of people instead.

Competing with payday lenders legitimises their business and puts the Church of England and Credit Unions in the marketplace. While this is a fair description of the situation on the surface, it does not deal with why the Archbishop got involved. Clearly it is not because he thinks the Church of England should be making money in this market. Rather, the church sees that people are in need, and they are suffering because of their indebtedness to payday lenders or lack of borrowing options. Churches up and down the country see this need on a daily basis, and their call to show the love of God demands that action is taken. It is not enough to feed needy people through Foodbanks, but there must be a call to change the structures that cause people to need this help in the first place. I believe the church is called, not to compete with Wonga, but show a radical alternative. To show love, and in doing so, to change the rules, to treat people with fairness and equality, and not as people whose needs make them easy to exploit. In short, I think the church should love (other people and so put) Wonga out of business.