Its a return to Victorian days of handouts to the poor

by georgehep

In the week that George Osborne announced more punitive measures on welfare claimants, the Trussell Trust was named as Britain’s most admired charity.  You may not have heard of it yet.

Osborne was out of order. At the tail end of his spending review, George courted   popularity  by announcing that the unemployed must now report to the job centre every week as opposed to every fortnight and  that claimants would have to wait seven days before they receive benefit.  This had less to do with economics and more to do with winning votes. The  Chancellor knows that  there is little public sympathy for those dubbed ‘scroungers’ in the Daily Mail.

Enter the most admired Trussell Trust to fill the gap. The charity organises food banks to feed those denied state benefits and its business is soaring.  Almost 350,000 people have received at least three days emergency food from Trussell Trust foodbanks during the last 12 months, nearly 100,000 more than anticipated and close to triple the number helped in 2011-12.

One third of foodbank clients are people whose benefit claims have been delayed. About a fifth are in work but on low wages. Contrary to what you might expect, less than 5% are homeless. In other words, food poverty, ( a  respectable word for going hungry) is the experience of a growing number of poor people.

 New research by Kellogg’s estimates that 4.7 million people in the United Kingdon live in ‘food poverty’. The cereal maker is distributing  15 million breakfasts and snacks over the next three years through the Trussell Trust.

In the North East, the Trust has foodbanks in East and West Newcastle, Gateshead, Sunderland and County Durham. Others are opening up independently of the Trussell network in unlikely places like Hexham where you can donate goods outside Waitrose and Tesco.

Be in no doubt. The need for foodbanks has increased following the government changes to the Social Fund which came into effect in April when crisis  loans were abolished and funds made available, at a reduced level, via local authorities to support those without food.

Chris Mould, Executive Chairman of our most admired charity, says “the sheer volume of people who are turning to foodbanks because they can’t afford food is a wake-up call to the nation that we cannot ignore the hunger on our doorstep. Politicians across the political spectrum urgently need to recognise the real extent of UK food poverty and create fresh policies that better address its underlying causes. This is more important than ever as the impact of the biggest reforms to the welfare state since it began start to take effect. Since April 1st we have already seen increasing numbers of people in crisis being sent to foodbanks with nowhere else to go.’

Most of the foodbanks are run by local churches. The Revd Tim Ferguson, curate in Benwell, told me during a break in his meeting at Shepherds Dene last week, of his delight  at the generosity of supermarket shoppers to buy extra food to donate to the West Newcastle foodbank.

Trussell is Christian charity and quotes  the words of Jesus that when “ I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me”

As a Christian and as a social activist, I should applaud the Trusssell Trust and the many churches answering the call to set up foodbanks.  Why do I have misgivings?

I might well have voted for them in the poll of charity chief executives that led to Trussell’s  award as most admired charity last Thursday night. It is an exemplary organisation with eighteen staff and good fundraising skills that has developed and co ordinated a network of over 300 foodbanks around the country in a comparatively short period of time.   This is an admirable achievement indeed.

But it is worrying that foodbanks are becoming institutions in their own right, with warehouses and  paid staff, and are needed  on such a scale. It is not like a Friday night  whip round in the pub or  a flood disaster appeal .  Foodbanks do not deal in occasional and unforeseen misfortune. Foodbanks are a response to a continuing need  for food  brought about by the retreat of the welfare state. It is a return to the Victorian days of handouts to the poor.

 Joseph Rowntree’s   wise advice to the trustees of the  three charitable trusts that bear his name  comes to mind. He urged them to search out “the underlying causes “ of poverty rather than deal with its “superficial manifestations” The Edwardian  soup kitchen in York, he quipped,  never had “difficulty in obtaining adequate financial aid, but an enquiry into the extent and causes of poverty would enlist little support“

Is it the same with foodbanks?  They are a great humanitarian gesture and as with all such aid,  it is given to all  freely and without discrimination.  As Jackie McCormack, on behalf of the Hexham foodbank makes plain,  there must be “no means testing or quibbling about who is to blame for individual financial predicaments” .  “There is” she says “no place for moral judgements or politics in the new foodbanks”.

This coming weekend Tesco, another big corporate getting in on the act, is organising a nationwide collection for foodbanks. When you donate groceries, as I hope you will, just remember Joseph Rowntree’s words and George Osborne’s actions.

It is a scandal that there needs to be a foodbank in every town and city throughout the land and  that the skills and organisation of the Trussell Trust are needed at all. Foodbanks are  all about politics. It is a measure of the meanness  of our politicians  to those living in  poverty   and of our own    selfishnesss  and acquiescence  in turning a blind eye to the underlying problem  that not even the most generous donation of tins of soup this coming weekend  will expunge.

George Hepburn is Warden of Shepherds Dene