“As part of their mission to the communities they serve and as part of their mission as the national Church, thousands of parish churches around the country play an active role in their local community, including by running food banks, the majority of which have been set up in the past two years.”
On 18th December 2013, Rt Hon Sir Tony Baldry, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, took part in a debate on food banks in the House of Commons. He spoke about existing research that had been undertaken by church-based organisations into the use of food banks, and updated the House on the Church of England’s research project with Oxfam, in partnership with the Trussell Trust and Church Action on Poverty, on the causes of food bank use and what can be done to remedy it.
In following the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), may I commend to the House the report published by the Church Urban Fund in September, entitled “Hungry For More: How churches can address the root causes of food poverty”, which can be found at www.cuf.org.uk/research As part of their mission to the communities they serve and as part of their mission as the national Church, thousands of parish churches around the country play an active role in their local community, including by running food banks, the majority of which have been set up in the past two years. The report suggests that if churches are to contribute to a long-term solution to food poverty, there is a need to rebalance church-based activity away from emergency crisis support and towards long-term work that tackles the underlying problem.
There is a policy conundrum that I think the whole House has to recognise. Food banks do not tackle the root causes of food poverty, and they do not aim to resolve any of the underlying problems of food poverty. I suspect that all right hon. and hon. Members would agree that we should view food aid only as a short-term emergency response to problems of food poverty.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The right hon. Gentleman is enunciating what food banks do, and they also give advice on how to recover from debt. Christians Against Poverty is an example of what food banks in Northern Ireland are doing. Does he recognise the good work that they are doing in advising people how best to manage their resources and how to get themselves out of the benefits trap?
Sir Tony Baldry: The research in the Church Urban Fund report shows that some food banks do that, but not enough. Many of them simply give food aid, which is important, but we need to develop longer-term solutions.
Albert Owen: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Sir Tony Baldry: I will make some progress.
If the situation is to be resolved, the root causes need to be tackled. In April, an online survey was sent to 3,000 Church of England incumbents. In that survey, the Church Urban Fund asked clergy in parishes right across the country questions about their perceptions of food poverty and what was going on in their parishes. The respondents were invited to indicate what they considered the causes of food poverty, based on their experience of running food banks. These figures come to more than 100% because some clergy selected more than one topic, but 62% chose low income, 42% chose benefit changes and 35% chose benefit delays. As it happens, these three issues match those identified by the Trussell Trust as the most common reasons for food bank referrals last year. It is also worth noting that some respondents believed that individual behaviour was a contributing factor, with 27% selecting poor household budgeting as a significant cause of food poverty.
Alongside others set out in the report, those results suggest that if churches are to contribute to a long-term solution to food poverty, church-based activity needs to be rebalanced away from emergency crisis support and towards long-term work to tackle underlying problems. In its recent report on monitoring poverty, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has observed:
“Making comparisons of people using food banks over time is not easy, as there simply are more food banks now than five years ago. They may well be meeting need that was previously going unmet.”
However, there is obviously a need to look at the impact of benefit changes and, in particular, benefit delays.
Fiona O’Donnell: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Sir Tony Baldry: If I may, I will make my own speech in my own time. I am conscious that many right hon. and hon. Members want to take part in the debate.
I want to say a word of caution about all this. Whoever is in power after the next general election, public spending is going to be difficult. Indeed, as far as I can discern, all three main parties are agreed on public spending limits until at least 2016-17. Although the Labour party has opposed every single welfare change made by the Government, I do not think that the Opposition are suggesting that they would, if elected, significantly increase the overall welfare budget. In those circumstances, it is disingenuous to suggest that a future Labour Government would increase welfare spending, just as it is disingenuous to suggest that they would have the ability to control food and commodity prices.
The Church of England has just embarked on a one-year joint research project with Oxfam, in partnership with the Trussell Trust and Church Action on Poverty, with the aim of exploring the reasons why people are using food banks and identifying interventions that would reduce the need for food banks. The findings will be published in September next year.
It is not an adequate policy response simply to say that because people are using food banks, there needs to be a massive increase in welfare spending, particularly at a time when everybody is in agreement that the nation has to get welfare spending under control.