The ‘Feeding Britain’ report: Deeper into the woods?

Dr Filip Sosenko with his son Alfie.
Dr Filip Sosenko with his son Alfie.

Last Monday (8/12/14) the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom published a long-anticipated final report. As the lead investigator on the ‘Overview of Food Aid Provision in Scotland’ study and the ‘Review of the Scottish Welfare Fund’, I was invited to submit written and oral evidence to the inquiry.

The inquiry was commissioned in February 2014 by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty, itself established by a Labour MP Frank Field and a Conservative MP Laura Sandys. The report is not an official publication of the House of Commons or the House of Lords.

In a nutshell, the report recommends keeping the foodbank system but strengthening it and refining it. It does not call on the government to deal with this issue. Instead, it suggests the creation of a national network called ‘Feeding Britain’, composed of foodbanks, ‘soup kitchens’, voluntary organisations redistributing fresh surplus food, the food industry, and representatives of the government departments. Local and regional sub-networks are envisaged to encourage the redistribution of fresh surplus food to food aid providers, co-ordinate food waste prevention, and to foster the co-location of services in One Stop Shops where some of the root causes of food poverty can be tackled (problem debt, addictions, access to benefits etc). The report also makes a number of recommendations regarding utility prices (directed at Ofgem, Ofwat and Ofcom), money lending (FSA), improving benefit administration and continuing funding for Local Welfare Assistance schemes.

Has the inquiry been a worthwhile exercise? From a researcher’s point of view, it has increased the volume of evidence but has not resulted in any particularly new evidence. From the perspective of people who go hungry and people involved in anti-poverty organisations, the report probably falls short of expectations. The reason for this is that, while most of the report’s recommendations make sense, the key recommendation that these groups anticipated – that the state should recognise the role its welfare policies have played in fuelling demand for food aid and that it should take steps to remedy this – was missing. The approach is piecemeal and the proposed solution complicated whereas it could have been bold and simple.

Or could it be? On the face of it, since the group was a cross-party one it was unlikely to come up with anything that is politically damaging to its’ members parties. (If you expected the report to explicitly mention ‘welfare reform’, you’ll be disappointed, although specific aspects of the reform are discussed). However, some select committees have been very critical of the current government. So perhaps this moderate report reflects the fact that the main two political parties have actually reached a consensus on where the boundary between the state and the charitable sector should be in the future.

Whether it was due to the need to attain consensus or due to there already being a consensus, the report’s diagnosis is partly missing the target. It correctly observes that ‘the erosion of an effective national minimum has led to the existence of hunger and the rise of the foodbank movement’ – but this erosion is largely seen as a result of rising real prices and falling real incomes, not as (also) a result of state policies (changes to Tax Credits, changes to incapacity benefits and DLA, 1% uprating, replacing RPI with CPI, Bedroom Tax, etc). Only one state policy is overtly criticised – the low rate of the National Minimum Wage – while other problems on the state’s part are seen as a matter of it malfunctioning (notably benefit delays and sanctioning JSA claimants for no fault of their own) rather than policies and principles being responsible for the erosion. In doing so, the report implicitly suggests that income (and particularly the ‘effective national minimum’) belongs to the sphere of markets (commodity markets, labour markets). Well, that’s true but it is only part of the truth – income is an outcome of political decisions as well as market processes. The report downplays the part that the state’s policies have played in eroding the minimum.

While we know that the state has played a role in eroding the minimum (see for example this recent study and the Welfare Reform Committee report) and that it could increase the minimum, the question remains: should it do it? Should there be a minimum below nobody is allowed to fall? The answer to this depends on whether one sees access to food as a human right or a principle of social justice. Certainly, the UK is not meeting its obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 11 on the Right to Adequate Food) as well as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 24).

There are some dangers in some of the report’s recommendations, too. As many commentators have pointed out, strengthening the foodbank system in the long term risks replacing the welfare state rather than fixing it. While the report imaginatively describes the response of foodbanks to the current crisis as a ‘social Dunkirk’, one cannot but ponder whether in twenty years’ time it will be seen as the moment the wrong turn was taken, enabling the state to withdraw. (It also re-draws the moral map by providing support under a religiously-inspired ‘hospitality’ rather than a progressive redistributive norm). How are foodbanks going to get out of this, how will they get themselves out of the job? Will we see more foodbanks closing down in protest against being expected by the state to solely take the burden of feeding the hungry, as in Nottingham? Could we see a co-ordinated one-week strike action by all foodbanks?

Refining the foodbank system further risks replacing the welfare state rather than fixing it. The report suggests the ‘One Stop Shop’ model as a way ahead. Under this model the foodbank works closely (preferably under one roof) with third-sector benefit advice, employability advice, offers cookery and budgetary training etc. It seems to me that the foodbank plus model is a ‘false friend’ – it lets the state carry on failing disadvantaged people. Why should ‘foodbanks plus’ replace the Jobcentres (if they offer a better employability advice) or train foodbank clients in challenging the welfare system (appealing sanctions etc) rather than campaign for fixing the system? Last but not least, talking about cookery and budgeting skills diverts the attention away from the crucial point that hunger is largely caused by inadequate incomes. As the Real Life Reform study shows, the debt we are talking about is not a consumer debt, it is borrowing to buy the essentials.

As much as I recognise that it was unlikely the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry would produce bolder recommendations, I cannot but feel that we are going deeper into the woods.