Feeding Britain: A start, but much more emphasis on justice needed

By Keith Hebden
December 8, 2014

Today (Monday 8 March 2014) an All Party Parliamentary Inquiry has published an extensive report into causes of food poverty in the UK and has suggested some responses. Campaigners from End Hunger Fast were invited to the initial launch of this report so here are some reflections on where it has ended up and what that means for the rest of us.

It is clear from this report that, when it comes to hunger, food banks are not a long-term solution and that better local and national provision for those most vulnerable to going without food and other basics is needed urgently.

No one should go hungry in Britain. No one should go to school or work hungry in Britain. No one should be made to feel ashamed or forced into theft and scavenging because of hunger in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

This report is radical more because of where it comes from than because of what it says. In this report we have the establishment admitting to something that others have been saying for a long time. Although this report is extremely comprehensive there are some things to be cautious about.

This report seems to ignore the weight of evidence of the effect of welfare reform on the most vulnerable; particularly those being assessed as ‘fit for work’ when they are disabled or have vulnerable mental health. No mention is made of the carnage caused by the scheme delivered by ATOS and Capita. It’s difficult for a panel made up of Conservative MPs to put their name to something that admitted to this huge moral and bureacratic failing that has literally cost lives. Difficult but necessary and sadly absent.

Much is made of the waste of food but less is said about the movement of food on national supply chains and international markets. This is a huge area that needs an inquiry of its own.

Finally (for now), I would have liked to have seen more about what I and others call ‘corporate welfare’ and the scapegoating of the poorest. While there was some reference to the shame felt by those who go hungry in Britain we could have heard more about the role of some elements of the media and of government in generating and maintaining the link between poverty and shame.

We also have to ask this question: Is 'Feeding Britain' really 'Beveridge Plus'?

The 'headline summary' of the report is a joint venture it calls 'Feeding Britain' partnership between state and voluntary sector. Without irony it calls this 'Beveridge plus' (p. 102) even though it is plays into this government's scaling down of Beveridge’s vision of full employment and centrally adminstered welfare.

There is a danger in this that the voluntary sector's role as 'welfare on the cheap' will be formalised and the hunger crisis we’re currently facing will turn into a chronic and acceptable norm.

Furthermore, emergency food relief has emerged because of the failure of the government to manage the economy for the common good and to administer welfare in a compassionate way. There must be some concern that state interference with voulntary sectors will only screw up the good work being done and volunteers taking over the role normally taken by the state will only legitimise government apathy towards the working poor.

I cannot look at 'Feeding Britain' and simply raise a cheer. Above all the recommendations in the report this one needs the most scrutiny. For one thing, and Professor Liz Dowler has made this point well in interview: to see the masses of food thrown out by supermarkets as waste that can be utilised by the poor is deeply dehumanising. In an emergency – great! – but as a long term strategy: dystopian. Social Supermarkets buy us time and charity but eventually we need justice for the hungry not just crumbs from under the table.

What next? We need to do more than have efficient ‘hand-outs’ and ‘leg ups’ for the poorest people in our communities. The food gap is also a democracy deficit and a anti-working class narrative that comes straight from government. What David Cameron calls ‘red tape’ has been fought for over generations of organised working people and needs defending so that we can put an end to working poverty.

As long as corporations run governments, governments will not stand up to corporations. If we want to end hunger we have to start building an authentic democracy in our work places and in our public square.

The End Hunger Fast campaign has been calling on the government to ensure:

- That the welfare system provides a robust last line of defence against hunger in Britain
- That work pays enough for working people to properly provide for their families
- That food markets function, promoting long term sustainable and healthy diets with no one profiteering off hunger in Britain.

These demands remain.

* A more detailed analysis of the Feeding Britain report, from which this is excerpted, is available here: http://compassionistas.net/wordpress/feeding-britain-reflections-on-the-...

* APPG report in full: http://foodpovertyinquiry.org

* End Hunger Fast: http://endhungerfast.co.uk

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© Keith Hebden was a prime mover behind End Hunger Fast. He is an Ekklesia associate, an Anglican clergyman focussing on justice issues, and the author of Seeking Justice: The Radical Compassion of Jesus.

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