Archbishop questioned on charity-based approach to UK hunger

By staff writers
December 9, 2014

Archbishop Justin Welby has been commended for putting UK hunger into the spotlight once again, but questioned for an approach focusing on charity rather than justice.

The head of the Church of England will be president of the Feed Britain initiative coming out of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Inquiry Report on Hunger and Food Poverty.

There is a strong emphasis in the report on charitable and church action to alleviate hunger. But yesterday Archbishop Welby played down strong political disagreements about the causes of food poverty in Britain – which campaigners say is evidentially linked to austerity policies, benefit cuts, job sanctions, low wages and growing inequality directly connected to current government policies.

He also emphasised that "transformative solutions" could come "without great financial cost".

However, Ekklesia associate the Rev Dr Keith Hebden, a key player in the End Hunger Fast movement which along with grassroots activists first put the causes of UK hunger on the political and media agenda, believes that deeper scrutiny of the approach emerging from the report is needed.

He writes: "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.

"The 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.

"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.

"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', 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," says Dr Hebden.

The Rev Kathy Galloway, head of Christian Aid Scotland and former leader of the Iona Community also questioned the Archbishop's approach and outlook at a large public launch of a more radical report on the 'poverty premium' produced by church groups and partners in Scotland yesterday.

"If [Archbishop Welby] has only just noticed hunger here… where has he been?" she asked. Stressing structural justice and the agency of those living with poverty themselves, Galloway said that the remarks about Africa also raised questions about "how rich Westerners view the world" – their own and other people's.

In the House of Lords yesterday (8 December), where the established Church of England holds 26 seats by right in the unelected part of the UK legislature, Archbishop Welby declared of hunger in Britain: "I’ve seen much worse, very recently, and will do over the next couple of weeks when I’m travelling, but it’s finding it here, it’s in the wrong place, we don’t do that in this country and we need to stop."

But anti-poverty activists are concerned that this might be read as suggesting that poverty somehow 'belongs' elsewhere.

Simon Barrow, co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, which backed the End Hunger Fast initiative calling for structural and policy change to address the scandal of hunger, says that it is misguided to try to write politics out of the script.

"The rhetoric around Feeding Britain is about avoiding political wrangling, stressing that the causes of UK hunger are 'complex' (and by implication near impossible to agree on), and saying that solutions will not cost too much.

"The danger here is that the link between austerity and poverty is smoothed over and ignored. Britain is now the fourth most unequal country in the developed world according to the OECD. Cuts in support to the most vulnerable are deliberate government policies, ostensibly linked to deficit reduction but ignoring the roots of the economic crisis in speculation, corruption and financial, corporate and domestic indebtedness.

"The fact that the poorest are being made to pay for a one-sided recovery while the wealthiest are bailed out or given tax cuts is a deeply political issue, and one which cannot be divorced from the simultaneous growth of manifestations of real hardship – food poverty, the mistreatment of disabled people, low pay, homelessness, workfare, punitive and vindictive sanctions against people excluded from the job market, and much more.

"All this suggests that what we need to address hunger in the UK and the additional burdens faced by the economically marginalised in (for example) fuel and finance costs, is a real turnaround in attitude and policy. This is a challenge to all the Westminster parties, but especially to those who have been denying the problem or who continue to deny a link between poverty and the dismantling of social security.

"From a Christian perspective, 'charity is no substitute for justice denied', as St Augustine once observed. Feed Britain needs to tackle issues of structural injustice and inequality, not turn the role of churches and charities into mere balm on the wound. Collective action is needed, and that involves empowering and resourcing local communities as part of a major programme aimed at redistributing power and wealth. Short-term initiatives need to focus on those long term goals," said the Ekklesia co-director.

* 'Feeding Britain: A start, but much more emphasis on justice needed', by Keith Hebden - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21131

* Politicians challenged to a structural response to UK hunger crisis - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21135

* Churches call for action to tackle an unjust ‘poverty premium - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21130

* Tackling the 'poverty premium' (report) - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21129

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The Archbishop of Canterbury's speech to the House of Lords on 8 December 2014.

"Let me focus on why we’re here and why this report is so important. We all know about the rise in food banks and the number of people turning to them in times of crisis over the last few years.

"And there have been two things that have struck me. One was - as I’ve visited food banks and seen what churches are doing across the country, the Trussell Trust leading it particularly effectively – it’s how shocking it is to find this happening here. As I said in a newspaper article yesterday, I’ve seen much worse, very recently, and will do over the next couple of weeks when I’m travelling, but it’s finding it here, it’s in the wrong place, we don’t do that in this country and we need to stop. And we’ve seen the response that people who have been shocked by this have made. There’s been a grassroots response to the problems that have opened our eyes to the extent of the problems themselves.

"The years since the 2008 crisis have been hard ones for many. And the response of compassion, indiscriminate compassion, generous open-handed compassion, has come principally from the churches in response to people’s need for food. And I particularly want to pay tribute to Bishop Tim Thornton, the Bishop of Truro, who has co-chaired the inquiry with Frank [Field] in his work, in his own diocese, which I saw earlier in the year and also on this inquiry.

"We’re here in Portcullis House, so there’s no point pretending that people being hungry is an easy issue to address within our political system. You all know what the challenges are. Our democratic system is essential and has huge strengths, but it is sometimes tricky working across parties – particularly when there’s a large event happening in a few months’ time.

"Yet party-political approaches will not work for an issue like this, which has complex roots, and which affects our most basic needs as human beings. Everyone needs to eat. And therefore I also want to pay tribute to the dedication of the whole inquiry panel, particularly the Members of Parliament, who, fairly obviously, take a political risk in doing something that’s all-party. . . but have done it with immense dedication and they really do deserve huge thanks.

"But that’s not the only reason why this cannot be a party political issue. I have spoken to numerous politicians on this, and I know well that, whereas it’s easy to be cynical, the reality is that there are huge numbers of people, both from government and opposition, all across the spectrum of opposition parties, who are absolutely committed to ensuring the wellbeing of their constituents and all the people in their country.

"They are guided by a strong moral compass and we need to recognise that and not always be too cynical about what we see our politicians doing. The issue is how you turn that moral compass into practical action.

"If we want to understand what is driving people to the point where they will put up with the shame of having to ask for help from a food bank (and people usually arrive with an unjustified sense of shame); if we want to find the practical solutions that will substantially reduce the numbers of people needing to do so; then the only way we can do this is by a collective effort, drawing on the wisdom of politicians from every political background, of food banks, charities and non-profits working in the sector, of retailers and of Government departments.

"You might think from some of yesterday’s coverage, and today’s, that the report is asking the Government to move into the food bank sector. It’s not. It is far more interesting and creative than that. And we see there the influence particularly of Frank’s extensive experience and his imaginative and creative approach to these issues.

"And that’s what makes me so excited about what is proposed for this new organisation, Feeding Britain. The agenda this morning is to make sure that this report gets the widest possible audience. If you haven’t read the report, go and read it, I certainly will be glad you did.

"And we’re here to look to the next steps on the path to building a hunger-free society in this country. Frank and Bishop Tim have asked me to be President of Feeding Britain as it is set up and goes forward into its pilot stages, and I feel that accepting that invitation is a huge privilege for me, and I am very grateful to be asked and I accept it with much enthusiasm.

"Bishop Tim will continue to lead on this work for the Church of England as one of the founding trustees of Feeding Britain, along with his fellow members of the inquiry panel, and I will take a close interest as the project goes forward.

"One of the striking things that enthuses me most about this report is that the proposals it contains are eminently practical and they are not unreasonably expensive. There is always a cost to setting up pilots and I very much hope that the Government will look seriously at finding the relatively small amounts that would be needed to match fund charitable donations and grants so that we can get pilot schemes underway as soon as possible.

"But in the longer term we’re looking at making a transformative difference to the lives of many in this country – and to the nature of the communities we are all part of – without great financial cost. It is genuinely a case of the common good and genuinely a case of pulling together. It comes down to our willingness to pull together to make a difference. It’s within our grasp, and the inquiry itself has been a model of how that can be done."

[Ekk/3]

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