Bishop holds government to account for growth in foodbanks

By agency reporter
June 29, 2018

The Bishop of Colchester, Roger Morris, is holding the government to account for the state breaking its promise to the poorest and fuelling growth in the foodbanks on which they rely.  

Traditionally governments have recognised their "moral" and "practical" duty to protect people from poverty and to provide a safety net. Now the state itself is driving its own citizens into poverty and leaving foodbanks to pick up the pieces, the Bishop said.  

"The Food Bank, brilliant though it is, is a sign that on the whole we have failed. We have failed to care for those most in need. We have failed to protect the most vulnerable in society. We have failed in our promises to look after all people from the cradle to the grave.

"And our failures as government, as society, as a so-called welfare state are then mopped up by the third sector.

"Not-for-profit organisations, volunteers and good old-fashioned charity are used to try and repair the gaping holes in the fraying safety net of our benefits system." 

"It is ultimately wrong, unjust, inhuman that people should be plunged into such a state of desperation and degradation in the first place."

Bishop Roger criticised the “hard hearted”, “tight-fisted” and “cruel” policies and systems that are in operation and, drawing on the wisdom of Scripture, advocated an “ungrudging” and open-hearted response to those in need.

This is reflected in his six key proposals:

  • Raise benefits.
  • Scrap the two-child limit on tax credit and Universal Credit.
  • Pay Universal Credit on time.
  • Stop treating disability claimants as if they do not deserve help.
  • Stop treating migrants harshly.
  • Don't pass the buck or hide behind failed systems.


The Bishop is praying that if new policies and systems reduce poverty and the safety net is restored, foodbanks will no longer be necessary, as the needs of the poorest will be properly met.

The Bishop's full address to the Annual General Meeting of Colchester Foodbank on 27 June 2018:  

Firstly, thank you. Thank you for all that you do here at Colchester Foodbank. And I mean ‘all’ that you do for you do so much more than just feed those who are hungry; you show them love, you give them hope and you help them get back some sense of dignity, of humanity that has been robbed from them by the cruel, grinding poverty in which they have found themselves. 
 
So a man called Dom came to a Foodbank and this is what he said: “It wasn’t a comfortable sensation, walking into the foodbank. I didn’t know what kind of reception I’d get. Would they be snooty? Rude? Would they try to make me squirm with embarrassed gratitude? Not a bit of it. They were efficient but polite; kind but not patronising.” 
 
“When I got home,” he said, “I laid all the food items out on the table, arranging them for maximum impact. I still get a lump in my throat when I recall the looks on the kids’ faces when they saw it. Only the night before, the family had dined on four packets of noodles after scraping together 80p by fishing down the back of the sofa.” 
 
“I can’t claim that food saved our lives,” said Dom. “I can’t even claim that a single visit to the foodbank turned everything around. We ended up going again, a couple of weeks later. But it was the beginning of the end of our problems. Without the foodbank I don’t know where we’d all be today. What they gave us was far more significant than a few bags of groceries. Removing one problem, albeit temporarily, allowed us to get to grips with others. And the psychological boost cannot be overestimated.”  
 
So thank you but, and it feels odd saying this at your AGM, my prayer, my hope is that you will cease to exist. We shouldn’t be here. It is as simple as that. The Food Bank, brilliant though it is, is a sign that, on the whole, we have failed. We have failed to care for those most in need. We have failed to protect the most vulnerable in society. We have failed in our promise to look after all people, from the cradle to the grave. 
 
And our failures, as government, as society, as a so-called welfare state are then mopped up by the third sector not-for-profit organisations. Volunteers and good old-fashioned charity are used to try and repair the gaping holes in the fraying safety net of our benefits system. And although it is good that we are there to do that (and it is right that we try as best as we can to meet these needs) it is ultimately wrong, unjust, inhuman that people should be plunged into such a state of desperation and degradation in the first place. And if you think that these are merely the left-wing rantings of a grumpy Guardian reader, listen to these words: 
 
“If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’” 

That comes from the fifteenth chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy (a book of the law from which we get the 10 Commandments). For thousands of years in nation after nation after nation these instructions have formed the bedrock of how we are to be with each other. They inform our understanding of justice. They lie behind what it means to love our neighbour. 
 
And, in Britain, in two thousand and eighteen these very instructions are at serious risk of being cast aside by a society that no longer holds open its hand to the poor and needy neighbour. We are witnessing the biggest upheaval in the benefits system since it was set up following the Second World War and all of that is going on against the backdrop of the credit crunch and the subsequent recession. 
 
So please indulge me as I offer one or two suggestions as to what it might mean for us not to be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards our needy neighbour but open handed willingly lending enough to meet the need, giving liberally and being ungrudging when we do so. 
 
The first thing is not exactly rocket science and it is this: the level of benefits needs to be higher. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (the IFS) has found that, following the 2017 Budget, the poorest 10 per cent of working-age households with children were expected to see their income fall by nearly 18 per cent, nearly a fifth as a result of tax and benefit changes between 2015 and 2020. In comparison, the wealthiest half of households will see their level of income preserved. So we have decided to make the poor poorer. 
 
One worker in an Advice Centre said: “Usually, there’s an identifiable reason why someone is in crisis, but I think that over the next few years, we’ll have people coming in for a food bank voucher, we’ll check their benefits and they’ll be getting everything they’re entitled to, and they still can’t cope.” The Joseph Rowntree Foundation said we heard people saying that their benefit income was not enough to afford essentials, even if that income was uninterrupted by delays, waiting periods, sanctions or administrative errors. 
 
Basic Job Seeker Allowance rates are now so low that single claimants under 25 living alone are by definition destitute unless they have other sources of income, with single claimants over 25 barely better off (Fitzpatrick et al, 2016); so, for example, when deciding whether to raise the threshold at which the higher rate of income tax is paid or to raise the level of benefits. Please raise the level of benefits. That’s part of what it means to ‘open our hand to the poor and needy neighbour in our land.’
 
Secondly, scrap the two-child limit. This invidious policy restricts tax credit and universal credit to the first two children in a family. By 2021, 640,000 families will have been affected, and it is estimated that an extra 200,000 children will have been tipped into poverty. I was one of 60 Bishops who signed a letter opposing this policy and stating that children are a private joy and a public good, and that they are all equally deserving of subsistence support. 
 
Thirdly, don’t mess people around. The Children’s Society said that lengthy delays are a structured part of the Universal Credit system. For example, they said until recently, if someone claimed Universal Credit because they lost their job, they were expected to use their final salary payment to last them through a six week wait until their first payment. This has been reduced to five weeks, but most new claimants can still expect a lengthy wait before they receive their first payment.

A report on Universal Credit just published by The National Audit Office (the Government’s own watchdog) said that, last year a quarter of new claims were not paid in full on time and from January to October 2017, 40 per cent of those affected by late payments waited for 11 weeks or more.  A fifth of those with late payments waited almost five months. And despite improvements, in March this year 21 per cent of new claimants did not receive their full entitlement on time with 13 per cent receiving no payment on time. And they added that the DWP does not anticipate that delays will improve this year. Add to this the cruel application of sanctions which is set to rise under Universal Credit and the future does not look good. How does this reflect the call to give liberally and to be ungrudging when we do so? 
 
The Trussell Trust has found that, where Universal Credit has been in full roll-out for a year, foodbank use has increased by 52 per cent as opposed to other areas where the increase has been a modest 13 per cent. How does all this reflect the call to give liberally and to be ungrudging when we do so? 
 
Fourthly, don’t treat people with disabilities as if they are undeserving of our help. A manager of a debt advice said: “I took one of our clients to her assessment, and she walked from the car to the assessment centre leaning heavily on me. And the report said that ‘I’ve watched this person walk 20 metres arm in arm with her friend, so I conclude that she can walk 200 metres…’” 
 
Now these ludicrous assessment verdicts are often overturned on appeal but in 2013 the government made it much harder to appeal a decision by saying that it first had to be reconsidered by the Department for Work and Pensions and they said that people who had been found fit could not receive Employment and Support Allowance while waiting for their claim to be reconsidered.  That means that those who decide to complain about a decision that has been made are faced with having no income at all during that period, or making a claim for Jobseeker’s Allowance or some other out-of-work benefit. Now that is just cruel. 
 
Another worker in an advice centre said: “I can think of a case recently when he had the most explicit letter from the hospital, which could not have made it clearer how unwell the individual was and how the process was pushing this person closer to self-harm. We have also seen clients who are on very high levels of morphine painkillers who have been given zero points on their ESA applications. It’s so totally counter-productive to the recovery of individuals”, they said. 
 
Fifthly, another group to be treated harshly are migrants and so called ‘undocumented people’ who, as part of the hostile environment policy are deemed to have no recourse to public funds and are excluded from the mainstream benefits system altogether. The same book of the Bible from which I quoted earlier also speaks of loving and caring for the foreigner or stranger the complete opposite of the hostile environment policy. 
 
And sixthly, and finally, don’t pass the buck or hide behind systems that have been designed to fail. So, for example, when the Government localised Crisis Loans and Community Care Grants they also halved the support available to deliver them, and the funding which amounts to £130 million per year (in cash terms) is not ring-fenced, so local authorities do not have to spend it on local welfare provision and, because of the financial constraints that they are under and the list of things they have to do many councils have ceased to provide Crisis Loans and Community Care Grants at all. But central government can just hold up its hands and say that the responsibility has been passed to local government.

Unless changes like these that I have mentioned are made, and made soon then the Food Bank will be needed more and more in the future and not just for those in a crisis but as an ongoing supplement to the inadequate aid that is offered to those most in need.  The Children’s Society said in principle, we believe the state has an important role to play in crisis provision and should not be delegating this responsibility to the voluntary sector, consciously or otherwise. Morally, the state has an imperative to help those most in need. Practically, given that the failings of state-run systems is one of the major drivers pushing people into financial crisis, it clearly must do more to both prevent this from happening and to ensure there is a strong safety net when it does occur. I couldn’t agree more. 
 
For, as it says in Scripture: “If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’” 
 
Until we heed this command then we will need this Food Bank. 
 
So thank you for all that you do and please excuse me but I will keep praying that one day you will become gloriously irrelevant as the needs of the poor are properly met and the safety net that we all need to be in place is properly maintained and fit for purpose. 

* Diocese of Chelmsford http://www.chelmsford.anglican.org/

[Ekk/6]


 

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