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Rishi Sunak needs to step out of his ivory tower and see what real poverty in Britain looks like

Food banks around the country are recording their busiest weeks ever as the cost of living crisis worsens | Alamy

6 min read

I wonder if Rishi Sunak has any real idea about what it is like to be poor. Does he think it means people are going to skip their holiday this year? Buy all their clothes at the charity shop? Maybe decide to give up going to the pub once a week?

That is so far from the reality of the poverty facing many in Britain today, following the energy price rises, the tax rise, the price rises on basic foods (pasta has gone up by almost 50 per cent in some stores), and now the loss of the £20 uplift to Universal Credit. 

Some of these losses have, it is true, been partially replaced, but in real terms they are leaving our most vulnerable citizens severely challenged. 

Talking to a headteacher at a school in Lambeth recently, these are just a few of the signs she sees: children coming to school with the front of their shoes cut off so their feet can still get in them; kids coming to school without having had breakfast; mother’s calling up to say their daughters can’t come to school because they cannot afford sanitary protection (the school now steps in). Holidays? Forget it; far from being a nice time, they are a time of terror for many families, as they have no money to feed the kids, let alone pay for even basic entertainment. 

Cutting back on food is, for so many, the only part of the weekly budget and outgoings over which they have control. Rent, rates, electricity and suchlike are set in stone. You can always pay less for food and, failing that, well, you skip meals – which is what we see all too often when people first come to one of the projects I help run. 

It is to our eternal shame so many families should be so poor they have to turn to handouts from charities

Four years ago, I took over from [Lord] Frank Field as chair of Feeding Britain. It’s a unique charity, in that it is set up both to deliver projects on the ground as well as influence policy in Parliament. We have MPs in our advisory group and peers, like me, on our board. 

Recent surveys suggest that this time last year, the queues outside food banks were beginning to shorten after a decade of almost continuous lengthening. Moreover, the government’s own recent data suggests that, at that same time, the numbers with low or very low food security had reduced by a quarter on the previous year. 

This was, for a short moment, hugely encouraging because it shows that, with the collective firepower of government and civil society turned against hunger, ever-lengthening queues for food banks are not inevitable. 

We tried to analyse why that was happening; in particular, it was the £20-a-week increase in Universal Credit, action to prevent long-term unemployment, and the support given to children and families during school holidays which made a difference from the government’s side of the bargain. 

And, we think, the pandemic helped civil society begin rethinking its approach to food provision, with a gradual shift well under way last year towards more preventative schemes such as affordable food clubs, food buses, and social supermarkets. These schemes improve people’s access to nutritious food while also helping them stretch their budgets further and tackle problems around benefits, debt or housing. 

We have 130 affordable food clubs, and our staff and volunteers cautiously estimated around half the 17,000 households who belong to those clubs would have been destitute and in need of a food bank in the absence of this more dignified alternative which prevents them from hitting rock bottom.

But... that was then and this is now.

Since the autumn, this window of opportunity to continue shortening food bank queues has been slammed shut. Food banks within the Feeding Bradford network have reported their busiest few weeks ever, with sharp rises also being registered by food banks in the Feeding Halton network. Feeding Birkenhead reports “young mums with desperation written over their face, and with the Grim Reaper on their shoulder”, due to rising living costs and a lack of money for food.

Elsewhere, the One Can Trust food bank in Wycombe tells me the number of parcels it gave out fell from 1,325 in March 2021 to 726 in June 2021, and again to 692 in September 2021, but rose to 1,220 in February 2022. Meanwhile, four of Feeding Derbyshire’s affordable food clubs that opened late last autumn anticipated having 160 members by now, but instead are serving four times that many (around 670).

In the 1980s, food banks became entrenched in both the United States and Canada, as growing numbers of people were unable to access their full statutory entitlements and, in some cases, those entitlements were set at too low a level to cover basic needs. We are now at risk in the United Kingdom of following those countries down the path of food banking on an industrial scale. 

To take one example, with just days to go until last month’s cut-off date, 68,437 households on the paper voucher scheme had not yet been moved to the new Healthy Start card. While eligibility may have changed for some, it’s absolutely vital no one is allowed to fall through the cracks. They are part of a broader group of up to 200,000 households who could be eligible but are not registered for their Healthy Start entitlement.

The Nourishing Norfolk network of affordable food clubs adds along similar lines that some disabled people are waiting 10 months for assessments and correct decisions on PIP applications, leaving them short of money; while Feeding Birkenhead regularly steps in to support people who are not in receipt of their full DLA, PIP, attendance allowance, or Pension Credit entitlements. 

If we are to shorten the queues outside food banks, we desperately need to cut the length of time it takes for people to receive the full payments to which they are entitled, to deploy automatic registration strategies like the one being used to administer the Warm Home Discount, and to ensure the payments themselves reflect more accurately the desperate circumstances of people at the bottom of the pile who are now hungry. 

I feel horrified I am even writing this piece. In an oral question on the Spring Statement, I asked the minister whether the government now factored food banks into their assessment of just how little money people could survive on. Unsurprisingly, I did not get an answer. 

It is to our eternal shame so many families who share this country of ours, who vote in our elections and whose children will be born into all its possibilities, should be so poor they have to turn to handouts. 

I would like to ask the Chancellor to step out of his ivory tower and come with me to visit some people who know what real poverty means, and then maybe think twice about taking away the uplift in benefits including Universal Credit – a sum of money which to him might be just a tip left at the end of dinner in London’s West End, but to many means the difference between a meal, a pair of shoes or a box of Tampax.

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