The manager of the Greenwich food bank Alan Robinson has been particularly busy recently. Not only is food bank use up by a very worrying 500% in Lewisham and Greenwich, but last week he was called to a Westminster evidence session of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty. This APPG is proactively investigating the underlying causes of hunger, food poverty and the huge increase in demand for food banks across Britain. The group was established by MP for Birkenhead Frank Field, and he is co-chair, alongside the Bishop of Truro Frank Thornton.
The inquiry was launched in April this year at Lambeth Palace, with the aim of posing a series of key questions to each of the political parties in the lead up to the next general election about how they will respond to the rising demand for food aid in this country. Mr Field brought evidence to that first formal session about how some of the conventional trends in households’ ability to cover the cost of living had been “shattered over the past decade – with the proportion of household incomes needed to cover the combined costs of housing, fuel and food increasing since 2003”.
The terms of reference include understanding the extent and geographical spread of hunger and food poverty in this country, its causes, and investigating the source of emergency food assistance providers’ supplies. Some of the other terms of reference include the effectiveness of emergency food assistance in meeting immediate and long-term needs , and the possibility of these schemes becoming permanent features of the welfare state. The full terms of reference list is here. The inquiry will also make recommendations, and a report is expected in the autumn. You can follow the work of the inquiry by visiting www.foodpovertyinquiry.org
Alan was one of the people called to a closed hearing evidence session in Parliament last week. The inquiry has already held regional evidence sessions in Birkenhead, Salisbury, Cornwall and South Shields. Alan reported back to me on what he said at the session. He had written to the inquiry, telling Mr Field about the Trussell Trust food bank in Greenwich. He described the vast growth in numbers which he attributes to the welfare changes which began in April 2013, including the welfare cap and the bedroom tax .
He said: “The inquiry already had a good understanding of some of the issues, and they asked me to clarify some of the issues I’d written about. There are problems at the job centre (one of the places that can refer people to the food bank for help). No-one understands how the system works – not even the people who work there. Then they don’t apply the system consistently. The job centre is a daunting place to visit. The government makes the rules and then doesn’t tell everyone what they are. The job centre loses documentation – but then that loss becomes your problem as a client. It’s the attitude of ‘none of these problems are our problems, even if we’ve caused it’ that comes with it. Lost documentation is a key example.”
The inquiry heard of the cafe-style approach at the Greenwich food bank, where people can be helped in a compassionate, caring way. This led to a discussion with the inquiry panel about whether state institutions can be compassionate. “It’s not a quality you would nowadays attach to state institutions – to be compassionate and show empathy. To do that you have to listen. People tell us ‘it’s no good telling them anything – they don’t listen’.”
Alan told the inquiry that a number of clients “don’t have the capacity to advocate their own position”. A representative of the East London based Tower Hamlets food bank was also giving evidence at the session, and “what came out in both of our evidence is there’s a section of clients who need someone to provide advocacy”. Alan told how he hears people’s stories, “and contacts the agency or department concerned and often gets results – if Greenwich food bank is calling up the job centre then that has a greater impact”. The panel then went on to discuss whose role it is in society to provide that service.
Someone needs to be doing this vital advocacy work, says Alan. “If you took away the need for me to provide food, then I would be quite happy to do it.”
Advocacy seems to be the missing link in many lives. Vulnerable individuals who get the right timely support may be able to avoid hitting crisis and needing an emergency supply of food – in the same way that someone with a chronic illness may avoid a costly hospital intervention with the right specialist support in the community. A professional advocate – a housing support worker, a community psychiatric nurse, a social worker or a Trussell Trust manager freed up from the need to source and provide emergency food could very often help to get someone’s benefits sorted at tribunal or get a sanction lifted. But how many professionals are left with the time to do this work?
There’s a growing group of vulnerable people in the UK who are losing their way in a fast-changing and complex welfare system that seems designed to confuse. Fewer and fewer people are being paid and trained to help them. The result? In Greenwich, visitors to Trussell Trust food banks increased from 776 to 5,025 in the past year, while the figure rose from 623 to 3,895 in Lewisham borough.
Having reported from the Greenwich food banks for nearly a year now, I’ll be submitting some evidence this week to the inquiry team – based on some of the individual interviews I’ve carried out with clients. The deadline for submitting evidence has officially passed, , but you can still email submissions to Andrew Forsey, joint secretary to the inquiry team on firstname.lastname@example.org
If you are able to structure your evidence according to the terms of reference, this will help the inquiry team to analyse the large amount of evidence it hopes to receive.
Alan has written to work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith on Twitter, inviting him to visit the food bank. He hasn’t received a reply yet. London Assembly member Len Duvall has also called on London Mayor Boris Johnson to pay the Greenwich food banks a visit.