To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the request by the Executive Chairman of the Trussell Trust for an inquiry into the causes of food poverty and the incidence of the usage of food banks.
My Lords, the Government recognise the good work of organisations that redistribute surplus food to those who might otherwise struggle to access nutritional meals. However, the root causes of household food insecurity are varied and complex. We are not proposing to record the number of food banks or the potential number of people using them or other types of food aid. To do so would place unnecessary burdens on volunteers trying to help their communities.
My Lords, yesterday I visited the Trussell food bank in Richmond—the third wealthiest place in the country. There the food bank distributes a tonne of food a month, up 60% on the year, to people referred to it from 40 agencies, many of them associated with the Minister’s department. Is the Minister content to leave it to charity to feed thousands of people who fall through the cracks of his department? Does the Minister agree that this food poverty must not—cannot—go on? How will the Government bring it to an end?
My Lords, the gist of the noble Lord’s question was whether the Government think that it is okay to rely on the voluntary sector. The answer is no. The Government recognise the good work of charitable organisations that redistribute surplus food, but the Government also have a role. It is not the Government’s role to set prices, but we work to promote open and competitive markets that help to offer the best prices to consumers. Through Healthy Start and other initiatives, we provide a nutritional safety net in a way that encourages healthy eating among more than 500,000 pregnant women and children under four years old in very low-income and disadvantaged families throughout the UK.
My Lords, is it not the case that we are subjecting people—decent men and women—to great indignities by having them queue up for food at the food banks, and that we should find some other way of helping families in need?
I agree with the noble Lord. Of course we appreciate that some of the poorest people are struggling. The best way to help people out of poverty is to help them into work. The latest labour market statistics show employment up, unemployment down and the number of workless households down. We operate a number of government initiatives aimed at helping families with food: Healthy Start, Change4Life and the school fruit and vegetable scheme; and we are extending free school meals. In addition, there are a number of other measures designed to help households in the wider context: the personal tax allowance up £235 from April 2013, 2.4 million people taken out of tax altogether, and fuel duty increases cancelled, to name a few.
Do the Government not understand that while the international financial crisis has hit people on low incomes in many countries, in this country we have an additional problem that the Government are not addressing, which is that utilities—gas, electricity and water—are hitting people on low incomes so hard that they are choosing between the utilities and food? That is what the Government need to address.
The noble Lord makes a fair point about energy prices. Although we cannot control volatile world energy prices, we can still help people get their bills down. The best way to keep everyone’s bills down is to help people save energy, ensure fair tariffs and encourage competition, and that is exactly what we are doing.
My Lords, usage of food banks is rising right across Europe, including in the relatively wealthy countries of the United Kingdom, France and Germany. In light of this, what discussions have the Government had with the European Commission in advance of its planned initiative on sustainable food?
My noble friend asks an important question. We have been working closely with the Commission and other member states with regard to the communication on sustainable food. We met members of the food and drink sector before responding to the Commission’s consultation in October. We have also convened a meeting between interested parties and the Commission. It is a very complex matter but we have ensured that the Commission is aware of the many sustainability and resource-efficiency initiatives undertaken by the UK food industry in recent years.
My Lords, does the Minister remember that a very long time ago a man by the name of Galbraith coined the phrase “private affluence and public squalor”? In view of the increase in poverty and the growth of food banks, does the Minister believe that this country is heading for the same situation?
No, my Lords, and I think I have somewhat laboured the point as to the policy initiatives that we are following.
Does my noble friend not take comfort from the fact that there are poor people in Richmond, that we do not live in a segregated society, and that we are not wasting all the food that is in danger of going out of date but are finding a good place for it to go? What would the party opposite do—abolish food banks and send the food to landfill?
My Lords, my noble friend makes a fair point. I am not going to accept his invitation to suggest what the party opposite might or might not do.
My Lords, is it not the case that the increased use of food banks is at least in part attributable to the fact that we have a harsher benefits system, a harsher sanctions system and a harsher hardship system? In the year to June, some 860,000 JSA claimants were sanctioned; under the new three-year sanction, which we were told would apply only to a handful of people, more than 700 people were sanctioned. How healthily can you eat on £42 a week?
My Lords, I think it is right to expect claimants who are able to look for or prepare for work to do so. Claimants will only ever be required to meet reasonable requirements, taking into account their circumstances and capability. A sanction will never be imposed if a claimant has good reason for failing to meet requirements, and sanctions can be reconsidered or appealed. If claimants demonstrate that they cannot buy essential items, including food, as a result of their sanction, they can claim a hardship payment. This means that no claimant should ever have to go without essentials as a result of their sanction.
My Lords, this year the Government commissioned research on the landscape of food provision. They have had the review since June; they have been reviewing it for longer than it took to write it. Is the reason why they have kept the report and have not published it yet the fact that it shows that the recent increase in food aid provision is due to their own disastrous policies? If I am wrong, publish the report.
My Lords, the noble Lord is right that we have commissioned research to assess publicly available evidence on food aid provision in the UK, including food banks. This work will be made available in due course. All government-funded research reports are required to go through an appropriate review and quality assurance process before publication. The report will be published once this is complete.