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Food Banks

Volume 753: debated on Thursday 20 March 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the number and role of food banks in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, there are no official figures for the number of charities providing food aid, including through food banks, in the United Kingdom. Food banks are a mostly community-led provision responding to local needs, and it is not government’s role to tell them how to run the services they provide.

My Lords, Newcastle alone has eight food banks and seven low-cost food centres. Is it not time that the Government recognised that the growth in the number of food banks and in the number of people using them does not reflect a lifestyle choice but is caused by hardship and hunger? Will the Minister urge the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to resile from his petulant refusal to meet the Trussell Trust, one of the major providers of food banks, and instead discuss with it how best to meet the need that is now palpable in communities up and down the country?

My Lords, we do, of course, appreciate that some of the poorest people are struggling. The Government’s view is that 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 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. There are a number of other measures designed to help households in the wider context. These are the ways in which we are tackling poverty.

My Lords, my noble friend may not be aware that the APPG on Food Poverty and Hunger is shortly to start an inquiry into the reasons behind food poverty, which will be chaired by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Truro and Frank Field. I am sure we all look forward to its findings. Does my noble friend agree that the flip side of this coin is the shocking amount of food waste in this country, estimated at £60 a month for each household—the equivalent of six meals a week?

My Lords, I am aware of the APPG inquiry of which my noble friend speaks, and I am looking forward with great interest to what it comes up with. As my noble friend also knows, we have a number of initiatives dealing with food waste. As an example, WRAP’s Love Food, Hate Waste campaign aims to raise awareness of the need to reduce food waste and help people take action.

Is the Minister aware that since food banks got going at their present scale, hospital admissions for malnutrition have increased by 74%? What are the Government going to do about that?

My Lords, we are working with business and others to encourage people to adopt a healthier diet. Industry is making voluntary pledges to cut salt, fats and calories, increase uptake of fruit and vegetables and label nutrients and calories on packs in out-of-home eating places. Of course, there are a number of other initiatives to do with school food.

My Lords, research by Citizens Advice shows that the main reason people are referred to food banks is delay in the payment of benefits and benefit sanctions; anecdotally, this is also the church’s own experience from its involvement in the many food banks it helps to run across the country. Will the Minister tell us whether the Government are persuaded by this evidence and, if they are not, will he share with us what plans they have to carry out their own research into the reasons leading so many people to seek food aid?

My Lords, I very much acknowledge the right reverend Prelate’s question. While it is right to expect that claimants who are able to look for or prepare for work should do so, a sanction will never be imposed if a claimant has good reason for failing to meet requirements. If claimants demonstrate that they cannot buy essential items, including food, as a result of their sanction, they can claim a hardship payment. No claimant should ever have to go without essentials as a result of a sanction.

My Lords, food banks in the south-west gave emergency food aid to more than 40,000 adults and 20,000 children in 2013. Does the Minister believe that this is supply-driven or down to desperate, pressing demand caused by a cost of living crisis? If he is unsure, perhaps he would accept an invitation to join me on a visit to my local food bank, or perhaps to the one in Gloucester, to investigate.

My Lords, I have indeed visited a local food bank near my home within the past few months. I was reminded that food banks are run by wonderful people and donated to by hugely generous folk. They perform a very valuable service, distributing food to people who really need it, and they tend to operate at a local level. Britain has a great tradition of charitable giving, and it would be a bad day on which we started to interfere with that.

My Lords, there was some confusion with the right reverend Prelate. I did in fact ask the Minister whether he agreed that it is surely a scandal in today’s society that food banks have to exist at all.

I think I have just answered that, my Lords. Britain has a great tradition of charitable giving, and it would be a great mistake to interfere with that.

Can my noble friend say whether the Government have any plans to commission any of the research indentified in the conclusions of his own department’s recent review of food aid in order to inform and support the voluntary groups providing food aid?

My Lords, 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 the wonderful volunteers trying to help their communities. The report is a useful summary of evidence from providers and charities. The provision of food aid ranges from small, local provision through to regional and national schemes. The landscape is mostly community-led provision responding to local needs. It is not the Government’s role to tell them how to run the services they provide.

My Lords, the Minister said that the answer to the problem of people using food banks is for them to be in employment. Without doing research, how on earth can the Minister justify that statement? So many people are working and using food banks—those on zero-hours contracts, et cetera. Is the Minister aware that, in many parts of the country, food banks cannot accept food that needs cooking because those using food banks have had their power cut off through poverty?

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a number of issues, and I am not going to have time to do them all justice. She raises the issue of the working poor, and she is right to do so. We agree, as I said earlier, that some of the poorest households in the country are struggling. That is why, for example, we are increasing the minimum wage and increasing the personal tax allowance, taking 3.2 million people out of income tax altogether. That is why we have frozen fuel duty and why we have helped local authorities freeze council tax.

My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that there is always a near-infinite demand for valuable goods that are given away free? One can notice it even in the catering departments of this building. If food is given away at prices grossly below market value, more is used. Would my noble friend initiate some research into the sales of junk food in the areas where people are relying for their basic foods on food banks?

No, my Lords, we will not. It might be worth adding to the debate that, as part of its 2014 report on social indicators, the OECD reported that in the United Kingdom there had been a decrease in the number of households reporting that they had felt unable to afford food over the past 12 months when compared to 2007.