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NHS: Food Banks

Volume 767: debated on Thursday 26 November 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the provision of food banks at, and the distribution of food to people in need by, NHS hospitals.

My Lords, decisions about such schemes are rightly made locally. The Government’s policy approach is that economic growth, productivity and employment offer the best route to give people a better future and reduce poverty. We implemented a long-term economic plan which is working. The employment rate is at a new record high and earnings are growing. We also announced that a new national living wage will be introduced from April 2016 for those aged 25 and above.

My Lords, four weeks ago the Guardian reported that hospitals in Tameside in Greater Manchester and in Birmingham were opening food banks on their premises. In the ward I represent in Newcastle, all six primary schools and the local secondary school run a breakfast club for their pupils. These stark facts are reflective not of lifestyle choices, as some would have it, but of real need. When will the Departments of Health, Education, Work and Pensions and the Treasury come together to develop and implement policies to address the scandal of food poverty in what is still one of the richest countries in the world?

My Lords, the people running the schemes in the two hospitals in Birmingham and in Tameside are to be congratulated. I am not sure that there is a similar scheme in Newcastle. I know from experience of homelessness how difficult it is, for example, to discharge patients when they have nowhere to go, with the risk of discharging people onto the street who will then come back into hospital. The work they are doing in those two hospitals is to be applauded. We have a welfare safety net in this country. Tragically, anywhere around the world there will be some people who fall through that net. The fact that there are voluntary groups and charities prepared to help pick those people up is a cause for celebration. It is that combination of a state welfare net with an active civic society which makes this country as good as it is.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the location of food banks should not be at the top of the priority list of cash-strapped NHS hospitals, most of which are in deficit at the moment? Does he also agree that food banks need to be conveniently located so that those who need them can visit them regularly? I would rather hope that those people would not have to visit hospitals regularly.

I do not think that anyone is saying that the food banks in the hospitals in Birmingham and Tameside are their top priority, I just think that it is a very human reaction of people working in those hospitals who want to help very vulnerable people who are being discharged.

My Lords, more than a year ago I visited Drumchapel citizens advice bureau and the food bank there to see what the situation was. I have now looked at the updated figures. In a two-year period from 2012 to 2014, referrals for benefit changes and delays went up from 127 in 2012 to 1,192—an increase of almost 850%. Is it not time for an independent investigation into what is now becoming a very worrying and scandalous situation in this country?

It is interesting that the use of food banks is increasing not just in England but in America, Canada, Germany and across Europe. The policy response of this Government is that we should focus on a strong economy, more jobs and the national living wage.

My Lords, is it not paradoxical that, seven years after the world economic crisis, more and more people in this country are needing food banks? Will the Government look much more carefully than they have done up to now into the connection between benefit sanctions and food poverty?

It is interesting that the previous Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Davey, said that there was no statistical link between the Government’s benefit reforms and the provision of food banks—so I am not sure that there is that link. It is also a paradox that we have this issue with food banks at a time when obesity is one of the biggest threats to the future. It is a strange situation around the world when we have both a problem of obesity and an issue of nutrition.

Will the Minister assure me that the decision in these matters will be up to hospitals themselves, as some hospitals have adequate space and are ideally situated for this purpose whereas others may not be? The Minister said that food banks already exist in some hospitals, which means that there is no bar from the Department of Health on having them. Food banks are doing very important work, but their locations should be assessed against where else would be more convenient. That point has been brought out in the debate. There are many aspects to consider, and it should be a free choice on the part of the hospital and the people who live in that area who may see that as the best place.

I thank my noble friend for that remark. It is entirely up to local organisations and local institutions, and those doing the work in Birmingham and Tameside are to be congratulated.

My Lords, I do not doubt the Minister’s sincerity in his answers, but I point out that food banks result because people are going hungry. People are starving in this country and should not have to rely on such charity. Does he agree that obesity often occurs when people on very meagre budgets have to have the worst kind of food in order to feel satisfied?

The factors behind obesity and malnutrition are extremely complex. The all-party inquiry referred to complex and frequently overlapping factors. The work done by the University of Warwick found that there was no systematic evidence on drivers of food aid in the UK—and the evidence was drawn not just from the UK but from the US, Canada and Germany.

Does the Minister recognise that the comments at the time of the previous Government about there being no link between benefit changes and food banks was significantly challenged at the time and that our experience in Church of England, which is involved in the vast majority of food banks across the country, is that between 35% and 45% of people coming to get support from food banks report that the reason for running out of food is to do with changes to the benefit system and sanctions?

All I can do is repeat what I said before which is that, as Ed Davey said, there is no statistical link, in his view, between the Government’s benefits reforms and the provision of food banks. I think that the issue is much more complex than the most reverend Primate is suggesting.