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Charitable Sector: Food Provision

Volume 829: debated on Monday 27 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government, given the increased use of food banks, what assessment they have made of ways of reducing dependence on the charitable sector for the provision of food.

My Lords, food banks are an example of the generosity of spirt of giving across communities in Britain. This Government are committed to understanding and addressing poverty. Last week, for the first time, we published official estimates of food bank use. This April, we are increasing benefits and benefit cap levels by 10.1% and making further cost of living payments. The Government have provided total support of more than £94 billion over 2022-23 and 2023-24.

I thank the noble Lord for this Answer. One of the real concerns about the increase in the use of food banks—which has gone up phenomenally, by a third in the last year—is that they are being used more by the working poor: people in full-time employment who still cannot afford to feed their families and heat their homes. Is it not time for the Government to be even more creative than they have been already and perhaps introduce a wealth tax of 1% on the richest, so there can be pay rises for the poorest workers?

Well, it is helpful to have some innovative solutions from the noble Baroness, but she will know of the huge amount of support that we have given, of which the House is very aware. There are other measures as well: for example, the Government will provide £100 million of support for charities and community organisations in England. This will be targeted towards those organisations most at risk due to the increased demand from vulnerable groups, and targeted in particular to support critical front-line services.

My Lords, the Trussell Trust recently piloted a study for the APPG on ending the need for food banks on the provision of cash grants instead of food handouts: 94% of the recipients preferred cash to food and said that their finances improved as a result. The survey showed that the cash was used to buy only essential items. What are the Government doing to promote cash responses to local crises?

I fully understand that some people prefer to use cash, and that is certainly possible. I will have to write to the noble Baroness on the spread of where cash can be used.

My Lords, I do congratulate the Government on all the work that they have done in this area to try to help the most disadvantaged. I know that my noble friend cares deeply about these issues. Of course, the working poor have a real need, but can my noble friend tell the House what evidence there is that pensioners are using food banks, and what action the Government are taking to address pensioner poverty?

My noble friend will not be surprised to hear me say that we are committed to action that helps alleviate levels of pensioner poverty. In answer to one of her questions, the HBAI statistics recorded that fewer than 100,000 pensioners were living in households where a food bank had been used. However, despite those figures, there is more to do.

The figures show that there are 200,000 fewer pensioners in absolute poverty than in 2009-10. Pension credit provides a vital financial support to pensioners. This is one of the actions that has been and is being taken by the Government, and it is proving to be very successful, with a 73% uptake in the last 12 months.

My Lords, I am delighted that we are now asking about food bank use in the annual HBAI survey. That is great. But the results are really pretty shocking. For example, they showed that one in six of all people on universal credit used a food bank in the last financial year. When we think that, in the first half of that year, universal credit was £20 higher, furlough was still in place, inflation was 4% and energy bills were half what they are now, it begins to show the scale of the problem.

On 9 January, I asked the Minister what the Government were going to do about the shocking increase in food banks. He said that they needed to know more. Now that they do, what will they do about it?

First, I welcome the noble Baroness back. It is good to see her in her place. To pick up on what she was saying, our newly published statistics on food bank use, alongside the broad suite of poverty data, will indeed help us to shape future policy considerations. There is much in these statistics—some good, some less good—and I assure the noble Baroness that we will look very carefully at them and use them to help us inform and impact on our policies.

My Lords, will the Government commit to the full sharing of full universal credit datasets with local authorities so that they can better co-ordinate their poverty relief programmes with the Government?

Yes, I can certainly follow that up. The noble Baroness will be aware that there is a very strong link with the housing support that I say that “we” but in fact local authorities are giving through the DHPs. There is certainly more that we can do to work even more closely with the local authorities in this respect.

My Lords, 80% of our churches currently support food banks. The Food 4 Thought Alliance was set up to respond to the immediate needs of people in Derby at the start of the Covid pandemic. It reports a 30% increase, already mentioned here, in the distribution of food parcels since last year.

The National Farmers’ Union cautioned last year that we were

“sleepwalking into a food supply crisis”.

What is being done to ensure that problems with supply chains do not push yet more people to rely on food banks?

The right reverend Prelate is right. We recognise that charities and community organisations have been hit by a triple threat of rising demand, rising costs and declining income over recent months. I applaud the role the Church plays in this respect. I am also very aware of the rising costs of certain food items from places such as Morocco and Spain due to climate change. But the funding we are giving broadly supplements the intervention to support households and businesses. The Government also support some of these vulnerable groups through other funding, such as through DLUHC.

My Lords, have the Government considered properly the role of the social supermarket? I speak as the chair of Feeding Britain. We have opened 260 of them, which you join as a club. You can then shop at around 30% to 40% off in the pound. You also get taught to cook and you get community help, which has been so stripped out over the years of austerity. For instance, in the Wirral, where I was on Friday, we have six such social supermarkets. Every Monday they have an adviser on benefits. In the course of 18 months, 1 million quid has been returned to people because they do not understand the complexities of the benefit system. These set-ups work to put back things that used to be in before the age of austerity. Will the Minister agree to come and look at one with me and consider how the Government can take them forward?

I would certainly be very pleased to join the noble Baroness to look at social supermarkets. She will be aware that the main supermarkets do offer some help in this respect. For example, Morrisons offers an average 13% price cut on more than 500 goods, including eggs, beef and rice. Children get a free meal at Morrisons cafés when their parent buys an adult meal worth £4.99.

My Lords, how convinced are the Government that the data on food bank use reflects the number of those who would genuinely go hungry without them? About one-third of all food is wasted, with the UK a leading culprit internationally. Increased use of food banks therefore also underlines the need to cut food waste, which we have heard already. How can we better redistribute food that is reaching its sell-by date to those most in need?

The figures that have just come out help us with a regional focus. For example, 4% of households in the north-east and north-west use a food bank, which is 1% higher than the average for households in England. To answer my noble friend’s question on food waste, we support a broad and holistic approach, with £2.7 million per annum grant funding to the Waste and Resources Action Programme. Crucially included in this programme is the food waste reduction road map and the push for food businesses to follow this tool to target, measure and act on waste, including to redistribute more. It is very important to make the connection between where there might be waste, particularly with foods at their sell-by date, and distributing to those most in need.

This question has cropped up before in this House. I deeply regret the anecdotal evidence that we have of those in the NHS who are minded to go to, or need to go to, food banks. It is certainly something that the Government are very aware of and are looking to take action on in a number of ways.