Three years ago, a cross-party group of MPs and Peers launched an inquiry into the extent and causes of hunger in the United Kingdom. Much progress has been made in feeding the hungry since then. But even more remains to be done.
A striking finding from the inquiry, which one of the authors co-chaired with the Bishop of Truro, was that there are at least eight government departments whose policies have a direct impact on our country’s vulnerability to hunger and malnutrition.
One of our main reform proposals, therefore, was for a central government body to be set up and given the task of co-ordinating the activities of those eight departments, in respect of their impact on the living standards of households who, for one reason or another, are never far away from needing a food bank.
Although this proposal was rejected by the Coalition Government, those of us who served on the inquiry have been busy implementing, sometimes with other organisations, our main recommendations. We’ve won national gains as well as unleashed local initiatives.
We have continued working as a cross-party group in Parliament, and set up a charity called Feeding Britain, to put our report into action.
The cross-party group has taken on what would have been the role of that central government body, namely to gain changes in government policy that deliver victories for poorer households.
Although this work is at times painstaking, it has begun to deliver such victories on several fronts.
Following our recommendations for improvements to the administration of tax credits and Child Benefit, HMRC has begun piloting a new telephone service by which tax credit claimants are able to convert single claims into joint claims. This removes the need for them to request a new claim pack and wait for it to be processed. Before Christmas, 390 claims in a trial area were successfully converted, with the new payment processed in eight days, rather than the eight weeks it would have taken under the previous system. The trial will be extended in February, before it is rolled out on a national basis. We would, of course, like there to be no delays whatsoever in the benefits and tax credit systems. But this is a start.
A further 200 families were helped by a second trial programme to eliminate delays in the processing of Child Benefit. An enhanced online system was used by HMRC to verify new claims, thereby doing away with the need for families to submit birth certificates with their application. The loss of birth certificates under the previous system, and the delays this caused, had resulted in some families having to use food banks.
In addition, the DWP has begun trialling our proposal for a new, online system through which people making a new claim for Employment and Support Allowance can submit the necessary supporting documents. This will minimise the chances of claims being delayed by the loss of those documents.
The DWP has also trialled our proposal for a Yellow Card warning in the sanctions system. Once people have been given a Yellow Card, they have two weeks to provide evidence showing why they should not receive a sanction for missing a Jobcentre Plus appointment, for example. The results show that 455 people who were given a Yellow Card during the trial, which took place in parts of Scotland, successfully avoided being sanctioned. If the trial were to be rolled out across the country, a move which the cross-party group has advocated, it could prevent thousands of people wrongly losing their benefit.
Further gains have been won for poorer families who are reliant on prepayment meters for their gas and electricity – a three-year price cap will bring their energy costs into line with those more fortunate households who currently get a better deal on Direct Debit, and a bevy of one-off charges levied through prepayment meters are being banned by Ofgem.
There are, of course, many more such reforms that will be required to rebuild the nation’s safety net and prevent people falling into a state of destitution. And those reforms will take time both to gain and then implement.
Feeding Britain, therefore, is initiating a series of local anti-hunger projects to prevent hunger in our communities.
In Birkenhead, for example, Feeding Britain has worked in partnership with the local authority and a variety of church-based and voluntary organisations, to provide free meals and fun activities in school holidays for over 2,000 children. 12 school breakfast clubs have been set up during term time, and the automatic registration of eligible children for free school meals by Wirral Council has helped 600 children who were not previously registered. In so doing, it has netted an additional £725,000 in Pupil Premium funding towards their schooling.
The provision of benefit and debt advice, as well as help with energy costs, within food banks, and new regulations requiring cooking facilities to be provided in privately rented accommodation, have also been delivered. Likewise a new two-way welfare contract has been implemented in Birkenhead Jobcentre Plus, so that people making new benefit claims are given help to make their money go further. Reforms to the collection of Council Tax arrears from poorer households are also in the offing, as is a new town-wide initiative to help the homeless access food that is ready to eat.
Here, then, is a national anti-hunger movement being driven by the cross-party group in Parliament, and Feeding Britain, which draws upon the strength of government departments, local authorities, the Church, and the wider voluntary sector.
It is this approach which can begin to make significant inroads into the appalling levels of hunger we are witnessing in our country.
Frank Field MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger
Andrew Forsey, trustee of Feeding Britain and head of Frank Field MP’s parliamentary office