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Never in the Post-War Period Has Hunger Presented Itself as Such a Major Political Issue

07/08/2015 14:38 BST | Updated 06/08/2016 10:59 BST

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To mark 100 days of the first Conservative government in nearly 20 years, HuffPost UK is running 100 Days of Dave, a special series of blog posts from grassroots campaigners to government ministers, single parents to first-year students, reflecting on what's worked and what hasn't, whilst looking for solutions to the problems we still face.

Never before in the post-war period has hunger on these shores presented itself as such a major political issue.

The coalition government in the last parliament was confronted with an unprecedented number of people relying on emergency food parcels from their local food bank.

With this development came a dramatic shift in the politics of poverty.

The image of our fellow citizens queueing out of desperation for help from a food bank became a defining symbol of life at the bottom of the pile under the coalition, although this life at the bottom had begun under Labour.

It became increasingly clear in the second half of the parliament, therefore, that if any issue were to present itself as the coalition's soft underbelly, it would be hunger.

But the political mudslinging that took place throughout 2012 and 2013 didn't stop a single soul from going hungry.

Those of us pleading with the government and the opposition to step up their response to this most worrying phenomenon, it seemed, were destined to be frustrated by the futile political warfare that ensued after the release of every new set of data on food bank use.

This frustration was compounded in late 2013 when the prime minister twice rejected our appeals for the government to investigate the trends behind these data.

So together with the Bishop of Truro, Tim Thornton, we set up a cross-party group of MPs and Peers to report on the extent and causes of hunger in this country.

Our report, Feeding Britain, published with strong support from the Archbishop of Canterbury, was issued as a rallying cry to the government, as well as a whole range of organisations in the voluntary and private sectors, to open a new chapter in the debate on hunger; if they could work with us on implementing our 77 recommendations in full we could all but abolish hunger in this country by 2020.

The prime minister welcomed our report and promised to look closely at our proposals.

How, then, have his governments - the coalition and the new Tory administration - followed up on his promise?

Our key finding was that the numbers of people relying on food banks would straight away be halved if the government could:

  • process new benefit claims within five working days;
  • introduce a continuous minimum tax credit payment to prevent a household's income being cut off when HMRC processes a change in family circumstances; and
  • implement a 'Yellow Card' warning, in place of immediate financial sanctions, for benefit claimants deemed not to have fulfilled their duty to look for work.

The government, to its credit, has sought to engage with these proposals. But the real test now is to convert its warm words into swift and effective action.

It has agreed in principle to piloting what amounts to a 'Yellow Card' for some claimants on the Work Programme, but a decision on its date and location remains lacking.

We found likewise that while the government has made some progress in speeding up the delivery of new benefit claims, still there are too many mind-blowing instances in which people on their uppers are left with little or even no money for weeks on end. More than 200,000 people last year waited more than 10 days for their Jobseeker's Allowance claim to be processed, and of this group more than 95,000 people waited more than 16 days.

It is crucial, therefore, that the government sees through its commitment to ensuring new claimants are aware of emergency payments. Such payments can and do play a vital role in staving off hunger - they're designed to bridge what can be a yawning gap between a claim being made and a first payment being received.

Yet last year more than two thirds of claimants applying for emergency payments were unsuccessful, and question marks remain as to whether people with little or no money for food are even aware that they can apply for emergency funds.

So if the new government in its next 100 days wanted to halve the numbers of people having to rely on food banks, it could start by ensuring benefit payments are made correctly and promptly, sanctions are applied fairly, and emergency payments are readily available to people in dire need. We have set up a working group with the help of Child Poverty Action Group to campaign for these reforms.

A second major finding in Feeding Britain was that around one in four people relying on food banks could be lifted free from hunger if their wages were brought up to the level of a Living Wage.

Here the new government has thrown a rocket into the debate with its new 'National Living Wage', alongside a series of reforms to the tax credit system.

The introduction of the former is a potential game changer, not just in the hunger debate but also in the wider distribution of income. A next move must be to set the 'National Living Wage' at a high enough level so that work will always provide failsafe protection against hunger.

But this will prove impossibly difficult following the government's tightening up of the means test on low paid workers. By introducing a lower tax credit earnings threshold and increasing the taper rate to 48%, the government looks set to pick the pockets of three million low paid workers. Three quarters of a million families earning between £10,000 and £20,000 will lose up to £2,184 next year, and families earning £10,226 will be exactly £1,500 worse off. We are deeply concerned about the impact this might have on the ability of low paid workers to afford food for themselves and their families.

How might the new government now take on other key aspects of the debate on hunger? Here are three propositions it should consider, based on our findings from Feeding Britain.

First, we need a New Deal on Prepayment Meters to protect poor households from being ripped off by their gas and electricity supplier. This proposal, which has the backing of 109 MPs from all parties, would go a long way towards resolving the cruel dilemma facing some families of whether to 'heat or eat'.

Second, if we are to ensure no child is hungry we need a ruling which gives all local authorities the duty and powers immediately to register all eligible children for free school meals (around one third of eligible children in some areas aren't registered), and a costing exercise to weigh up how a national programme might continue the provision of meals, perhaps combined with cooking sessions and other activities, during the school holidays.

Third, there is much to be said for the heroic work of voluntary organisations who use food as a means of connecting with our most vulnerable and isolated citizens - not necessarily those using food banks but who nonetheless face the daily prospect of going without food.

During our inquiry we were told how much those organisations can benefit from a regular supply of fresh food from the likes of FareShare; it allows them to focus scarce resources not on trying to buy food, but on tackling isolation and helping people overcome the problems that have led them to be hungry.

We therefore propose that Treasury should run a three-month consultation on two options: first, to divert existing monies from anaerobic digestion or some of the proceeds from the Landfill Tax to encourage the redistribution of good quality surplus food to charities; and second, if necessary, to legislate for this food to be diverted to them.

In Feeding Britain the Prime Minister has a map and compass with which he can plot a route towards a hunger-free United Kingdom.

His government's early progress on this journey has been patchy - highly encouraging in parts, deeply frustrating in others.

Might he therefore set out in the next 100 days a programme that will set this nation free from hunger by the end of his premiership?

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