I recently chaired a conference that I organised with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology on food aid. I am a member of the board of this really useful organization, which provides all Members of Parliament with independent expert analysis on science, including social science and technology, to inform parliamentarian’s work.
The Food Aid in the UK conference was attended by a broad range of parliamentarians, organisations and researchers. The information and opinions shared will now form part of the APPG Inquiry that is looking at how we can ensure everyone can afford a healthy, nutritious food for themselves and their family. I am working on this inquiry with Frank Field MP and Bishop Tim of Truro for the next few months. Our inquiry will make recommendations for all political parties and people to consider as we approach the 2015 general election.
While foodbank useage has been increasing for more than a decade, the Conference demonstrated that there is a paucity of robust evidence for why so many people are using food banks. The debate about the reasons has become highly politicised and emotive, generating more heat than light. There will be much work for the APPG Inquiry do to plug this gap of understanding.
From my own work helping people using local Foodbanks I see a complexity of reasons. There are straightforward ways we have been able to help, for example helping people get the benefits that they are entitled to and didn’t know about, cutting through delays in benefits processing and helping people to access publicly funded services that they didn’t know about. Working alongside Foodbank volunteers we have helped many people from the gentleman who didn’t know about Pension Tax credit who now has the money to look after himself to the homeless gentleman who now has accommodation and is training for a new job. Many people have fallen between the cracks of the public and voluntary services that are there to help support them so they can help themselves.
Independent and authoritative data from the ONS and OECD shows the number of people finding it difficult to get by financially and afford food is declining. However there is much more work to do to bring the numbers down further.
As great a challenge is to ensure that people who work hard and try their best to look after themselves and their families are able to earn enough for themselves and their families for a decent standard of living. We live in an increasingly complex, competitive and uncertain world. One that rewards high skills and flexibility. As we rebuild and rebalance our economy I want to make sure no one is left behind. I do not want to live in a country that sees Foodbanks as a normal part of our society as has happened in Canada and other rich nations. While there will always be a need to help people in crisis situations when they run out of money widespread use of food aid must not become entrenched.