Emma addresses ‘Stomach This’ conference on food poverty

June 22, 2015

150619 Stomach This ConferenceEmma addresses ‘Stomach This’ conference on food poverty

This Thursday Emma took part in the ‘Stomach This’ conference – which brought together charities and campaigners from across the country to examine the challenge of ending food poverty in Britain.

Emma explained how the impact of food poverty on people in South Shields had made her determined to end hunger in our country. She told the conference about the work of the All-Party Group on Hunger and Food Poverty, and about the changes that were needed to make sure everybody in Britain is able to feed themselves and their families.

She said that the All-Party Group’s Feeding Britain report had contained a number of recommendations for how to alleviate food poverty, some of which had been taken up by Government. But on the big issues of welfare reform there was a long way to go, with harsh benefit sanctions and benefit delays contributing to as many as half of food bank referrals.

The conference was organised by We Are Nudge, and included speakers from the Trussell Trust, Oxfam and the Child Poverty Action Group.

Emma has been a leading campaigner in Parliament on the issue of food banks, challenging ministers on the issue at every opportunity.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty held a number of evidence sessions throughout 2014, including in South Shields. Since the report’s publication in December, the group has continued to work on a number of local projects, and Emma is currently working with the social supermarket Community Shop to try and open a branch in South Shields.

She has also pledged to go on raising the issue in Parliament.

Emma’s speech to the Stomach This conference:

It’s a pleasure to be here today to speak about the work of the APPG on Hunger and Food Poverty. Our report, ‘Feeding Britain’, was published last December after we spent the best part of a year travelling the country speaking to food aid providers, food bank users, and food poverty experts about the growing tragedy of hunger in Britain.

I wanted to share a couple of stories with you from my own constituency, because while the numbers sound bad, it’s the individual stories that really hit home.

Last year a man in South Shields was arrested for shoplifting in a local store. When the police escorted him home, they found that not only was his fridge empty, but he didn’t have any electricity to run it. Nor did he have heating in his home. He was so desperate he’d turned to stealing food to feed himself.

Another young woman in my constituency was a victim of the Bedroom Tax. After her housing benefit had been deducted, and she’d paid her essential bills, she calculated that she had just 84p per day to feed herself. That is the extremity of poverty people are facing today.

Before I became an MP I was a social worker. I had always worked with families in poverty, but after 2010 I found myself dealing with more families in crisis because of welfare changes – I spent more time doing supervised shops with families who couldn’t afford to feed themselves, and more time speaking to utilities companies, Citizens’ Advice and others trying to get families financial help.

That’s why the scope of the Feeding Britain report had to be wide-ranging, because we realised – like the agenda of today’s conference – that food poverty has complicated causes. It isn’t just about food prices or food production. It’s about low pay, the cost of other essentials like housing and heating, and about the social safety net.

And because the problem wasn’t one-dimensional, we recognised that a one-dimensional solution wouldn’t cut it either. That’s why as well as calling for the Government to change, we also talked about how we can make Britain’s food aid network more effective, and improve help in our own constituencies. We want to involve the Government, private and voluntary sectors – the problem of hunger should be everyone’s business to solve.

I don’t know about you, but I get fed up with the way that Governments produce report after report recommending grand changes to this and that, but never translate those into action. Our APPG didn’t want to fall in that trap – we didn’t want our report to be the end of our work; it had to be the beginning.

Since December we have taken our recommendations forward, piloting new projects in our constituencies, working with excellent organisations like Community Shop, Magic Breakfast and others with the goal of establishing social supermarkets and school breakfast clubs.

Feeding Britain is applying for official charitable status via Royal Charter, and we’re enlisting support from major food retailers and national charities like Citizens Advice.

One thing that runs through our report is that food banks shouldn’t just be handouts – they should help to address the issues behind hunger in the first place. So if someone is going hungry because they’ve been sanctioned, rather than just handing them food and waiting for them to come back in a few weeks’ time we can direct them to advice services that can help them apply for hardship payments. If someone is going hungry because of payday loan debt, food banks should have contacts that can provide free debt advice. They should be able to link people up with training opportunities and cookery courses. That’s how we make sure that we’re not just ‘filling the gap’, but helping people escape poverty for good.

This is all great work, but one thing I’ve been very clear on is that I don’t think we should be setting up food banks to be a permanent fixture in our communities. We’re all grateful for the amazing generosity of people who donate food and who volunteer their time to help people in need, but we should never accept hunger as being ‘normal’. We live in one of the richest countries in the world, and when people don’t have enough to feed themselves properly then we need to recognise that something has gone very wrong.

Alongside Feeding Britain’s continuing work, we called for the Government to make a number of policy changes that we found were contributing to hunger. Things like the harsh benefit sanctions that cut off a person’s support for the slightest reason; or the shambles at DWP that has left some people waiting a year or more for their disability benefits. The evidence we received showed that introducing a ‘yellow card’ system instead of removing benefits for a single mistake, and dealing with delays to benefit payments could halve the number of people turning to foodbanks.

Sadly progress on these issues has not been so encouraging, and it shows that while the public has the will to do their bit for the poorest, that will isn’t being matched by Ministers – they are still wilfully blind to the problems caused by welfare reform, and their failure to stand up for lower income families. They still trot out the line that people turn to food banks because they can’t manage money, or because they can’t cook properly. I don’t know how else to put it – those people are wrong.

There are still political battles to be won, and winning change for the people going hungry in my constituency is going to be one of my priorities as an MP over the coming years.

It’s not about politics for me – it’s personal. I speak to people whom I’ve known my whole life, who are working hard but can’t afford to feed their families. Just a few weeks ago I spoke to a lady who I’ve known since childhood, and she told me under her breath how she’d had to go to a food bank. This was a proud woman whose health problems have kept her from working, and has been through the stress of Work Capability Assessments and sanctions. I could not bear to see the effect that poverty has had on her.

It’s for people like her that I will never stop pushing the Government for change, and why – until people are no longer going hungry in our country – Feeding Britain’s work will go on.

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