“We have failed ….” Reflections on Foodbanks & Universal Credit



This Saturday (20th October 2018) I’ll be leading worship at the start of the annual Pilgrimage organised by Sheffield Church Action on Poverty. As I prepare it’s has reminded me of a previous event organised by the group, and the words I spoke then.

It was a conference held in Sheffield on 30th November 2014, and I spoke about how we as a society would have “failed” if food banks were still with us and were needed in five years time. That date is nearly on us, and presently there are no signs of the need for, and reliance upon food banks lessening, either by the people who use them, or by the state and welfare agencies (who now seem to have them written into their plans and strategies).

The “failure” of food banks now seems both inevitable and clear, even before the deadline I spoke of has been reached.  Now I am called into meetings and briefings about the roll out of Universal Credit in my city of Sheffield; and am told by council staff and others that food banks are part of the infrastructure that will help my neighbours and fellow citizens cope with the new system of welfare. I am asked how might local government and other agencies help support food banks in order that they might better meet the likely increased demand for them following the roll out of Universal Credit (other areas have seen increases of 52% in food bank use following the introduction of the new system).

Lets be clear;  the crisis facing food banks is not one of somehow better ensuring supply meets demand – the problem facing food banks is more fundamental, how do they escape from helping perpetuate a base injustice that is becoming enshrined by the dismantling of the post war consensus around social security, and the return of pre war models of  the “deserving and undeserving poor relief”. Food banks with their “quasi systems” of referrals, and time limits on the like are simply reinforcing the hoop jumping  exercises already faced by people and families on low incomes who rely on the state and other agencies to help maintain a decent standard of life. Austerity is not just a set of political choices made by the current Conservative Government but is also a political culture and tone that has established itself in the aftermath of the global financial crash, and the crisis of neo-liberalism. Sadly its is one that despite our talk of solidarity, despite our best intentions, food banks have not overturned, and in fact may have (without ever intending to) in fact helped perpetuate.

Where does this leave us? I don’t now but here’s some thoughts.

I am grateful for those around me who are helping to unpick and challenge what the next steps might be. Politically we need to find new models of community based support that meet the needs of those struggling on low incomes (and temporarily no income) but that do so with dignity, compassion and inclusion, at the same time we need to find ways of going upstream to the heart of the problem. Some politicians are now too happy to avoid the issue of poverty and food bank use by arguing that the issue is “complex” – yes it is and therefore it needs sound public policy responses not simplistic solutions. Poverty comes in many forms and with many complexities:

  • Poverty and poor mental health
  • Poverty and low wages
  • Poverty and disability
  • Poverty and isolation
  • Poverty and debt
  • Poverty and addiction
  • Poverty and deskilling
  • Poverty and ill health

This list of course could go on, which is of course why food banks aren’t the answer – and neither is any simplistic approach like “the best route out of poverty is through work” – but there are people not able to work, or not able to get secure work, or work with a level of decent wages (and I don’t simply mean paying the “national minimum wage”) sadly their are plenty of people working who are still experiencing hardship, and yes even visits to food banks!

But for many of us the problems are not just political but also theological – so much of the food bank response has been through churches and other faith based organisations, we must also challenge ourselves about what we are doing. Yes we are responding to a call (as phrased within my own Christian tradition) to “feed the hungry” and provide for those in need; but lets examine our deeper motivations too. Are we sometimes only too glad to have found a new “centre stage” for our civic presence? Are we sometimes guilty of stepping into “saviour” mode?

Many of us involved in food banks know that we cannot simply continue as we are – we are at something of a crossroads, the next few years will likely see a number of things, and these will set the pattern for our future.

  1. We are likely to see an increase in the “corporatisation” of some food banks. Franchised food banks, securing local (and possibly even central) government funding, national deals with supermarkets (and other companies) and increased pressure for the need for “robust” referral systems to ensure public accountability.
  2. The closure of many smaller, “independent” food banks as they struggle to cope with the increased needs and demands upon them.
  3. The emergence of new models (which will no doubt throw up their own problems and questions) of community support.

I’ll finish this blog reflection with the words I have chosen to start the pilgrimage this Saturday with – they seem fitting for the times we are in:

Today we set off on a journey together; 

a journey of discovery, 

a journey of understanding,                                    

a journey of emotions,                                            

a journey of prayer.

One step at a time,                     

we journey onwards with God.                         

This is pilgrimage.

Our Fair City


ckcx7ylwgaar15uSome of you might remember the Sheffield Fairness Commission back in 2013 and its report on the inequalities highlighted within the City. Well three years on and the campaign seems to be getting a reworking, in the last fortnight I received an email           re-inviting me to be a “Fairness Champion” (how could I refuse?) and informing me:

“Over the next twelve months we are going to be working on ‘Making Sheffield Fairer’, focusing on four campaigns – Fairer Food, Fairer Money, Fairer Work and Fairer Futures – initiating as many actions and as much ‘doing’ as possible, in order to start making as many small changes as possible that will make a real difference in communities and neighbourhoods across Sheffield.”

Great – so after yet another Friday in our food bank in Parson Cross, another Friday where we’ve fed around forty people (over half of which are were children) – let’s talk about “Fairer Food”. First thing Friday morning I was contacted by a Social Worker who asked me if I could help support one of her clients, a single Mum with two children. The Social Worker said she knew that her client wasn’t actually living in our catchment area, she had a referral for a neighbouring food bank but had been told that morning that they couldn’t help as they’d run out of food (a situation many food banks including ours have come close to before).  We helped, of course we did, “Glad we can ….” as we often say “….but sad we have to”  but lets be clear none of this is fair – none of this is just.

I’ve said it before, as have many others, FOOD BANKS ARE NOT A SOLUTION to either poverty or food insecurity, they are simply a desperate defensive response, a field hospital if you will for some of the casualties of current policies.

When Health Visitors phone me up asking for formula milk for a young mum and her child it proves FOOD BANKS ARE NOT A SOLUTION.

When social workers, aware of the growing shortages, offer to set up workplace donation boxes to just “help out a little” it proves FOOD BANKS ARE NOT A SOLUTION.

And when food banks have to ration food, or turn people away because of the shortages on their shelves, it proves FOOD BANKS ARE NOT A SOLUTION.

We can’t go on like this!

I hear from friends who move in higher powered circles than me, valiantly banging their heads against walls that I would have long ago lost patience with. Telling me that those who walk the corridors of power still argue that the reasons behind why people turn to food banks are complex and cannot be put down solely to Government policy. Yes they are complex, we see people every week with a range of issues from mental health issues, benefit delays, debt, family breakdowns, homelessness, budgeting issues and many more. But the complexity of the problem does not mean the policy solution is to leave things to charity and voluntarism, these have a place but not for the general provision of basic welfare and social security, these are issues dealt with by a civic and civil society, fairness and justice don’t come through someone offering you free food.

So why do I continue to be involved and help run a food bank, when it seems that through our efforts all we are doing is giving government and those with power an excuse to continue to ignore the plight of those on the receiving end of “austerity” politics? In the end, for me its a question of faith and of solidarity with my brothers and sisters in need, as it says in the book of James:

“Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don’t have enough to eat. What good is there in your saying to them, “God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!” – if you don’t give them the necessities of life?”
(James 2:15-16)

That still doesn’t make food banks a solution,  it makes them a humanitarian response to a desperate human need.



The Shrinking Welfare State


434On Saturday I attended an event called “The Shrinking Welfare State” organised by CTSY (Churches Together in South Yorkshire). Presentations gave us an up to date overview of how government policy had already effected many of the most vulnerable in our society, and at the same time had systematically reduced and eroded social housing and social housing tenants in particular. These include the latest provisions around:

  • Pay to Stay. Forcing social tenants with a household income over £30,000 to pay higher “market” rents than their neighbours.
  • An end to lifetime Secure Tenancies. Tenancies will instead be limited to between 2-5 years creating more transitory feel to communities with high proportions of social housing.
  • Enforced sales of “higher value” council properties, with the monies from this being used to fund the governments right to buy schemes for social housing.

We also heard about the further plans put forward by this Government to cut the “welfare budget” by an additional £12 billion in the name of austerity, plans that include:

  • Further reductions to the “benefit cap”
  • Full role out of Universal Credit
  • Removal of Family Premiums on Housing Benefit
  • Changes to Pension Credits
  • Limitations on the backdating of unclaimed Housing Benefit
  • Benefit sanctions for parents of young children for failing to adequately prepare for a return to work

All in all the picture painted was pretty  depressing.

In response to all this “bad news” we then heard from Ian Rutherford of the Yorkshire JPIT (Joint Public Issues Team) who talked about the important research and campaign work they had been doing.  Ian posed for us the question “So where is God in all this?”

JPIT has discerned the need to focus on four things in response to austerity and shrinking of the welfare state:

  1. Tell the truth about poverty.
  2. Express our faith (through food banks etc)
  3. Rethink sanctions
  4. Reinforce our shared responsibilities

Jesus, commented Ian, said “The poor will always be with you….” Jesus didn’t go on to say  “…. so that’s ok then.” Although we are living through a time when the post war Welfare State is under serious threat of reduction or complete dismantling, it does not give Christians permission to stand idly by and watch. JPIT publication “Enough” (2015) concludes by quoting:  Archbishop William Temple who, speaking in 1942, said of the Beveridge Report, the founding document of today’s welfare state :

“This is the first time anybody had set out to embody the whole spirit of the Christian ethic in an Act of Parliament”. Temple said it, not because of the details of how the system was to be operated, nor because benefits provided were set at a particular rate, but because of the principles which underpinned it. Under the system that was envisaged everyone should have enough to develop to their full potential, and be able to do so within communities which provide everyone with the necessary security and opportunity.”

In the discussions that followed these presentations we followed some very interesting and thought provoking lines. Although I can’t possibly do justice to everything we touched upon, here’s a summary of some of the points made.

  • The Church has echoed the neo-liberal “individualism” for too long, at the expense of the “collective”. The “Body of Christ” is a collective expression and does not allow us to live out a purely individual focus to our faith – or to use the language of Methodism “there is no Holiness but Social Holiness”
  • There is perhaps a need to understand and accept that the post war consensus around “Beveridge Settlement” has been broken by Neo Liberalism that took root in UK after 1979.  We perhaps therefore need to move beyond fighting merely defensive battles, and instead move towards developing a new vision, based again on a collective consensus, and that we as Christians could help lead a path towards this as Temple had done in the 1940’s. It perhaps is time for a paradigm shift.
  • If indeed a “New Settlement” is to be found, based around collective, communitarian and (we would hope) foundational Christian values – we should not necessarily expect that change quickly. We were reminded it was 100 years from the Rochdale Pioneers to the post war Welfare State.
  • One final thought, the great Methodist Evangelical Revival brought about and was part of massive social change, it’s by products included the growth of working class organisation. Maybe Revival of church (of Methodism even) in the 21st Century is likewise linked to developing new ways of being, and doing, ways that will in turn lead to a New Settlement  with compassion, fairness, inter-dependency, community and collectivity at its heart.