● A sight for poor eyes: a food bank in Horsham. Photo by Horsham District Food Bank
On 25 February this year, the European Parliament voted on an EU fund to provide food aid to those suffering extreme poverty in the EU. The EU offered up to £22 million pounds to help subsidise Britain’s food banks, but the money was blocked by the UK government.
Writing for the Mail on Sunday, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, said he was more shocked by Britain’s hunger-stricken poor than those suffering in African refugee camps. Why? Because, sadly, hunger was expected in Africa; but not here, in the UK.
“I found their plight more shocking. It was less serious, but it was here,” wrote the Archbishop, who added, “Hunger stalks large parts of our country.”
Thirteen million people live below the poverty line in the UK. According to the Trussell Trust, 1 in 5 mums in Britain regularly skip meals to feed their children.
The BBC reported that 43 Christian leaders, including 27 Anglican bishops, signed a letter earlier this year urging the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to ensure people get enough to eat, saying “cutbacks and failures” in the benefits system were driving people to food banks.
In the past year, over 900,000 people in Britain have required emergency food from the Trussell Trust that runs 423 food banks across the country. The charity says it now has to open two new food banks each week to meet the growing demand for emergency food by poor, hungry people and their children.
One problem is that in Britain 15 million tonnes of food is wasted (thrown away) every year; one supermarket chain alone discarded 28,000 tonnes of food in just six months. “The scale of waste in this country is astonishing,” wrote the Archbishop, adding that it should be easier for supermarkets to donate edible surplus food to charities.
But Archbishop Welby also called on the Prime Minister to reverse the decision to reject EU funds for food banks.
British government officials explained that the government rejected the EU funding for food banks because it considers that member states are best placed to take charge of such funding. The Department of Work and Pensions commented that the government was not saying no to the money but, rather, “no to Europe about how it should be spent.” The spokesman denied that Britain would lose out as a result of the decision, saying that the money for food banks would have been funded from reductions in the UK’s share of EU structural funds.
David Cameron’s official spokesman said the issue is whether the UK should be in charge of the funds that are spent in the UK. “This Government believes that it should be, and that it should not be the European Commission and other European institutions that tell us how to spend funds spent in the UK.” His government has welcomed food banks, describing them as an “excellent example” of active citizenship.
But Labour MP Kate Green said that the need for food banks demonstrated that people were being let down by the welfare state. She said, “I feel a real burning anger about them … People are very distressed at having to ask for food; it’s humiliating and distressing.”
Richard Howitt, a Labour MEP who helped to negotiate £3m of European Union funding for the Trussell Trust food banks, accused the government of neglecting the needs of the poor after it said it would not allow the money to be used for food banks.
“It is very sad that our government is opposing this much-needed help for food banks on the basis that it is a national responsibility, when in reality it has no intention of providing the help itself,” said Mr Howitt. “The only conclusion is that Conservative anti-European ideology is being put before the needs of the most destitute and deprived in our society.”
A parliamentary report* published this week in response to the UK’s hungry and poor called for bigger food banks to distribute more free food. The report also called for more advice to people on how to claim benefits; a rise in the minimum wage and the provision of free school meals during school holidays for children from poor families. It’s unknown what the government’s response will be to the report, which aims to end hunger in Britain by 2020. (*Report published Monday 8 December 2014: “Feeding Britain: A strategy for zero hunger in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland”)
But while the politicians argue and the offer of EU emergency help is refused, poverty-hit adults and children in Britain are going hungry today in one of the world’s richest nations.