Turning food banks into a moral weapon

The government’s food-bank strategy will increase state intervention in poor people’s lives.

The launch of Feeding Britain: A Strategy for Zero Hunger in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland was rather overshadowed by Lady Jenkin’s disparaging comments about the poor’s lack of knowhow in the kitchen. The report, from the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom, of which Jenkin is a member, has much more to say, of course, than simply ‘the poor don’t know how to cook’. According to the report, cooking is only the tip of the iceberg: the poor also can’t handle their money, parent their children, or generally run their own lives without the support of the state and the charity sector, apparently.

Feeding Britain was a long-awaited report from an inquiry set up to investigate the so-called ‘hunger’ problem in the UK. Until very recently, the number of people using food banks was in the low tens of thousands each year. Though rarely acknowledged by today’s critics, there were significant rises in food-bank users under Labour. But it has been under the Lib-Con coalition government that the increases have been most marked. The Trussell Trust, which operates the UK’s biggest network of food banks, suggests that the number of food-bank users now stands at over a million.

Of course, it is hardly surprising, given the recent economic crisis, that the poor have been hit hard over the past few years. From 2004, the postwar trend of ever-rising affluence started to go into reverse, with the standard of living of the poorest sections of society being particularly squeezed. Wages and benefits have not kept pace with increases in the cost of food, fuel and housing. Those in the least well-off decile of the population are now spending 40 per cent of their income on food, fuel and housing, compared to 31 per cent in 2003. Everything costs more when you’re poor, whether it’s a ‘pay as you go’ mobile phone, rates of interest on payday loans, or the pre-pay gas meter. This problem is exacerbated by increasing levels of indebtedness, delays in the payment of benefits, and a stricter regime of sanctions for those deemed not to be seeking work – the biggest reason for referrals to food banks.

What’s interesting is that food banks have been a fixture in the US, Canada and parts of Europe for some time, but the first food bank in the UK didn’t appear until 1999. Why have so many of them sprung up recently? Is it really true that ‘hunger stalks this country’, as the new report claims? Wouldn’t we have noticed our presumably gaunt fellow citizens if this were the case? Is hunger really a ‘simple and devastating fact’ that we must take on trust, as the report insists? There is no robust evidence of people going hungry in the UK, certainly not on the scale claimed. It is inevitable, particularly with the removal of adequate welfare assistance, that referrals to food banks are made opportunistically by job-centre staff, social workers and citizens’ advice centres (among others). But this isn’t necessarily because their clients are, strictly speaking, hungry. And we still don’t even know, despite this inquiry, how many food banks there are beyond the 420 operated by the Trussell Trust.

The report is not without its insights, although they are confined to a preface from the Bishop of Truro, Tim Thornton. His ‘personal perspective’, ignored throughout the rest of the report, argues persuasively that it is the unsticking of the glue that used to hold society together that explains much of today’s reliance on food banks. It is the absence of a ‘self-help infrastructure’ and ‘natural and vital relationships between people’ that means problems of costly food and expensive heating are ‘exacerbated and heightened’. Sadly, the report (and the bishop) is far too enamoured with the welfare state to recognise that what is responsible for the undermining of these ‘natural’ connections between people is not their reduction to economic transactions; rather, it’s that people have been reduced to passive recipients of state and charitable handouts.

Anyway, says the report, what should really concern us is not the facts and figures or the reasons why, but the urgency of the problem and how to tackle it. Its 77 recommendations institutionalise the role of food banks by sucking them into a ‘Feeding Britain’ network-cum-quango that will reach further into the lives of the poor and ‘vulnerable’. The authors advocate a ‘food bank plus’ model, with food acting as a ‘gateway’ to other interventions, such as counselling for gambling ‘addicts’, smokers and drinkers, and life-skills classes on cooking – these will supposedly ‘boost [people’s] resilience’. The real problem, as far as the authors of the report are concerned, is not really hunger at all; rather, it is that there are people who don’t know what’s good for them, who make the wrong choices and live their lives ‘chaotically’. The message is clear: despite the rhetoric about making people more independent, food-bank users will no longer be able simply to take their food parcel and go.

First published in sp!ked

People Using Foodbanks Are Hard-Up Not Hungry

Foodbanks have been back in the news over the past week, most notably with two rather vicious attacks on the people who use them. First came the Mail on Sunday with its investigative journalistic piece on how apparently easy it is to get your hands on a food parcel if you’re devious enough. The second, though not especially new (welfare minister Lord Freud had made the same point some months back), came from former minister Edwina Currie.

She argued that people are using foodbanks (much like some climb mountains) because they are there, and in growing numbers.

1 million people may be very hard up but they are not going hungry

The undercover piece may have been pretty mean-spirited – arguably it isn’t easy enough to get a food parcel because in most cases the gatekeepers at the Council, jobcentre, etc decide who does and doesn’t qualify – but it was the first real evidenced challenge (putting to one side the anti-poor prejudices of Tory commentators) to those such as the Trussell Trust making wild claims about a million or more people going hungry.

The rise in take-up of food parcels from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands is largely welfare-related

I see no reason to challenge the view of the government’s critics that it is welfare reforms in the form of a greater use of sanctions, the bedroom tax, the benefit cap, and fitness to work tests; alongside delays in payments, the abolition of the social fund in favour of less generous local authority-run emergency assistance schemes, and in all likelihood a deliberate attempt to shift the welfare burden onto the charity sector; that is responsible for the sudden and steep rise in food banks and food parcels.

But is there something else going on too?

You’d think ‘Egwina’ would steer clear of food-related controversies given her infamous run-in with the salmonella crisis that ended her political career. But in a way, I’m glad she did. For all their faults, there is a certain logic to the argument put forward by Currie, Freud and others that can’t be so easily dismissed.

There used to be a stigma about accepting charity – nobody wanted to be a ‘charity case’ – but given the riots of 2012 and what that said about the breakdown of some communities, and of the kinds of traditional working class values of which such an attitude was once a definitive part, would it be surprising if there were a greater readiness to accept charity today? As Currie herself argued, growing up in a working class family in Liverpool her mother always made sure to ‘put food on the table’ whatever the hardships she and the family otherwise endured. Similarly, as one rather controversial Labour-supporting social landlord has reminisced, his mother (unlike his tenants) would always be sure to pay her rent on time.

The instilling of these sorts of values may not have gone completely out of fashion, but – as I argued on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Stephen Nolan programme the night after he interviewed Currie (from 1:24:40) – to the extent that this is the case, maybe she has a point. Maybe, just maybe there is a greater readiness on the part of an increasing minority of people to accept, or even seek out, charity in the form of food parcels; rather than, as previous generations would have, fall back on their own resources or seek help from family and community?

Of course, it is hardly surprising that some people are struggling to get by when jobs are scarce, and the cost of living is going up. The economic crisis, not just the recent downturn, is all too real and unprecedented in its apparent resistance to the interventions of a clueless political class. But exaggerating the extent of the so-called ‘food poverty’ problem isn’t helping anybody. It only turns those struggling on the breadline (so to speak) into victims. Instead of trying to close down debate (like the foodbanks lobby have been doing following that Mail on Sunday article) or emoting all over the place – as the Daily Mirror did, apparently without outcry, with its use of a stock photo of a crying American child on its front page to illustrate its ‘shock report’ into foodbanks – we need to establish where the real problem lies. It is only by doing this that we can ultimately do anything about it.

First published in Huffington Post

Bring Back the Ronseal Test

First published in Huffington Post

I have recently come to the conclusion that nothing does what it says on the tin any more. Or at least what is written on the tin has ceased to have much to do with what’s in it. This has particularly come to mind over the past week. There was the announcement that, at last, there will be an inquest into the shooting of Mark Duggan which supposedly ‘triggered’ last year’s riots. A report making the case for local authorities to raid their employees’ pension funds in order to boost housebuilding, was another prompt. And then there was the story about how Cancer Research UK was voted the most popular charity ‘brand’, with the likes of Greenpeace, Oxfam and Amnesty International not far behind.

What struck me the most about the latest riots-related news was, first of all, this idea that Duggan’s death in some way caused the riots. I don’t think it did in any meaningful sense. It is perhaps better to understand what happened as akin to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and the outbreak of World War I. The events were connected but almost arbitrarily so. But in the absence of anything else, it seems to have become the stand-in for an explanation for something that was quite inexplicable and unexpected. While apologists for the rioters have talked up the poverty, lack of opportunities and poor relations with the police, none of these while attendant factors explain anything. While I don’t accept as some have argued that they weren’t riots at all – according to my dictionary a riot is a ‘noisy disturbance by a crowd’ – they were fundamentally lacking in any sort of content. The violent public display (what was written on the tin) rang hollow. Not that this stopped commentators, politicians and academics – no less opportunistically than the rioters themselves – hurriedly projecting their pet theories onto what were meaningless, if no less serious for that, outbursts.

The world of housing policy, not known for its outbursts of activity – as the absence of housebuilding attests – has also been failing the Ronseal test for some time now. The latest wheeze in an increasingly desperate attempt to boost ‘affordable’ housing and inject some life into an inflated yet standstill housing market, only confirms this. While all sorts of bad ideas from blaming under-occupiers and those with second homes for the housing crisis, to creating new confusing mixes of traditional tenures, are entertained by those hopelessly steeped in bricks ‘n’ mortar jargon; they seem not to notice that housing policy is no longer about housing as such. Social landlords, for instance, don’t build houses any more. They like to be known as ‘community builders’. They are providers of social services, on the one hand, ‘supporting’ their allegedly vulnerable tenants, and getting heavy on the other, policing the anti-social ones. According toDavid Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, ‘the mission is to improve people’s lives, to help them fulfil their potential, to support their aspirations and to create functioning and healthy communities’. Even if that was all all very well – which it isn’t – that’s not what it says on the tin.

The charity world, by way of contrast, has been guilty less of mission creep than of a complete absence of mission. Which is ironic when you think about it. The association of the very notion of charity with the religious orders of missionaries who sought to spread the word; or with the pious reformers of the 19th Century at home penalising and patronising as much as helping the poor, may not be entirely flattering. But it is a reminder of a time when there was no doubt as to the message. Today’s charities evidently have a great deal of difficulty articulating what it is they stand for. There are a number of reasons for this. The reliance of many, particularly the most well-known, charities on the state with regards both their funding and policy agendas, are foremost among them. But it is the absence of that desire to meet desperate need that led Dr Barnardo to create a school for the East End’s orphaned and homeless children; or of that sense of outrage at the filmic depiction of homelessness in Cathy Come Home that led to the creation of Shelter.

Its not that we lack social problems. While grinding poverty and child destitution are largely problems of the past, there are a few good causes I can think of that don’t get the attention they deserve. Whether its campaigning for real development rather than the so-called sustainable development that world’s poorest typically get, or in defence of those scientists and institutions experimenting on animals in the interests of medical science. Whatever you deem to be a good cause I urge you next time somebody rattles a tin – or in the case of a chugger, their clipboard – in your direction to enquire as to its contents. Not literally, but what is it that they are campaigning for and why should you help them with it? The same goes for Orr and the housing sector. If you are no longer about building and managing the housing stock but would rather manage tenants’ lives, then whose going to solve our housing problem? And if we are to make sense of what happened last summer then we need to get to grips with the mismatch between the rioters’ vandalism of their communities and the worthy excuses. I’m sure there are other similar wood-treatment products out there but only the Ronseal test will get us any closer to making sure that riots, housing associations and charities do what they say on the tin.

Why I Won’t Be Cooperating

First published in Huffington Post

I was pleased to hear recently that I am not alone in arguing that the charity sector needs to reclaim its independence.

According to Matt Scott of the National Coalition for Independent Action, it has ‘become predatory rather than collaborative’ as the big beasts of the sector compete for, and win, contracts. That’s life, you might say. And yet, a recent report suggests, we are generally more giving of ourselves than we think.

We are too often portrayed as a conflictual, competitive bunch. So says Charles Leadbeater, author of a report published by the Institute for Public Policy Research. From the Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’ to Adam Smith’s faith not in the ‘benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker’ but in ‘their regard to their own interest’. From Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene to ‘its intellectual twin’ of neoclassical laissez-faire economics. The ‘assumption of selfishness’ needs to be replaced with a new assumption, he says. ‘We are, first and foremost, reciprocators and cooperators’.

We are social and moral beings predisposed to act according to a commonly held sense of fairness. He cites social dilemma studies that repeatedly demonstrate this, and developmental psychologists who show that even infants not yet able to speak are capable of empathy. The history of civilisation is one of the spoils not of war and conquest, but of our capacity for cooperation and its ‘generative’ potential. Which all sounds very good but, says Leadbeater, in a society ‘unequal and riven by divides’ this apparently commonly-held facility to get on with each other is under threat.

‘For decades we have been used to addressing problems through the lens of selfishness and the market’, he claims. Last year’s riots in London, Birmingham and Manchester were in keeping with a ‘moral tone set by bankers who pocket massive bonuses, politicians who fiddle their expenses, and journalists who think nothing of hacking into others’ phones’. An ‘orgy of opportunistic, selfish materialism, is lurking just beneath the surface’ and ‘ready to erupt at any moment’. Which is simultaneously true and wide of the mark.

Blaming ‘selfish materialism’ for the unseemly behaviour of people in hoodies and pinstripes alike has been the Left’s all-purpose excuse for its own political bankruptcy since the days of Thatcher. Likewise its disgust with the Murdochs betrays a distaste for those that abandoned it all those years ago. But this wider sense of unease briefly but violently brought to the surface during the riots is really worth getting to grips with. Leadbeater is right to be disturbed not by a liking for expensive sportswear and electrical goods, but that the rioters ‘revelled in their disdain for the norms of civil society’. It did appear for a moment that society was indeed broken.

Bizarrely he thinks the famously pointless (and I’d presumed departed) Occupy movement might be able to put it back together again by ‘reasserting norms of decency, cooperation and reciprocity’. Alternatively he hopes that a ‘relatively small group of super-altruists’, by which he must mean those apparently predatory charities, will come to the rescue. But in the end he settles for people like him (and me, to be fair) – policy wonks – to make the ‘cooperative correction’ and promote ‘everyday civility’. For Leadbeater, we don’t cooperate at the drop of the methaphorical hat. We are merely ‘conditional cooperators’. The only trouble is that those conditions are, apparently, missing. The role of policy is to ‘restore those conditions’ and ‘build on intrinsic motivations towards cooperation’.

So, despite cooperation being ‘intrinsic’ and, therefore, built into our very being, things have got so very bad that the wonks must intervene. There are five conditions but I’ll leave you with just one. Number two says: ‘Reliance on formal rules can drive out the day-to-day give-and-take of people adjusting to one another and learning to get on’. In other words, its not just charities who need their independence, and the likes of Leadbeater (and me) should but out.

Why the big society should prompt a clean-up in the charity sector

First published in Guardian

The charity sector has lost its way and seems to have given up on its founding notions. We are seeing a rather unseemly scramble for funding as charities seek to retain what they can of their state hand-outs while public services are cut. Or fundraisers, particularly those pesky chuggers, seemingly unacquainted with the causes for which they are apparently campaigning. Volunteers are expected to be as interested in their own employability as they are in helping other people. And the sector is apparently more interested in contracts and compacts than campaigns and causes.

I don’t think we should blame the cuts or the “big society”, as many in the sector do, for the problems charities face. The whole point of the big society – and the reason why I welcomed it at first – was that it proclaimed itself to be against an overbearing big state. We were told it was for the idea that people are able to do things for themselves, and to run their own lives without being “supported” all the time. But it seems that the charity sector doesn’t see the big society in quite the same way, and the inference that it would not play the starring role in the coalition’s big idea really rankled.

“We are the big society”, it screamed. But is this true? At the same time that the sector has been claiming to represent us – to be the 99% (to borrow a phrase) – it has also boasted of its special relationship with the state. There is little pretence from sector leaders that it has any real independence, or indeed that this should be a problem. This “dual role” as both campaigner and service provider is described as a positive boon, allowing it influence that it wouldn’t otherwise have. But it also means that charities don’t stand for anything much anymore. The sector has no identity of its own, straddling both state and society. And so the promise of the big society, already held back by the prejudices of a parochial political culture, has become just another argument about funding, rooted in the charity sector’s historical sense of entitlement.

To the extent that charities have increasingly focused on providing services rather than campaigning, no matter how good a job they do they are no longer charities in any meaningful sense. The Shelters, NSPCCs and RSPCAs of the charity world bear little resemblance to their former selves. They struggle with their dual identity as very sizeable public servants, on the one hand, and rather compromised campaigners, on the other. Is it any wonder that public trust in charities is reportedly “second only in volatility to its trust in banks“? Nobody knows what they’re for any more. By shifting the focus of their work from tackling a social problem to managing their relationship with state bodies, they neglect what it is that gave them their reason for being in the first place.

My experience working with local government and the charity sector in one of the areas most affected by the August riots has been instructive. People have been coming forward, wanting to do something. The authorities have been going on about how uninterested and disengaged people are, and yet when they have come knocking on the door, are at a loss as to what to do with them. This has been interpreted by charity leaders as a problem created by the cuts – about not having the resources, and in particular the volunteer managers – to respond to this unexpected outpouring of community spirit. But I’m not so sure. I think it is their disjoint from the communities they claim to represent and serve that gets in the way of capturing that spirit.

The authorities – and I include the charity sector here – were taken aback that communities were rather more capable of building themselves than they’d imagined. That much-sought-after “sense of community” did what big society advocates and critics alike said it couldn’t – it emerged of its own accord. The clean-ups were organised overnight on Facebook and Twitter by impromptu “pop-up” community groups. Volunteers got their brooms out before the smoke – both metaphorical and real – had settled, and then went their separate ways. Some wondered whether we were finally seeing the big society in action, but not in a good way.

One way or another, the big society is doomed. The charity sector doesn’t have the resources to deliver it. We ordinary folk are not to be trusted with it. And, as some have noted, Cameron and his government have been talking a lot less about it anyway, as it has increasingly been seen as a byword for the cuts. This is a shame, not only because the big society preceded the cuts, but because its prospects should never have hinged on the cuts in the first place. It should have been a project for freeing up society, and creating a new culture of self-reliance, not a programme for government and its friends in the extended state sector to argue over. And yet, despite a sector seemingly intent on digging its own grave, we might try to breathe new life into the idea of charity. One more suited to today. And we might still resurrect some of the more appealing aspects of the big society, whatever we decide to call it. Maybe that way, rather than it being a clean-up for the charity sector, we can claim it for ourselves.

This is an edited version of a speech I gave at this weekend’s Leeds Summat