GOING HUNGRY IN BIRKENHEAD. AN INTERVIEW WITH FRANK FIELD.

When asked about food poverty, there’s a story that sticks in Frank Field’s mind.

I don’t mind missing out on the fun activities, but please can I just have some food? I’m absolutely starving.”

These are the words of a little girl who turned up to a Wirral school holiday programme. Shocking, but unfortunately there are stories like this and worse from all over the country.

He shakes his head, as we all do when we hear stories like this. Or maybe in disbelief, that 18 years after Tony Blair made his commitment to half child poverty, and almost 1 year since David Cameron pledged his “all out assault on poverty”, the same topics dominate our chat: food poverty, food banks and the problem of hunger in the Wirral.

Frank believes we are no closer to finding a solution while household incomes remain stagnant, rent and utility bills continue increase, and the way in which welfare and tax credits are paid continues to place unnecessary strain on families already close to breaking point.

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Frank reflects on this;

“The Government could immediately halve the number of people relying on food banks if it were able to process and pay benefits quickly and accurately, and introduce a fairer sanctions regime”.

It’s an issue Frank is lobbying the Government on, and it’s safe to say Frank Field is a man who sticks to his guns.

He was elected as Member of Parliament for Birkenhead in 1979. From 1997 to 1998, he served as the Minister of Welfare Reform under Tony Blair who asked him to, ‘think the unthinkable on welfare’. It was to Frank Field that David Cameron turned when he needed someone to chair a cross-party commission on poverty and life chances. An appointment that was to bestow on Frank the memorable, if not entirely welcome title, ‘Poverty Tzar’.

He currently chairs a National Charity, ‘Feeding Britain‘, is a devout Christian, an admirer of the late Margaret Thatcher and is known to many of his fellow MPs as a ‘maverick’ who is not afraid to speak his mind.

Closer to home, Frank chairs Feeding Birkenhead; an initiative set up two years ago to implement the recommendations made by the cross-party inquiry on hunger.

“Each meeting of Feeding Birkenhead provides fresh evidence of individuals and families being unable to afford food”, says Frank.

“We found at our most recent meeting that the stoppage of tax credit claims by Concentrix had forced families to rely on the food bank. Likewise, we have discovered that in some of Birkenhead’s schools, up to one in five of their pupils arrive hungry each morning”.

Statistics back this up, indicating that the rise in the use of food banks is in large part, attributable to the introduction of Universal Credit. A study published by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that under universal credit more claimants will be worse off in the longer term.

And, whilst food poverty is a UK-wide issue, the North West has been hit particularly hard.  When researchers mapped food poverty across England, they identified Liverpool, Kingston upon Hull and Middlesbrough as the cities with the greatest number of neighbourhoods where people were at high risk of struggling with grocery bills.

BUT IS FOOD POVERTY REALLY THAT MUCH OF AN ISSUE IN WIRRAL?

Earlier this week BFW spoke to Wirral Food Bank Manager, Richard Roberts. Richard oversees a team of around 200 volunteers who distribute food and fuel vouchers across 19 sites in Wirral.

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In his view, food poverty is hitting more and more working families. There is an increasingly fine line between ‘just about coping’ and ‘not managing at all’.

This contrasts sharply with a notorious Daily Mail article which suggested that Food bank’s are “being used by the Left and anti-poverty campaigners as a political tool to attack the ‘uncaring’ government’s drive to reform the welfare system”.  And that “a snapshot of food banks around the country shows that their popularity hardly equates to the Left’s picture of a ‘starving Britain’”.

Richard believes people who use food banks are pretty brave,

“It takes a lot of guts to say you can’t feed your family and you need a food voucher.”

So is there a typical profile of someone who uses food banks? Frank thinks not. But he says that the evidence gathered by his inquiry suggests, “two groups of people are particularly vulnerable; isolated, unemployed adults who live alone and are in danger of being cut off from society, and poorer families with children who, for one reason or another, just cannot make their income stretch from month to month”.

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In terms of making a difference, some successes have been already achieved. HMRC have introduced a better way of processing tax credit claimants’ changes of circumstances, following pressure by Feeding Britain.  But there are many other changes needed in order to make a real difference.  Frank would like to see;

·         National reforms to bring down the costs of gas and electricity on prepayment meters.

·         A national ‘Food Bank Plus’ programme (similar to the one Feeding Birkenhead delivers) where people are helped during their first visit to resolve their crises there and then.

·         The introduction of a national programme of school delivered, holiday meals and fun clubs, sustained by revenues raised by the sugary drinks levee. (It is during the school holidays, when poorer children no longer receive free school meals, that food banks tend to report an increase in need).

The interview is over and our time is up. Frank is mentally onto his next mission of the day and I, somewhat guiltily, am thinking about picking up the kids and what I will make for tea.

On my way home I stop at the supermarket. As I leave I notice a large wire bin, half full of tins. It is a collection for the local food bank. And, whilst I know from speaking to Richard that people in Wirral are pretty generous at donating part of their weekly shop, I also know that, round the back of the store, there will be a bin ten times as large full of out of date ‘waste’ produce.

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When I get home I send Frank a final, quick email, asking what he thinks about the fact that UK’s supermarkets are guilty of throwing away 14,000,000 tonnes of food every year.

With an alacrity I’ve come to associate with him, the reply comes back instantly….

“It is appalling that there are so many people who are hungry, while these gargantuan sums of perfectly good food are being thrown to landfill or turned into energy. We are rescuing some of this food from Birkenhead’s supermarkets to run our school holiday programmes, and so on, but there is so much more that can and should be done nationally to tap into these supplies!”

In 2016, following public outrage at how much food is thrown away, the big four supermarkets Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons signed a voluntary agreement to drive down food and drink waste by a fifth within the next decade.

It’s a step in the right direction, but it won’t help the girl from the holiday club anytime soon…

If you want to find out how you can help people experiencing food poverty please contact Frank on fieldf@parliament.uk or Rosie Oglesby from Feeding Britain rosie.oglesby@feeding-britain.org.

Hebe Goddard