How can a country as wealthy as Britain need so many food banks? And what can we do about it?

Our man in the corridors of power says that supermarkets should give a much greater proportion of their unused food waste to charity instead of landfill

Chris Bryant
Friday 30 November 2012 20:07

I don’t know whether to applaud or bewail the fact that the Trussell Trust already has 288 food banks in Britain and looks set to top 300 in January. Yesterday, I visited the Rhondda one in Tylorstown in the Rhondda Fach, which, ironically, is based in the former Conservative Club.

On the one hand, the dedication of Rob Morgan and Val Stevens who run the food bank on a completely voluntary basis is impressive. So too is the financial support from their ACTS Community Church, which has bought the building and is putting together dozens of extra Christmas hampers.

But I felt a deep sense of shame that we are one of the richest countries in the world, yet people are forced to rely on food parcels. Some of the 489 adults and 222 children helped this year are on benefits. Many have fallen into debt. Shockingly, quite a lot of them are in work, but are paid so little that they have to make regular decisions about whether to put food on the table, pay the electricity bill or fill the car.

And these people are in the toughest place of all because the whole idea of the food bank is to help to bridge a temporary gap. Parcels are delivered to those referred by Social Services, by the Department for Work and Pensions or by the local health services. But they are designed to last only three days while something better is sorted out. But those who are working and have been referred know that all there is ahead of them is the relentless grind of low pay being eaten away by high fuel costs and food inflation.

So what can we do? For a start, supermarkets could give a far greater proportion of their unused food waste (food approaching its sell-by date) to these charities rather than send it off to landfill.

But as laudable as charity is in tough times, it’s social, economic and political change we really need, and ministers have to understand the real hardship they are creating.

Long wait at the end of the Earth

The trouble with trees is they get in the way of finding the wood. And so it is with the Leveson Report. I pored over it and found bits I like (the criticism of News International management must surely lead to charges against the directors under the body corporate provisions of at least three laws) and bits I don’t quite like so much. (It’s painfully naive about the Metropolitan Police.)

But the physical experience of the lock-in for the core participants was curious. Downstairs, the Society for Heart Failure was having its annual conference (cue jests about the heartless or heart-failed journalists locked in next door), but in our fourth floor room laid out like an A-level examination hall, we were an interesting body of souls. The Dowler parents, Kate McCann, Hugh Grant, Max Mosley, my former colleague Claire Ward, Lord Prescott, a spread of lawyers. Quite an outré guest list for a dinner party.

At first, just as we were tucking into coffee and biscuits, we were told we would not be allowed to leave the room between 11am and 1.45pm, not even for a toilet break. Everyone promptly abandoned their coffee. Then the report itself arrived in boxes, mysteriously entitled Finisterre, as if it had arrived from the ends of the earth (or at least a place known to devotees of the shipping forecast). The ultimate irony? We had to watch Leveson’s statement on Murdoch’s Sky.

Migrant figures need closer look

Leveson was not the only political story, and the moment we were released I had to respond to the latest immigration statistics, which seem to show a fall in net migration. It’s worth breaking this down a bit. Half the fall is due to more British people leaving and fewer returning. The number of non-nationals coming in has actually risen. What is more, although the number of students on courses of more than a year has fallen, the number on one-year student visit visas (not included in the statistics) has leapt up.

Why anyone would think this is a great success, I don’t understand. Yes, we need proper controls on immigration, but student numbers applying from India have fallen by 8 per cent this year. We either want to compete in the world economy or we don’t. Undermining the international standing of our universities can’t help anyone.

Hacked off at Question Time

Thursday ended with a dash from Westminster to Swansea for Question Time, which is always the most nerve-racking show. David Dimbleby told me later that nearly every question submitted by the audience was about one issue, Leveson, which rather gives the lie to those who maintain that the public has no interest in the hacking saga.

It was all going swimmingly (if rather too politely) when a woman dressed in banana yellow in the front row started a long speech by calling me Christopher (which normally means I am in real trouble) and suggesting that I was too young to know anything, prompting one wag to tweet #shouldhavegonetospecsavers.

But then she laid into the real star of the show, Charlotte Church, who had already proved herself knowledgeable, polite, forceful and authoritative. Our banana lady was not impressed. She reckoned that Charlotte, like all celebrities, had it coming to her.

And even after Charlotte explained the immense hurt the press had caused to her family, the banana opined that a stronger person would have coped better. I hope the universal boo that echoed round the Brangwyn Hall was audible at home.

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