By John Battle (chair)

The Minister for  Work and Pensions was recently interviewed on November’s introduction of a new housing benefit cap but after a few brief questions the topic quickly switched to the government’s approach to Brexit. The debate on our future disengagement from Europe is now burying all other policy discussion. Significantly, decisions to cut benefits to people on low incomes in the November 2015 budget statement are now working their way through to family budgets and with little critical comment. Despite recent disavowals to the contrary, many people suffering registered disabilities have lost substantial weekly income. Working people on low incomes have been hit by reductions in working “tax credit” wage ‘top ups’.

The majority of those measured as ‘poor’ in Britain are now working, though often in part time temporary low paid jobs or on zero hour contracts. Still the argument is wheeled out that new benefit cuts are to drive people into work yet those in work on low wages are the majority in our society of those in poverty.

Working family poverty is the problem. It is estimated that 21, 365 families in Leeds alone are now losing between £20 and £80  a month as a result of the reduction in tax credits last month. This month a reduction in the total housing benefit support  from £26,000 to £20,000 is estimated by Shelter to hit a third of a million households. Yet this is money that is really subsidy to high charging private landlords. It is unlikely that rents will be reduced accordingly so the net effect will be less income in the family to live on, increasing arrears and inevitable evictions. In other words, income subsidies are being reduced and on the basis of arguing that people should not live on benefits but should go and get a job. The problem is that low paying part time work is generating poverty. Recently the national Living Wage Campaign increased the suggested voluntary
hourly rate to £8.45 an hour in Living Wage week ( a figure above the government’ s new legal limit of £7.25) and encouragingly an increasing number of employers are joining the campaign and paying their workers more. The problem is people working part time or on zero hours contracts who cannot get more hours and therefore their weekly incomes fall short of their budgets.

A recent ring round of local food banks suggests that whereas in the past people were going to food banks because they lost access to benefits  (often through being ‘sanctioned’) now families who are working are turning up because they do not earn enough to live on. A doctor’s surgery in inner city Leeds reported that some mothers experienced serious summer weight loss as a result of missing meals to feed their children who in the holidays did not get free schools meals. There is now a campaign to address holiday hunger and open school kitchens for families in holiday times. Church Action on Poverty has just launched a major national campaign “END HUNGER UK” with the Child Poverty Action Group, Oxfam, Fareshare  Magic Breakfast and the Trussell Trust foodbanks. A national ‘Big Conversation’ has been started to address the question ‘What will it take to End Hunger in the UK. And what role do Governments at Westminster (and elsewhere across the UK) need to play to make this a reality?

We need to focus on what will it take to realise a vision of Britain where everyone has access to good food and no one need to go to bed hungry. In an Oxfam initiated opinion poll, three quarters of the respondents agreed that “there is something fundamentally wrong with our society if people have to use food banks”. All our parishes and groups need to sign up to this Big Conversation now.