David Cameron urged to turn energies to dealing with hunger in the UK


David Cameron should treat tackling the "armies" of people going hungry in Britain with the same political effort as the battle against terrorism, a senior MP said as a landmark report warned of children going for days without a substantial meal.

The report, backed by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, suggested that introducing a sugar tax on fizzy drinks could help fund a national programme to eliminate child hunger.

The Archbishop said it was a "tragedy" that people were still going hungry in the UK, while senior Labour MP Frank Field called on the Prime Minister to take action.

The Feeding Britain in 2015-16 report set out a blueprint for tackling the problem, including involving charities, the Government, councils and the major supermarkets working together to end the "scandal" of perfectly edible food being thrown away.

The report also highlights delays in benefits payments pushing people over the edge into hunger and forcing them to seek help from food banks.

"Our evidence suggests that the prompt delivery of benefit and tax credit payments in full, coupled with a fair and effective sanctions regime, would more than halve the numbers of people relying on emergency food parcels," the report produced by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger said.

The report recommended that food banks should host trained specialists able to offer advice on benefits and budgeting, but urged the Department for Work and Pensions to "proceed with caution" it its moves to station officials in food banks.

The MPs and peers acknowledged it was difficult to find the true scale of the problem, but highlighted figures by the Trussell Trust network showing its food banks gave out 1,094,003 emergency food parcels between April 2014 and March 2015, a 19% increase on the previous year.

In an indication that demand may be slowing, between April and September 2015 the Trust administered 506,369 parcels, a 3% increase on the same period in 2014.

The all-party group's chairman Mr Field said: "We are in this extraordinary position of, despite the huge economic difficulties we have had, we are a rich nation that throws away and pays people to burn edible food and we have armies and armies of people who are hungry.

"The best estimate is that the numbers are not rising but they are massively high."

In a call for action by the Prime Minister, he said: "We are so precious that we burn food for fear of infecting anybody although the food is perfectly reasonable to eat, and we have got these armies of people who are hungry.

"What is the point of being in government unless you are really going to do something about that? Each night we and the Prime Minister go to bed knowing that kids have gone to bed hungry."

Drawing a parallel with the Cobra committee convened in response to emergencies such as terrorist attacks, he suggested that the Prime Minister should establish a Cabinet committee, chaired by a minister with his full authority to take action to end the problem of hunger.

"Just as he has got Cobra, quite properly, to deal with these terrible terrorist attacks and so on, we want the equivalent of a Cobra committee in permanent session," Mr Field said.

The report is a follow-up to Feeding Britain, which was published 12 months ago, and Mr Field's assessment of the Government's response so far was "good progress but could do better".

In his foreword to the report, the Archbishop said: "It is shocking to read both of the scale of food waste and also of the large amount of evidence that sanctions and delays in connection with the benefits system are still causing what would appear to be unnecessary problems."

The Health Select Committee has recommended a 20p per litre tax on sugary drinks to help combat obesity, and the hunger inquiry suggested that if that was introduced, 4p of the levy could be used to help fund meals for hungry children during school holidays.

The report said: "The queue for help from Britain's food banks tends to grow once the school bells ring to mark the beginning of the holidays. For those children who usually receive a daily free school meal during term time, these bells often usher in a period of going day after day without a substantial meal."

Revenue from the 5p "plastic bag tax" at supermarkets, together with a reduction in the incentives for stores to use surplus food for energy in anaerobic digesters, could help fund the infrastructure - such as transportation, storage and refrigeration - for fresh food unsuitable for sale to go to the needy, the report suggested.

"At a cost of £150 million a year the Government could bring to an end the scandal of perfectly good food being thrown to waste or converted into energy while some of our fellow citizens are hungry," it noted.

The report called for a major expansion of "social supermarkets", selling surplus food at a heavily discounted price to those in need.

Tory MP John Glen, a vice chairman of the group, said: "There is still more work to be done. I think it is ridiculous that we have got a situation where so much food is still being wasted. We have got a lack of joined-up thinking sometimes."

The report also recommended that airports should donate any unopened soft drinks and toiletries confiscated during security checks and called for more flexibility from utility companies when people faced difficulties paying their bills.

The chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, Alison Garnham, said: "We need to be clear: bad administration of social security is the primary trigger for food bank use. Every delayed benefit, prolonged review and erroneous sanction racks up the risk that families will have to eat from the food bank - or not eat at all."

Ms Garnham added: "The DWP is quick to attribute blame for poverty to those in hardship themselves but many of the problems are closer to home. So far its response has been dilatory.

"If it wants to reduce our shaming high reliance on food banks, the DWP needs to act with greater ambition and urgency on the evidence of poor administration on its doorstep and commit to widely recommended ideas for turning its delivery around."