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Blame the Government for food banks where they are really culpable: but this is mainly a global problem – and bishops need to understand that. And the EU doesn’t help

Episcopal attacks on politicians are just too easy; politicians are always unpopular. But the Government isn’t always to blame for much of for the real hardship

By on Friday, 28 February 2014

Campaigners dressed as a cows protest against the Common Agricultural Policy (AP)

Campaigners dressed as a cows protest against the Common Agricultural Policy (AP)

In my last post, I defended Iain Duncan Smith’s tenure of his office as a reforming Work and Pensions Secretary, under the headline “Our new cardinal’s attack on Iain Duncan Smith’s benefits reform policies shows that he has a lot to learn about the spiritual blight of welfare dependency”.

I hold by what I said (despite some of the attacks from the Left which appeared under my blog): but there is a lot more that needs to be said about the underlying causes of the growth of such poverty as exists in this country in modern times. This is not to say that the Government has no responsibility at all in the matter: of course they do, if for no other reason than that they bear ultimate responsibility (because the buck for all this has to stop somewhere) for the practical administration of the so-called “safety net” for those so poor they have to be referred to food banks.

The fact is that the benefits bureaucracy in this country is horrendously complex and — like most bureaucracies — incompetently administered. It is in the process of being greatly simplified under Iain Duncan Smith’s reforms, but the process is in flux and there will continue to be for some time what are called these days “glitches”. The glitches in the reform of our benefits system are nothing like as nationally cataclysmic as those currently besetting the so-called Obamacare reforms in the US: but they are certainly serious enough traumatically to affect many of those who temporarily suffer from them.

I do not think it is right to describe “the administration of social assistance”, as Cardinal Nichols did as “more and more punitive. So if applicants don’t get it right then they have to wait for 10 days, for two weeks with nothing – with nothing”. The word “punitive” implies a positive ill-will which is clearly not there. He added that “For a country of our affluence, that quite frankly is a disgrace.” But our affluence has nothing whatever to do with it: if it did, he would have been right to attack the Government as he did on moral grounds. But Government ministers are not morally to blame for the incompetence of their bureaucrats, even though as I have said, theirs has to be the ultimate responsibility for a vast bureaucratic system which is almost impossible for them to control. To have to wait for your benefits for 10 days, if you have nothing to live on, is hard, very hard. But to say as Cardinal Nichols did that “the basic safety net that was there to guarantee that people would not be left in hunger or in destitution has actually been torn apart” by this Government is both scandalously unjust and demonstrably false.

Enough of all that. I have already said my piece about Cardinal Nichols’s remarks; nor can I be bothered to pile in against the 23 Anglican bishops who followed in his wake, except to say that their numbers add nothing to the weight of their attack, that I have no objection to criticism on the Government’s handling of the problem of poverty, but that such attacks would, however, have more authority if it were clearer that the bishops involved had actually done some serious work on the problem’s ultimate causes, and where responsibility for them really lies.

The primary cause for the existence of poverty in this country today is in the collapse of our economy which took place in 2008. This was caused by a combination of the cavalier financial extravagance and incompetence of the Blair/Brown governments and the international banking crisis which began in the US, and had varying effects throughout the world. It does appear that the coalition government is effectively, though painfully slowly, addressing the crisis; that there will nevertheless be substantial unemployment for some time to come; and that household income even for those in work will be at substantially reduced levels.

The effects of all this on the poor in this country have been hugely exacerbated by two major factors. The Anglican bishops say that “over half of people using food banks have been put in that situation” by the Coalition’s welfare reforms; but that is a highly dubious accusation. It is true that, for instance, the Trussell Trust, which is the country’s leading provider of food banks, estimates that the number of people using its services has risen from 25,899 in 2008-9 to 346,992 in 2012-13.

But why? One very obvious reason ignored by all the bishops is the huge and global rise in food prices in recent years. The United Nations’ food price index doubled between 2000 and 2010, and is continuing to rise. This is a global problem: and because of the grossly protectionist trade barriers erected around us in the UK by the EU we do not even have the benefit of world food prices: we have to pay another 17 per cent on top. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) adds £400 a year — on top of global food-price rises — to the average family’s food bills.

This problem is global. As the Overseas Development Institute explains:

Before recent price hikes, the real price of food had been falling since the 1950s. The ‘green revolution’ that began in the mid-1960s saw developing world farmers planting improved varieties of cereals, prompting extraordinary increases in yields, falling food prices and reductions in poverty.

But food prices have risen since the early 2000s, and particularly since 2006. The price of a tonne of wheat climbed from $105 in January 2000, to $167 in January 2006, to $481 in March 2008 (IMF Primary Commodity Prices, 2008). Forecasts for the next ten years predict continuing high prices because of structural changes in supply and demand.

On the supply side, rising oil prices mean increased costs for fertilisers, machine opera- tions and transport… oil prices have risen faster than food prices and the price of nitrogen fertilisers has risen with them.

As the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) explain (in an article entitled “The Causes of the Global Food Crisis”, which I recommend to all bishops inclined to blame them simply on this Government), globally increased fuel costs lead to “higher transport costs, higher costs of agricultural inputs, such as fertilizer and pesticides, and higher costs of production for commercially produced crops”.

So, with food poverty goes energy poverty: in the individual household this has had a huge effect; apart from anything else, money which should go on food has to go on some kind of minimal heating during the winter. Here, the Government (and its predecessor, which failed to replace the power stations it was closing down, including seven nuclear stations) does bear part of the blame: on top of all that their insane green policies have pumped up electricity costs unacceptably, and will continue to do so. But the major cause of energy poverty is fluctuating global prices, which caused UK fuel poverty almost to treble between 2003 and 2010. These prices continue to rise.

There is a huge amount more to be said on all this: and the fact is that our bishops (Catholic or Anglican) are mostly addressing only a small part of it. I would love, for instance, to see them attacking protectionism in general and the CAP in particular, but pigs will fly before that happens (most of them have probably not even heard of the existence of the Common Agricultural Policy); the Government is an easier target: politicians are already unpopular; you don’t have to do any homework before you have a go at them: so why not?

There’s an answer to that question, to do with truth and justice: but I don’t expect it to be enunciated any time soon from any English seat of episcopal governance.