Harriet Harman

Labour Member of Parliament for Camberwell & Peckham

Southwark News column - Food banks in a rich city

For thousands of people in Southwark, Christmas Day will not be about feasting and having presents, it will be a struggle to put food on the table. The Southwark Food Bank in Peckham, run by Pecan, has helped over 3,000 people this year and half of these are families with children. Pecan is also giving 100 families a Christmas meal they can cook at home, providing some welcome cheer at this festive time of year.

I really pay tribute to all the people who donate food to food banks and all the volunteers who run food banks. But in this day and age, to have so many people in Southwark – in one of the richest cities in the world - having to turn to a food bank to go and get free food is shocking and totally unacceptable.

The problem is not the fault of the people who go to the food bank. The problem is the fault of a system which leaves people at the end of the week, let alone at the end of the month, with not enough money to live on. 

Many of the people who go to food banks are working. One in five of people who go out to work don’t earn enough to live on in Britain. And low pay comes at a huge cost. Working in a job that pays low wages is forcing people to make impossible choices such as between buying food and paying the rent. The consequence of not paying the rent is eviction which is why so many people choose to go without food and end up having to go to a food bank.

A recent Parliamentary report on food banks showed that more than half the demand at food banks was caused by problems in the benefits system. At Southwark Food Bank, 40% of people seeking assistance do so because of benefit changes or delays.

Benefits sanctions - cutting people off from their benefits, often at very short notice, for example for missing an appointment - means people having to wait a long time before they can get back into the system and receive the benefits they are entitled to.

Really long Government delays in administering Personal Independence Payments has created unnecessary uncertainty, stress and financial costs for sick and disabled people and their families. And the Bedroom Tax has made 3,500 families in Southwark worse off and put many of them in debt and rent arrears for the first time.

The people who go to food banks are not on a budget; they’re people who’ve run out of money to buy food because rent and energy bills are going up, or their benefits have been stopped because of problems with the system. That’s why the next Labour government will help reduce the demand for food banks by tackling the problem of low pay and the cost of living crisis. We will raise the Minimum Wage, introduce a Living Wage, end the abuse of zero-hours contracts, freeze energy bills, and abolish the unfair Bedroom Tax.

*The print version of this article is slightly shorter.

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