Saturday, 21 December 2013

The Weekend Read: Food Banks

All too often the debate about food banks descends into party politics and point scoring. Today I want to write about the actions of the many volunteers, businesses, churches and community organisations that are helping to provide food banks, especially in my part of Northumberland. I have met with many of the helpers, whether in the churches or Salvation Army, visited the food bank at Adapt in Burn Lane in Hexham, and taken time to try and understand the distribution network that we have in Tynedale to help those who are in difficulties.

Our food bank is a community led, charitable organisation but it could not exist without two things. Support from the public and support from business.

As someone who has waged war with the big supermarkets over everything from alcohol promotions to milk pricing I am happy to give credit where credit is due, and thank them for their work in supporting food banks. I welcome the role that the supermarkets are playing allowing people to donate inside the supermarkets, and the help and training they are offering volunteers.

The team from the Hexham Waitrose, who I have met at length when I went round the store last summer, have been especially helpful to the Hexham food bank.

Similarly, when I visited the Sainsburys in Haltwhistle recently in November I was struck by the slickness of the system that allows the public to drop items off in the store, which are then picked up daily by the Adapt bus driver, and transported back to the central depot in Hexham at the same time as Adapt are transporting people around Tynedale and making their local deliveries of food.

It also right I pay tribute to the role the Salvation Army play in both the food bank and helping those in need across the North East in a number of ways.

For the last two years I have worked closely with the Salvation Army in our Christmas toy appeal collecting gifts for children who might otherwise have not received a present on Christmas morning. The response this year has again been amazing and I must thank everyone locally who donated.

The Salvation Army is the unsung hero, with a worldwide membership of over 1.5 million, across 126 countries, running everything from charity shops, operating shelters for the homeless, and providing disaster relief, humanitarian aid and of course longstanding help with the provision of food banks. The Salvation Army have long provided their support for local people in difficulties in Tynedale and I cannot praise their work highly enough. I visited them recently as part of the institution that is the autumn church steeplechase. I waited to be called in the House this week but was told by the Speaker late on that I would be called so I was merely able to make an intervention. Much of what I have written here is the basis of my speech I would have given to the Commons.

The West Northumberland Food Bank:

• This was set up in April with a Co-ordinator appointed in July funded 7 and a 1/2hrs a week by the housing provider ISOS, who also pay rent of the room in Adapt. Again we must give praise to Keith and his team at Isos, who are proving wrong all those - including myself - who doubted they could provide as good a service locally as Milecastle Housing. This autumn, I opened the new ISOS new facility at Trinity Court in Corbridge, and they are doing a great job at providing social and supported housing in the area. I am doing everything possible to support their efforts to build locally.

• The Collection Points in the region are Waitrose and Tesco in Hexham, Sainsbury’s in Haltwhistle, and the Coop in Prudhoe and Bellingham. There is also collection / assistance in Prudhoe. Additional collection points are at all the local churches both in Hexham and the wider area and through the Salvation Army. There are too many church leaders of different faiths to praise here but my thanks to all of them.

Referrals come mainly from professionals such as health visitors, social workers, family support and churches. Packing takes place with volunteers from churches and other organisations. Each bag contains key basic foods but it also contains an A5 sheet with contact information for further help that may be needed.

The purpose of the form is to ensure that people making ongoing requests for food are being given other help which they might need whether it is a bed in StopGap or supported housing provision.

The Completed forms are sent to the Children’s Centre in Hexham.

Along with charitable individuals and business there is a third key to element which makes the project work. I want to take a moment to tell you a little about Adapt. Adapt began life in the North East in 1991 as a community group aiming to ‘improve the quality of life of disabled people’ by promoting better access to services.
The first priorities identified were difficulties in accessing buildings and a lack of accessible transport; therefore the first projects developed were an access group and a community transport project. Today Adapt's main work is providing accessible transport to people who are not able to use ordinary transport or where it is not available. This means that they can use space in the buses to deliver food bags to the local distribution centres.

I met recently with some of their team including Kat Halliday – Rowell, as part of a wider visit to the services provided at Adapt, including Healthwatch, and I cannot praise them enough for all the work they do, including facilitating the food bank scheme in West Northumberland.

There are many reasons for why people are using foodbanks:
- people in or out of work not having enough to live on, or struggling to budget
- long term debt issues
- delays in the changes in benefits; I have particularly urged DWP to address the delays in the system when benefits change, and we as a parliamentary team have assisted to ensure that people have help from the hardship funds.

I also want to address what we are trying to do to address the reasons behind people going to food banks. The reasons are many and a fair question is what we are doing locally.

On energy, I have created an energy booklet, about which we will blog more, and which is being distributed locally; in addition, we have championed the issue of fuel poverty locally and in parliament, with the creation of oil buying clubs and action on off grid. Now is not the time to go into the failed economics of an attempted price freeze that will actually raise prices for energy but our booklet is packed with specifics ways local people can reduce bills. As the oil buying groups will know we have been discussing with DWP Ministers for months the possibility of paying the winter fuel payment early to assist in the Buy Oil Early campaign. We are trying to persuade them to use Tynedale as a pilot, but the mechanics of changing the welfare / government payment system are hugely difficult.

On employment and pay the key issue is how we transform the jobs market. In Hexham and across most of the north east job levels are  much better. All 29 constituencies in the north east have seen an increase in apprenticeship starts since 2010, and locally in west Northumberland the apprenticeship increase was up 62% since 2010. In Hexham Egger recently opened a specialist local engineering academy.

I do believe that it is fundamentally through the provision of better skills and apprenticeships that we will improve the living standards of both our young and our elder people. We are also taking action to help ensure people pay a Living Wage locally and nationally.

I am pleased that the government has listened and chosen the North East to pilot the new advanced approach to skills development.

So many of the problems identified in the North East are addressed in the Adonis Report and I welcome that we are examining our strengths and weaknesses and trying to match the future skills, jobs and future prosperity in the region to the people we have in the north east. Out of these changes jobs and more growth will follow. If you have not read this groundbreaking study of the North East then do so; I contributed in part to it on a cross party apolitical basis.

On debt and finance, I welcome the action the government are taking on this and the extension of powers for credit unions.
- I certainly support the calls of Archbishop Justin Welby to compete the payday lenders out of business.
You can read my recent speech on pay day lenders here:
- And am doing all I can to set up local banks in the North East to provide proper local lending, credit and finance, and have held several meetings with the team at Number 28 about how to address and help with debt, banking and credit. We are looking at ways forward on this. Regular readers will know that I am a massive fan of local banks, have held two banking summits to encourage new organsaitions into the market, and even met with the team both behind the Labour and Union run Salford Credit Union, led by the irrespressible Alex, and recently met Lord Glassman, the advisor to Ed Miliband on community banking.
I want to finish on one person who typifies the Tynedale sense of community, and care for those who are struggling. Last weekend, I particularly talked in Hexham with the wonderful Rosemary Theobalds, a lady who does so much for so many people in Tynedale, both with the food bank and generally. I am fairly certain she did not vote for me in 2010 but that is no bar to us working together, and she is not of my political view of centre right, low tax, community based, compassionate Conservatism, even though I am not a typical Conservative; indeed, she frequently writes to me and sometimes we disagree on policy decisions. But this blog is also an opportunity to thank unsung Community Heroes, and she is definitely one of those. I thank her particularly for all she does.