Letter: Local groups and leading charities combine forces to call for ‘big conversation’ on UK hunger

Date published: 30 December 2016

Dear Editor,

Local anti-austerity and anti-poverty campaigners, and some of the UK’s leading charities and community groups working with people affected by hunger, have combined forces for the first time to launch a campaign that aims to end hunger in the UK.

A recent report from the United Nations Food & Agricultural Organisation suggested that as many as 8.4 million people in the UK struggle to put enough food on the table, equivalent to the entire population of London.

Working here in the Rochdale townships campaigners know many residents go without adequate and nutritious food – for all sorts of reasons.

Poverty was and is no stranger to the people of our townships. Historically levels of dreadful poverty for Rochdale were recorded in the 1841 Census and confirmed by E Carlton Tufnell, Assistant Poor Law Commissioner who wrote of: ' The case of Edward Butterworth, a woollen weaver, 30 years of age, supporting a wife and two children and living in a property with weekly rental of 1s 6d had 'nothing coming into support, had gone five weeks (without any money), and was now in extreme destitution'.

The worst case of all was that of the family of Thomas Blomley (six in all). Blomley was a 30-year-old woollen weaver with a weekly income of 2s paying 1s a week in rent. The house contained 'one bed, one cover lid and two sheets' and Thomas Blomley, who had been out of work for 10 weeks, was described as ‘a case of deep distress who had nearly starved for want of food'.

All-in-all, hundreds of Rochdale handloom weavers lived in similar conditions. The cottages in Milkstone generally contained 'about half a dozen chairs, two tables, and a set of crockery ...the beds were mostly very wretched'  (Rochdale Revisited | A Town & it's People, Chapter III, The Rise & Fall of the Milkstone Weavers, p6, John Cole, Kelsall Books, 1988 , ISBN 0 946571 14 7).

Many of these slums were still standing and inhabited a hundred years later before the slum clearances of the 1940s.

Over 175 years later we still find that the Milkstone and Deeplish Ward still has high levels of deprivation and poverty, in fact, after housing costs the highest child poverty in Rochdale at a shocking (45.29%). Other areas Central Rochdale (44.01%), Smallbridge and Firgrove (42.37%), Kingsway (41.00%) and Spotland and Falinge at (34.33%) unfortunately fare little better. It seems clear that our local political class of all political parties have failed collectively over several generations to address these seemingly ingrained issues of poverty and deprivation for local people.

In Rochdale today we still find families going hungry, children going to school without breakfast, mothers - and fathers- going without food themselves to feed their children. Substandard, damp and barley habitable housing, the return of damp basement flats and unsafe and overcrowded houses of multiple occupation. People in the twenty first century forced into choosing between heating and eating, resorting to lighting their houses with candles in the era of the internet. With pensioners freezing - in some cases to death - under blankets in front of one bar electric fires, too afraid to put the heating on in more than one room of their homes.

We still have local benefit claimants sanctioned in 2016 without any means of support for far longer than the 'five weeks ('without any money') that left Edward Butterwoth's family in 'extreme destitution' or the family of Thomas Bromley, who had nearly starved for want of food', in just ten weeks. Some claimants are sanctioned for months at a time, in some cases without being told why by the DWP and would, but for the support of foodbank parcels, be destitute.

Local campaigners urgently call on Rochdale councillors to investigate the possible impact of the Benefits Cap which if the Council's briefing maps are correct look set to impact most on the poorest areas of our town. In fact, the ward maps indicating the levels of poverty and deprivation superimposed over the areas where the Council expect the Housing Benefit Cap will impact most match almost exactly street by street. Those families already struggling to escape from poverty will not be able to find the extra money needed to feed themselves or their families adequately under the stricter housing benefits cap.

It is the age-old question of distribution of resources and prioritising of need over greed. For example, if the Council can afford to provide buffets for councillors at £9.65 per head, then surely local pensioners, vulnerable adults and people struggling financially should not go hungry due to benefit sanctions or caps to housing benefit administered by the same council. After all that same £9.65 per Councillor could go a long way to alleviating local food poverty and would purchase at local supermarket own brand prices less than fifteen minutes’ walk from the Town Hall.

Perhaps as their New Year’s Resolution our sixty councillors could pledge to donate their individual buffet expenses for 2017 to their nearest foodbank or church/mosque for distribution to the needy of our township as part of their narrative with the ‘big conversation’ on UK hunger.

Like us, the other charities behind the new End Hunger UK campaign ( work first-hand with thousands of local community groups and projects across the UK that support people affected by hunger, and while they believe the voluntary sector’s support can be “life-changing”, they say longer term solutions are urgently needed to tackle the issue.

Speaking on behalf of the charities behind the campaign, Niall Cooper, Director at Church Action on Poverty, said: “You might imagine that in modern day Britain we all have enough food to eat, or that hunger is only experienced by the few. Yet we see working parents missing meals so that their kids can eat, and vulnerable individuals turning to charities on a daily basis to get a meal. This is simply unacceptable.

“That’s why we’re calling for an urgent, national conversation about what needs to be done, by the Government and others, to ensure that children get the food they need to give them the best start in life, and that nobody in the UK needs to go hungry.”

People affected by hunger, or with ideas about how the Government should tackle the issue, are being urged to add their voice to the campaign by joining End Hunger UK’s ‘Big Conversation’  at local charity and community group events being held across the UK until March 2017.


Andrew Wastling

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