Stimulating public debate

Chester & Ellesmere Port FoodbankChester and Ellesmere Port Foodbank is one of the many new foodbanks opening across the UK and is part of the Trussell Trust network. The trustees’ priority is to provide food for those in crisis, but ever since its launch in November 2012, they have also been concerned to ask why people become unable to feed themselves and what can be done about it.

In this guest blog, they explain how they have begun to ask that question publicly.

These questions reflect in part underlying questions for us about the relationship between foodbanks and the welfare state, particularly at a time when the state appears to be withdrawing from long-standing responsibilities.  A couple of church members have raised doubts about the wisdom of running foodbanks at all, and one of those people found this ‘action’ dimension of our work something she could participate in with integrity.

We felt our first step should be to create an opportunity for local public debate on the issue, and settled on a ‘question time’ format with a panel of invited speakers, chaired by a local bishop with an interest in social justice issues.  We used the Joint Public Issues Team’s report The Lies we tell ourselves, calling our event ‘Truth and Lies about Poverty and Welfare’.

Our panelists were:

  • Bishop Keith of Birkenhead (chair)
  • Niall Cooper, Director, Church Action on Poverty
  • Rachel Lampard, Team Leader, Joint Public Issues Team
  • Andrew Miller, MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston
  • Revd Phil Jump, Regional Minister, North-West Baptist Association
  • Richard Atkinson, former Welfare Benefits Manager, Cheshire County Council

Despite approaching four local Conservative MPs, one Government minister and the leader of Cheshire West and Chester council, we were unable to secure a Coalition representative. This inevitably reduced the intensity of the debate and for us raised an ongoing challenge:

“How can we promote genuine democratic engagement about the real impact of social and welfare policy?”

To publicise the event, we used all available church, foodbank and voluntary sector networks, as well as a pre-event press release.  A few people responded to our invitation to suggest questions for the panel, and we incorporated these into a final list drawn up by the organising group. Questions were then given out in numbered order to selected audience members for them to ask when invited to do so by the chair:

  1. What can people do locally to challenge comfortable myths about poverty?
  2. Does emergency food aid provision, such as food banks, perpetuate the problem of long-term food poverty by failing to tackle the root causes?
  3. In the light of austerity measures on frontline services, to what extent can we, and should we, rely on the ‘Big Society’ to ensure that young people and their families have enough to eat?
  4. What else could government do to enable people to meet their basic need, and afford housing and things like healthy food and school uniforms?
  5. Are payday loans a blessing or a curse?
  6. How can we stimulate open and honest discussion about the relationship between government actions and poverty? Can the churches do more?
  7. How should we address the problem of low wages?
  8. Why does everybody call the Spare Room Subsidy the ‘Bedroom Tax’?

Before launching into the questions, we asked Rachel and Niall each to give a short presentation to set the scene and inform us from the outset. We were also very keen to balance ‘expert’ contributions from the panel with stories from people affected by policies.  We supported two women who had become known to us (one through foodbank, another through one of the foodbank churches) to share in person their stories of poverty and struggle. On the night, a third, younger woman also came forward and told her story with the support of a foodbank volunteer.

On the night, about 160 people attended despite it being a beautiful late summer Saturday evening. Feedback overall was very positive, though it was clear that the audience and panel were largely of one mind regarding welfare and social policy. So in many ways the event served as a resource for the task of engaging in debate, rather than a forum for that debate itself. Speakers gave us many facts and helped arm those present with facts and figures to help challenge comfortable myths whenever we encounter them among family, friends and neighbours. Nevertheless, greater breadth in the audience would have generated a more energetic debate.

Many in the audience commented that the direct person-to-person sharing was a particularly powerful and memorable experience. These personal stories may have offered transformative insights for those hostile to welfare and foodbanks if they had been present in significant numbers. This highlights our greatest challenge:

How do we, with care and sensitivity, enable the stories of those experiencing poverty and struggle to be heard by a wide range of people?

We have agreed the following actions from this initial event:

  • Delegations to all local MPs
  • Invite those with stories to tell to join the group and make ‘listening’ to their stories a discipline at every meeting
  • Keep Niall Cooper and Rachel Lampard informed about our work
  • Support our volunteers to draw out foodbank stories for publication in a blog format

We have a very basic video record of the evening and will be receiving a professionally edited audio recording being produced by Flame Christian Radio.

Church Action on Poverty is working with partners to explore the possibility of resourcing more food banks to run their own Question Time events. Watch this space for more information.

We have years of experience in supporting people to tell stories of their direct experiences of poverty. Click here to download our Hints on Holding a Poverty Hearing.


2 thoughts on “Stimulating public debate

  1. Pingback: Pressure mounting for an inquiry into the causes of hunger – add your voice! | A Fair Say

  2. Pingback: Dealing with scarcity | A Fair Say

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