Non Cabinet Members' Debate
To enable non Cabinet Members to debate an issue of relevance to Brent for which notice has been provided in accordance with Standing Order 34 and to receive reports from Cabinet members on any issues previously raised.
In accordance with Standing Order 34 the Mayor advised that the subject chosen for the Non Cabinet Member debate was the outcome of the scrutiny review into the use of foodbanks in Brent.
Members were advised that the motion submitted as the basis for the debate had been circulated with the first supplementary agenda for the meeting.
The Mayor then invited Councillor Mashari to introduce the motion and open the debate who began by highlighting her support for the comments made by Dee Woods during her deputation. As a context to the scrutiny review she had chaired members were reminded of the dramatic increase in the use of foodbanks, with the example provided of the Trussell Trust having distributed 1.2million food aid packages over the last year.
Concern was expressed that official figures were not capturing the true extent of the issue, as the Government was not gathering data on the use of food banks. It was pointed out that in Brent alone, over the last year, an estimated 5,636 people were known to have accessed food banks which Councillor Mashari and the Scrutiny Task Group felt were now having to plug the vacuum caused as a direct result of the corrosion of the welfare state.
The current lack of understanding, policy and strategy from the government to address the issue of poverty and access to food were felt to present a significant risk to the public sector given that food banks were now playing such a significant role in society. It was also felt that the scale of the problem was only likely to increase with the roll out of Universal Credit on top of the current problems being experienced with implementation of the governments welfare reform programme. It was not felt that the usage of food banks should be regarded as the norm or a lifestyle choice with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) maintaining there was no link between problems with implementation of benefits and welfare reform and the increased use of food banks.
Councillor Mashari pointed out that the Scrutiny Task Group had produced a number of findings and recommendations including the need for better recording of usage and referrals. She also welcomed the offer from the Chief Executive to provide training sessions for members and officers on food bank usage and referrals at which the video produced by the Task Group would also be available, as a means of improving understanding and encouraging more joined up working.
Given the lack of government involvement and leadership on this issue, she finished by highlighting the need for the Council and local public, voluntary and private organisations to demonstrate leadership and encourage greater collaboration through development of a proactive strategy with more targeted interventions. Thanks were also extended to all those involved in the Scrutiny Task Group review and for the invaluable work undertaken by those involved in running the food banks.
The Mayor then opened up the debate, with the following comments made during the discussion that followed.
Councillor Ezeajughi thanked all those involved for their support on the scrutiny review and highlighted how the visits undertaken by Members to food banks as part of this process had helped to demonstrate the true scale of hardship being experienced. Concerns were raised about the impact the roll out of Universal Credit would have in making this position even worse when witnessed alongside the problems already being caused by benefit delays, sanctions and low wages. Gratitude was expressed for the food bank staff and volunteers and he urged Members to support the findings from the scrutiny review as an outcome of the debate.
Councillor Nerva offered specific thanks to the staff and volunteers involved with the Granville Community Kitchen, Sufra and also St Laurence’s Larder for their participation in the scrutiny review and support they were providing within the local community. He agreed that the issue was not related to a lack of food but was created by difficulties in being able to access food due to poverty and the problems already identified in relation to implementation of benefit and welfare reforms by the government. He also supported the view that the reliance on food banks would increase with the roll out of Universal Credit and urged Opposition Members to highlight these issues with their colleagues in government. The need to develop a co-ordinated and proactive strategy to address the issue locally was supported as a way forward for the Council’s new Administration to actively progress following the local elections in May 2018.
Councillor Duffy highlighted the need for a consistent approach in terms of addressing food poverty outlining the need not to underestimate the impact low wages also had. He welcomed the support for the Granville Community Centre, which he highlighted local ward councillors had fought hard to support when under threat. Ongoing support he felt the Council could provide for organisations providing these services included the offer of rent free or peppercorn rent premises and greater advertising to raise awareness and encourage donations. As a point or order in response to the comments made, Councillor Mashari clarified that the original proposals put forward in relation to the Granville Community Centre had not been from herself.
Moving on with the debate, Councillor Stopp supported the view that the increasing role food banks now played in society could be seen as a direct legacy of the Government’s welfare reform programme and the erosion of the welfare state. Whilst grateful for their involvement, he felt it was wrong that the voluntary and community sector were now having to fill the resulting gaps in order to address the lack of access to food and levels of poverty within certain sections of the community for which he felt funding should be prioritised by government.
Councillor Kansagra, as an opposition member who had supported the scrutiny review also took the opportunity to thank all those involved for their time and effort and advised that he endorsed the findings outlined for debate at Council. He took the opportunity to also highlight the assistance being provided by many religious organisations from different faiths across the borough in providing informal meals and food assistance alongside the support from food banks, which he felt was an example of the Big Society at work. In his view the issues driving the increasing use of food banks were more complex than purely welfare reforms and involved the wider problems caused by the economic downturn presided over by previous governments.
The support for the assistance being provided through various religious organisations and centres was also highlighted and endorsed by Councillor Choudry.
As the time available for the debate was shortly due to expire, the Mayor then invited Councillor McLennan, as Deputy Leader, to conclude the discussion by summing up and responding to the various issues raised. Councillor McLennan thanked Councillor Mashari and the Scrutiny Task Group for what she felt had been a challenging review and also thanked Dee Woods for her passionate deputation as well as the representatives from SUFRA for also attending the meeting in support of the debate.
The findings from the review had highlighted a number of important issues and she felt it also necessary to recognise that the use of food banks included people both in and out of work. Cabinet had already considered the Task Group report and had agreed to take forward the recommendations made. Whilst some would be relatively straightforward to implement others would require a longer term partnership approach to be developed. Whilst mindful of the challenge presented as a result of financial constraints placed on the Council, she assured Members that the way in which each recommendation could be taken forward would be carefully considered. Councillor McLennan ended by thanking all those involved in the Scrutiny review for their contribution and by way of highlighting her support advised that she also felt it was unacceptable for the use of food banks to be on the increase in a country with one of the largest economies in the world.
As an outcome of the debate Members RESOLVED to note the findings of the Scrutiny Task Group review on the use of food banks and to recognise and thank all those involved along with the invaluable work undertaken by food bank staff, volunteers and donors.