London, United Kingdom – Britain’s prime minister has made a rare foray into the realm of religion, under pressure from church leaders over soaring levels of food poverty and as campaigning for crucial elections gets under way.
David Cameron spoke out during the Easter holy week to proclaim his commitment to Christianity as religious figures raised the volume of criticism about the impact of his government’s radical welfare reforms.
The country has just passed a grim landmark of a million emergency food parcels being handed out and anti-poverty campaigners are now claiming Cameron’s administration is breaking international law on the right to food.
They have also revealed that the prime minister’s constituency office called the police when one of the country’s most senior bishops visited last week to deliver a letter about food poverty – and suggested this reveals a sense of panic over the issue.
Summoning the police like that illustrates the sense of panic in this government about rising food poverty levels because they are in such denial about this problem.
“We are calling on David Cameron to demonstrate the Christian values that he proclaims through actions and not just words when it comes to the problem of growing food poverty in the UK,” said Reverend Keith Hebden, an Anglican priest and spokesman for the main campaign against food poverty in the UK, End Hunger Fast.
Police were called when Hebden accompanied the Bishop of Oxford, the Right Reverend John Pritchard – one of the UK’s most senior religious figures – to Cameron’s constituency office in Witney, Oxfordshire, to hand in a letter about food poverty signed by scores of church figures.
“Summoning the police like that illustrates the sense of panic in this government about rising food poverty levels because they are in such denial about this problem,” Hebden said, pointing out the police soon left when they realised they were not required.
Cameron starts to ‘do God’
Food poverty has moved up the political agenda and last week figures issued by food bank providers, including the Trussell Trust, the country’s main provider of food banks, indicated more than one million people were forced to seek emergency hand-outs so far this year.
Campaigners blame radical reforms to Britain’s welfare system under the ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and say ministers refuse to meet them to discuss the issue.
Food poverty has increased strains between the Church of England and the Conservative party, and has brought together a broad coalition of Christian leaders demanding action. In their letter to the government – the second in recent months – the church leaders described soaring food poverty as a “national crisis”.
The letter was signed by 600 leaders of all the main Christian denominations, including Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers and the Evangelical Alliance, as well as more than 40 Anglican bishops.
Non-Christian religious leaders have also begun to speak out. Last week 30 British rabbis called on political leaders to take urgent measures to help people who cannot afford to feed themselves, and British Muslim charities have also started organising food banks.
Politicians have traditionally shied away from talking about their own religious beliefs – with Alastair Campbell, the spin doctor of former prime minister Tony Blair, once famously proclaiming that they did not “do God” – but there has been a marked shift in Cameron’s position in the past week.
In a radio interview, a reception in Downing Street, and an opinion piece in the Church Times, Cameron – an Anglican but one who has not hitherto displayed a strong religious identity – asserted his Christian credentials, at one stage stating he was “evangelical” about his faith.
‘Half-a-million’ rely on UK food banks
The prime minister’s commentary in the Church Times – published on the day police were called when the Bishop of Oxford visited his constituency office – said Britons should be “more confident about our status as a Christian country”.
Easter message to ‘charm Christian voters’
Critics of the government say Cameron’s comments have political motives in the run-up to local and European elections in May, aiming to soothe party members angry at the prime minister’s support for gay marriage, and to counter growing support for the anti-immigration UK Independence Party (UKIP).
Social commentator Polly Toynbee said Cameron’s Christian country reference is soaked in “white nationalist significance” – and warned of the potential danger of using such language in an ostensibly secular political system.
Religious campaigners reacted to the prime minister’s comments by calling on him to act on his word.
Niall Cooper, a spokesman for the Church Action on Poverty campaign, welcomed Cameron’s praise for Christianity, but added: “If he is going to be serious about his Christianity, he is going to need to take seriously the social justice aspect of our faith – and that means acting on food poverty.”
Dave Landrum, director of advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance, said: “David Cameron’s call for faith to play a greater role in society is welcome and needed.
“But his comments this Easter can also be seen as an effort to charm Christian voters after his government’s redefinition of marriage, and to distract from church leaders’ recent criticism of food poverty in the UK.”
The Tablet, an influential Catholic magazine, noted that while the prime minister’s Easter message praised “acts of kindness” by Christians, such as running soup kitchens, it neglected to mention the growing numbers of food banks – most of which are run by Christian-founded groups such as the Trussell Trust.
Cameron had praised the work of charities providing food banks at his Downing Street reception – in stark contrast to the angry reaction of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to the latest Trussell Trust figures.
|Food bank volunteer Diana Grant sorts cans of food at a food bank in Bromley, south London [AP]|
DWP – the government department responsible for reforming Britain’s benefits system – reportedly accused the charity of “misleading and emotionally manipulative publicity-seeking”.
Human rights ‘breached’
Observers say the contrasting responses of the prime minister and the DWP reveal real confusion within the government about how to respond to growing food poverty in the UK.
Trussell Trust says its latest figures represent “just the tip of the iceberg”, and demonstrate that many British citizens on low incomes, especially those reliant on benefits, are finding it hard to make ends meet.
Adrian Curtis, the Trust’s food bank director, said: “The rise in the number of people coming to food banks is absolutely shocking. Historically we’ve always seen people who experience a short-term crisis due to unforeseen circumstances, but what we have seen in the last couple of years is such a significant increase in the numbers of people in crisis that it is causing alarm.”
Last week the Just Fair consortium of charities, research institutes, trade unions and community groups campaigning against food poverty accused Cameron‘s government of violating the human right to food and breaching international law.
It will be submitting a report on food poverty drafted by specialist lawyers to a UN review of Britain’s human rights record in 2015, arguing that welfare reforms, benefit delays and rising living costs are causing food insecurity, hunger and even malnutrition.
“It is our opinion that the UK has violated the human right to food and breached international law,” Just Fair chairman Jamie Burton said. “This is both avoidable and unnecessary – we call on the government to take immediate action to ensure that no one in the UK is denied their most basic right to sufficient and adequate food.”