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Posted on 26th April 2024

In Memory of Frank Field, Lord Field of Birkenhead

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“Frank Field has long been a hero of mine, and he will remain so for the rest of my life.”

Andrew Forsey, National Director of Feeding Britain

Frank Field has long been a hero of mine, and he will remain so for the rest of my life.

Behind all of his ideas and projects was a desire to harmonise self-interest with the pursuit of the common good. He knew how powerful an impact, for good or ill, the design and implementation of public policy could have on both the individual and society; not simply in a material sense, as important as that is, but also in respect of our character and behaviour.

He knew instinctively how decisions taken in Westminster could, and almost always did, bring out that complex mix of strengths and frailties we associate with human nature.

At its best, public policy could free people from the destructive effects of poverty and other forms of social evil, while incentivising or rewarding those habits of virtue such as work, saving, caring, and honesty. At its worst, it could compound those effects and erode both body and soul.

This much was apparent long before I began working with him, in 2013. His proposals for delivering full employment and a living wage, rewiring the welfare state, and eradicating child poverty, for example, were crafted in a way which went with, rather than against, the grain of human nature.
Only by binding together the individual and collective self-interest could we achieve these long held goals of the centre left.

Not long after I joined his office, it was a wholly new destructive force that commanded much of our time and effort; namely, the emergence of hunger, destitution, and the accompanying need for food banks.

On an early visit to the food bank in Birkenhead, Frank caught the look of shame and defeat on the face of a woman whose plight had resulted in her having to be given an emergency food parcel. She was broken. Here was a most shocking and wicked sign of body and soul being destroyed by extreme poverty. And so that same instinct, of trying to craft reforms which aided rather than warped our material and moral wellbeing, came to the fore once again.

Shortly after that visit, we established an all-party parliamentary inquiry which could identify the drivers of food bank usage and produce a blueprint for their elimination. The inquiry’s report, Feeding Britain, has since been taken forward by the charity bearing its name, and many of its ideas were initially tested through the Feeding Birkenhead programme, alongside 12 other local pilot schemes – including work spearheaded by Emma Lewell-Buck in South Shields and Liz Kendall in Leicester.

Through Feeding Birkenhead, Frank quickly developed a programme which freed thousands of people from hunger and the need to depend on a food bank. A network of social supermarkets provided low-cost but good food with choice and dignity, in return for manageable contributions. A network of holiday clubs provided food and fun for children at times of the year when food bank usage had previously peaked. And advice services were brought into these projects to fix problems with benefits, debt, housing, and anything else that had left people short of money.

Some of this work has successfully been scaled up across the country. The School Holidays (Meals and Activities) Bill, which Frank drafted and sponsored in 2017, has been a notable example. Behind the Bill, Frank had assembled a strong bank of evidence and research, an equally strong moral argument, and, through Feeding Birkenhead, a glimpse of the benefits of this idea to children, families, and whole communities. Added to this list was cross-party support from more than 130 MPs, resulting in the Government’s introduction of an England-wide Holiday Activities and Food programme with £200 million a year behind it, supporting hundreds of thousands of children in the process.

Likewise, through the Feeding Britain programme, Frank began engineering a major shift in the role, functions, and characteristics of grassroots food provision. Among 350 social supermarkets, pantries, and food clubs now supported by Feeding Britain, there is a steady stream of food banks that have chosen to develop or convert into this co-operative and contributory model, partly as a means of aligning the self-interest of people seeking help with a broader vision of the common good. Indeed, official data suggest that, for the first time, there are now more people accessing this form of help than turning to food banks.

But beneath this work lies much unfinished business. There are still too many people suffering with hunger and whose standard of living is submerged below a ‘national minimum’ which had previously been deemed acceptable by both Parliament and the public.

Another of the Bills that Frank drafted and sponsored, the Free School Meals (Automatic Registration of Eligible Children) Bill, which gathered cross-party support from 125 MPs, would result in an additional 200,000 poorer children being signed up for their free school meal entitlement. An even greater number would benefit if this ‘opt out’ process was extended to the Healthy Start scheme.

There are also 900,000 poorer children who are disqualified from free school meal entitlement due to the current criteria, while debt and deductions chip away constantly at the incomes of poorer families on Universal Credit.

Among those with three or more children, the risk of using a food bank more than trebles, and the abolition of the two-child limit is something that Frank felt was desperately needed. In a similar vein, he developed much needed proposals for eradicating poverty wages in the care sector and the gig economy.

A regular correspondent used to write on his letters to the office, ‘Frank Field MP, One Man Think Tank Against Poverty’. Let us hope that his ideas will help our country end the need for food banks in the next Parliament. In the meantime, may he rest in peace and rise in glory.

Written by Andrew Forsey, National Director of Feeding Britain and previously head of Frank Field MP’s office in the House of Commons.