The government is citing out of date figures in an attempt to wriggle out of its food bank shame, writes James Bloodworth.
The government is citing out of date figures in an attempt to wriggle out of its food bank shame, writes James Bloodworth
The government (facilitated by the Daily Mail) has gone on the attack today in light of yesterday’s report by the Trussell Trust that almost a million people had visited a food bank in the past year.
It would appear that a senior government source is briefing against food banks while safely behind a veil of anonymity.
“…senior figures in the government yesterday accused the Trust of ‘publicity seeking’ to benefit its own ‘business’, pointing out that the growing number of food banks inevitably leads to people seeking out free food if it is available,” as the Mail reports.
The supposed coup de grace is OECD data, cited repeatedly by the government in interviews with the media yesterday (here, here, here and here), which apparently shows that food poverty in the UK is going down, rather than increasing.
“The Department for Work and Pensions added that a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development actually found that food poverty has gone down under this government.”
This fits with the general Tory narrative on food banks: “Are people going hungry? I don’t believe so…if something worth having is being out free, there will be many willing takers,” former Conservative MP Edwina Curry writes in today’s Sun.
Ignore for a minute the fact that Currie’s comments probably say more about her own mentality than about anyone else’s, let’s take a closer look at the the study being cited by senior Conservatives.
I found the OECD study referred to, and it does indeed say that those ‘reporting not enough money to buy food’ has decreased from 9.8 per cent pre-crisis to 8.1 per cent in the latest year of the study.
So there’s no reason to worry then, right?
Well not exactly. The ‘latest year’ of the study is in fact 2012, and the Trussell Trust figures reported yesterday – which show that almost a million people have used a Trussell Trust food banks – is based on food bank usage during 2013 to 2014.
Now perhaps you don’t think this matters a great deal. The difference is only two years, after all.
But if we look at some of the changes to the tax and welfare system that have occurred under the coalition, then it’s fairly clear why there might have been a spike in food poverty in the past year or two – a spike that is, for obvious reasons, never going to show up in statistics from 2012.
While the incomes of the wealthiest fell the most during the initial stages of the economic downturn, it is the poor who are now feeling the biggest squeeze and it is the poor who will continue to be the hardest hit as changes to the benefits system take effect in the coming years.
This isn’t my opinion, it’s the opinion of the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), which has looked in detail at the cumulative impact of the government’s welfare reforms. Commenting last year, senior research economist at the IFS Robert Joyce said that much of the pain for lower-income groups was “occurring now or is still to come because these groups are the most affected by cuts to benefits and tax credits”.
“If the OBR’s macroeconomic forecasts are correct, then most of the falls in real incomes associated with the recession have now happened for middle-and higher-income groups,” he added.
If we look at some of the coalition’s reforms to the welfare system, it’s fairly easy to see why that might be the case, for many of the changes have only recently come into effect:
The Bedroom Tax – introduced in April 2013
Universal Credit – introduced in April 2014 (ongoing)
The Benefit Cap – introduced in April 2013
Changes to child tax credits – introduced in April 2012
Changes to Working Tax Credits – introduced in April 2012
In other words, and as the independent IFS has recognised, many of the government’s welfare reforms have only really started hurting the poor in the past year or so – and the pain will continue in the years to come.
And what do the Trussell Trust say about the reasons given by people for visiting a food bank?
“Half of referrals…were a result of benefit delays or changes.”
Delays and changes that, presumably, have largely come in in the past year or so – and after the 2012 study cited by the government.
As I wrote yesterday, the spike in food bank usage is a crisis made in Downing Street. Citing figures which are two years out of date is not going to change that.Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.