This government needs to accept its own legacy on food banks

New analysis has shown the connection between welfare reform, cuts, and food bank increases

 

Back in 2013 the life peer and parliamentary under secretary of state for work and pensions Lord Freud, sparked a controversy by saying that the growth in people turning to food banks had simply to do with their supply – because organisations like the Trussell Trust were expanding their operations people simply felt they could get a free meal.

It demonstrated a staggering lack of awareness on an issue that, frankly, Lord Freud should have known a bit more about. Most importantly, for most food banks open around the country, vouchers need to be redeemed by people referred by their job centre. For the rise of in-work households that needed referral, vouchers could be obtained by other advice agencies as well. Food banks are not drop-in centres.

Also, from Lord Freud it demonstrated significant political immaturity. Instead of owning up and saying that the rise in food bank numbers reflected the vast number of people who couldn’t afford to eat under his government’s watch, he decided to question the morality of people queueing up to receive a package of food for three days.

For all this government’s faults, at least they have their consistency. Last year, when a report commissioned by the Church Of England, the Trussell Trust, Oxfam, and Child Poverty Action Group showed that cuts and changes to the benefit system had a lot to do with the rise in referrals to food banks, the government responded simply by saying the issue remained inconclusive.

So it will be interesting to see the response of the government this time, to yet another report that highlights the connection between welfare reform, cuts, and food bank increases.

Analysis carried out by researchers at Oxford University, published in the British Medical Journal, looked at the openings of food banks from 2009, the base year from which their number rose rather considerably, to the present day. The number of local authorities with food banks operated by the Trussell Trust, for example, has risen from 29 in 2009-10 to 251 in 2013-14.

From here, researchers looked at certain correlations that occurred between food bank openings and changes to the structure of welfare in the area. They found that greater welfare cuts highly increased the likelihood of a food bank opening. For every one per cent cut in central government spending on welfare benefits in a local authority there was an increase in the odds of a food bank opening in the area.

The researchers’ take-away conclusions are that food bank openings across the United Kingdom is unprecedented. They assert that this is closely associated with cuts to local authority spending and central welfare spending.

Food bank usage, rather than simply responding to a greater demand of people looking for a free meal – as seemingly this government believes, is highest in areas with greater levels of benefit sanctioning, unemployment, and cuts in central welfare spending. What does this government have to say about that? Importantly, too, what will Labour do to reduce the number of people who are reliant on food banks?

My suggestions for the next government are very simple:

  • Protect welfare spending to ensure those less fortunate are not consigned to the scrapheap;
  • Protect local welfare assistance – because offering small sums from state coffers is a lot better than forcing hard-up people into arrears or debt, which often is their only other alternative;
  • Scrap the number of moneyless waiting days that benefit claimants have to endure while their benefit claims are processed;
  • Properly signpost what assistance is available to struggling families rather than obliging low or no income people to guess;
  • Overhaul the system of sanctions that could potentially see claimants lose their benefits for months or even years – this very pernicious system, as it currently stands, aims to remove responsibility for people’s welfare from the state to an already over-stretched, relatively under-resourced charity sector.

This government, as it reaches its final days, should be more open and transparent about the part it played in the increase of food bank referrals, while the electorate should take stock of what this government’s real legacy is.

Carl Packman is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward and the author of Loansharks: The rise and rise of payday lending

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