In 2011, the Trussell Trust, a charity providing food aid across the UK was operating around 100 food banks. By the end of last year, that figure had risen to over 400.
The government standpoint
Food aid has become a divisive issue, largely because of disagreements about what’s behind the increased demand for emergency food aid. Last month, Priti Patel, employment minister at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) told the House of Commons that she did not accept claims by researchers that benefits sanctions could drive people to seek emergency food aid:
“There is no robust evidence that directly links sanctions and food bank use.”
Her contention is consistent with claims made under the coalition government. In February 2014, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, suggested to the House of Commons that it was not welfare reform but greater awareness of food aid, that was increasing use of food aid:
“Food banks do a good service, but they have been much in the news. People know they are free. They know about them and they will ask social workers to refer them. It would be wrong to pretend that the mass of publicity has not also been a driver in their increased use.”
What does the research say?
The DWP position is at odds with research looking at food banks in an effort to explain their increasing use.
A 2014 report from the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) identified a number of factors driving people to use food banks. These include loss of earnings and changes in personal circumstances (such as bereavement and homelessness). But the report highlighted problems with benefits (notably delays and sanctions) as a significant factor causing people to seek emergency food aid.
In addition, first-hand accounts from those managing and working in food banks have strengthened the claim that there is a correlation between welfare reforms and increasing use of food banks.
In 2013, Ewan Gurr from the Trussell Trust told the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee that the number of people using food banks in Scotland had risen from 5,726 in 2011-12 to 14,318 in 2012-13. And he was unambiguous in identifying the main reason for this dramatic increase:
“We are seeing evidence every day, right across our food bank network, that welfare reforms are inextricably linked to the rise in demand for emergency food relief.
In December 2014, the Church of England published its report on food poverty in the UK.
While the report acknowledged that benefits sanctions do not always represent the sole reason claimants turn to food banks, it observed that reduction and delays in benefits has meant families living on low incomes are worse off in the long term:
“There is a clear moral case to address the shortcomings that exist in our welfare system.”
The human impact
The impact of food poverty can be seen in the human stories that are often forgotten in the cut and thrust of the public debate. In March this year, a report highlighted the experiences of people around the UK trying to survive on very low incomes.
In one instance, a 57 year-old man’s benefits had been cut for 13 weeks because he failed to complete enough job applications.
“William came to the food bank in the first week of his sanction. He was given food and didn’t return until weeks 11 and 12. William was apologetic for having to come back again, but said that his tea, sugar and other basics had now run out. We spoke to him, to find out how he’d managed. He said he’d cut down on the amount he ate, and that the mild winter meant he had managed without heating.”
For those of us who thought food poverty was a bitter memory of a bygone era, the very existence of food banks is hard to stomach. As the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee concluded:
“They are a sign of a Dickensian model of welfare which should have no place in a prosperous nation. Ultimately the necessity for food banks should be eliminated.”
With the exponential growth of food banks across the country, that aspiration is unlikely to be realised any time soon.
*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service