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Foodbank statistics present problems for the coalition – and for Labour

16 April 2014

Despite the stream of very good economic news (as described by Fraser and James), you won’t catch ministers saying that the crisis in living standards is ‘over’ because there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

The Trussell Trust, the Christian charity, has today published new statistics on food bank use. The headline figure is shocking: “913,138 people received three days’ emergency food from Trussell Trust foodbanks in 2013-14 compared to 346,992 in 2012-13”. The trust says that this is merely ‘the tip of the iceberg’ because the figures do not account for other foodbank providers. There is also, the trust says, no way of estimating how many people are too ashamed to use a foodbank and prefer to go hungry instead.

There is some doubt about the accuracy of the Trussell Trust’s statistics, which are vague and may have double counted users. There is also doubt about the validity of comparisons of foodbank use extending back to 2000, when statistics were even more vague. There is no doubt, however, that demand for foodbanks is high. That fact has opened a political battleground.

600 religious leaders – including more than 40 Anglican bishops – have written a letter to the leaders of the three main political parties. They describe the situation as ‘terrible’, and urge the leaders to ‘begin rising to the challenge of this national crisis’ by engaging with the newly created all-party parliamentary inquiry into the causes of food poverty and hunger.

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The leaders will, in all probability, do so. Foodbanks are a social good that work to negate the effects of social ills. There is nothing to be gained by ignoring them and the reasons for their existence.

A more immediate political question is: to what extent will the statistics shape the welfare debate in the run up to the general election?

It seems that recent welfare changes have contributed significantly to this upsurge in foodbank use. A huge proportion of respondents (83%) to the Trussell Trust’s enquiries said that benefits sanctions (for example, when a job seeker has had their allowance temporarily withdrawn after missing a job interview) had forced them into the arms of the charity. Benefits changes (20%) and low income (17%) were the other major stated causes.

2013 was a difficult year for those who depend – both to a lesser and greater extent – on welfare because so many of the government’s reforms came into force that year. The changes are designed to instil a work ethic in people for whom work is not second nature. Those who fail to comply face sanctions.

One can accept that sanctions are necessary – and perhaps even desirable if they make people more employable in the long run – but does the system have to be this punitive? Liza Cucco, the manager of a Hackney food bank, told the BBC: ‘We’re often surprised by the length of sanctions people get. If someone is late for an appointment, I’m not sure it’s reasonable to block their payments for four to six weeks.’ That might be an exaggeration; but, nevertheless, there is reason to examine and debate the subject in some depth.

The Department for Work and Pensions is well prepared for an onslaught. Spokesmen have been ubiquitous this morning; emphasising that the historic rise in employment proves that the policy is working. Ministers and aides make no secret of the fact that this is a long process; give it time, they say. They also say – and not without cause – that this government has increased demand for foodbanks by enabling job centre staff to refer claimants in need to foodbanks; an example, they say, of how the coalition has made the welfare system more responsive. Additionally, it is often said that cutting taxes for the low paid is helping people to make ends meet. The local elections will see a variation on this theme as the Tories campaign for lower council taxes.

Labour’s position – insofar as it has one – is not straightforward. The party has accepted that welfare reform is necessary. Yet we know very little about the policy package. Labour’s response to these and other foodbank statistics may tell us more about its wider intentions on welfare. Will it seek to be a softer version of the coalition? (Such a thing may, of course, be impossible in practice.) Or will it revert to type?

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Show comments
  • Kazi Mamunur Rahman Shumon

    Hi, I am a staff with Nourish the Planet, we have a great wbinar coming up with Janie Gianotsos, Director of Marketing & Community Relations at the
    Food Bank of the Rockies. She will be discussing with us the very real
    problem that hunger is right in the USA ….. hunger in the USA being more related
    to poverty rather than food availability. We have a great webinar coming
    up on this topic:

  • Your Correspondent

    If you spend all your benefits on alcohol, cigarettes and mobile phone charges of course you will need a food bank.

  • David Booth.

    If you give anything away “Free” people will always form a line to get what’s going. Food Bank’s do however give work to professional do-gooders, paid at public expense, and stops amateur do-gooders from interfering with the neighbours lives.
    Save me the faux outrage comments, I’ve seen how food banks work and they really do need the spotlight shining on their functioning and the people who run them.

  • alabenn

    Food banks should be able to produce the financial position of its recipients, if someone is using the welfare payments for anything but the welfare of the family you cannot blame the government for their fecklessness, if it is the fault of civil servants because of their inability to do the job efficiently, common decency says they should be sacked.
    Accountability on all sides should be the watchword, after all we can sack the government at an election.

  • Anita Bellows

    120 disabled people have been sanctioned for 3 years. I am sure the 120 of them applied for a job, which an employer was only too happy to give them, so that they did not have to resort to foodbanks

  • freethinker14

    If benefit sanctions are causing this then all it proves is that the sanctions are working. You need to accept that there are people out there who don’t want to work and they only way you can get them to go out and work is to “force” them through denying benefits.

  • Mynydd

    Labour are the parliamentary opposition, therefore unable to introduce measures to reduced the use of food banks. Mr Cameron/Clegg/Duncan Smith being the government can, if they are so minded, introduce such measures. However they seem to be part of the problem, when they don’t pay benefits on time. Is it not about time that Mr Cameron/Clegg/Duncan Smith got their act together, so that, when a payment has been agreed, it is sent out on time, a simple operation. It’s no wonder that the massive change that is, Universal Credit, is so far behind it’s original timetable, and way over its initial budget, we these three running the show.

    • saffrin

      ‘Labour are the parliamentary opposition’
      Evidence please.

  • Makroon

    I thought it was pretty well established that the boom in food banks is largely due to delays in paying benefits – which our ramshackle bureaucracy seems powerless to remedy.
    The “Trussell Trust”, with it’s emotive, dog-whistle name from the early 20th century, is just another left-wing pressure group masquerading as a “charity”.
    Actually, “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” is far from being a left-wing tract – it is an interesting description of casual building labour in the early 20th century.

    BTW, Labour have already moved on from the “Cost of Living Crisis” meme.
    The new stunt is “GDP per capita is still 6% below pre-recession levels” (they must have been listening to Daniel Maris !)
    Good luck with that one Balls, most of your target electors can’t even understand the concept of “average wages”.

    • Mr Grumpy

      Tressell not Trussell, though you may well be right to detect a deliberate resemblance.

      • Makroon

        Yes, thanks for pointing that out.

  • Frank

    This article isn’t a fat lot of good unless somebody can come up with proper usage statistics, broken down into categories: how many different adults, what reason for using the food-bank and what is their country of origin / immigration status.
    At the moment, the Trussell Trust could be dealing with the same 9,000 people who are getting a food pack every 3 days. Who knows?

  • RavenRandom

    Five years ago I didn’t know food banks existed. Their existence became widely known, more people know of their existence so use them. Numbers rise. I don’t fancy paying for my food, I’ll pop down to a food bank.
    How much of this so called rise is just down to people deciding “hey free food, why not?” And free food in effect means free money. So who’s surprised that usage has risen?

    • WillyTheFish

      Your glib ignorance demonstrates that you have no idea of how food banks operate. You don’t just walk in and help yourself, you know. There is a referral system and a limit to the number of visits allowed. This is emergency help for people in crisis. I *know* because I am involved; you *don’t know* because you are ignorant of the facts and, quite evidently, consumed by malice.

      • RavenRandom

        So knowledge that a thing exists doesn’t increase usage? So there is no one hitching a free ride on food banks? Is that because no one ever abuses the benefits system? Or is it because you are blessed by god or some higher power and miraculously “know”?

        • WillyTheFish

          Quod scripsi, scripsi. I know what I know from first hand experience.

          One can only hope that you never experience such misfortune yourself so that you can continue to enjoy your ill informed, smug, middle class malice.

          Meanwhile, your ‘contribution’ is beneath contempt.

          • RavenRandom

            You didn’t answer my questions. You assume you have perfect knowledge. That seems unlikely. Not sure what to make of you quoting Pilate.
            How odd that the self-righteous WillyTheFish should so rapidly reach for insult when people disagree with him.

  • dado_trunking

    What is it with semantics?
    These are no food ‘banks’. Food is not printed at will – it must be grown, saved up for bad times, cherished and celebrated when harvested and so on. None of the latter happens in a bank – a place completely unreliant on any form of actual deposits.

  • hannahlucy07

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  • Holby18

    I would like to know the statistics from the Dept of Work and Pensions on the number of people whose benefit has been suspended. Further, how many erroneously by the department. Claimants have much more stringent tests and targets to enable benefit to be paid. Benefit is stopped much more often now and imo that is one reason for the increase in use of foodbanks.

    In addition, many long term unemployed people have addiction problems and will use food banks because their income is used to meet addiction needs. Add to this those who are unable to budget and who probably starved before foodbanks increased. I would suggest that a few are genuinely in need and this is also down to the department of Work and Pensions who are slow to process claims.

    It is inevitable once a service providing free goods is available demand will rise. I accept the tougher welfare rules has contributed – so what? Welfare dependency without any form of punishment to obtain work is not sustainable. I am most happy for my taxes assist those in need. Indeed, I would prefer a system that provides greater assistance to those made redundant and who have contributed to the system. For example – 75% of their income for 12 months after losing employment if they have worked consistently for x number of years. I would be most unhappy for my taxes to be used to fund a welfare lifestyle. We have lost the notion of personal responsibility in the last decade and I am pleased that the new rules are trying to bring this notion back.

    • realfish

      ‘Claimants have much more stringent tests and targets to enable benefit to be paid. Benefit is stopped much more often now and imo that is one reason for the increase in use of foodbanks.’

      NO. The welfare state has always imposed conditionality on the receipt of benefits, from the day it was founded. Leaving a job voluntarily, being dismissed by way of misconduct meant that Unemployment Benefit was withheld for six weeks, as was the case for someone refusing suitable employment. Those that were, or made themselves, unavailable for work were disallowed benefit, until such time that they made themselves available.

      It could be argued that now you no longer have to pay into the system and with changing social attitudes, that things are less ‘stringent’ – there seems to be an wider acceptance that people can pick and choose what to do and that there is no point in working if you are no better off.

      Perhaps the increase you refer to can be accounted for by the huge increase in our population.

  • saffrin

    ‘Labour’s position – insofar as it has one – is not straightforward.’
    Hmm, pro kiddy fiddling last I heard.

  • Brian Quinn

    Another reason for the Government to stop Foreign Aid.

  • LadyDingDong

    If you provide people with free food then demand will increase – any fool could see that except a a leftard. The main beneficiaries are cigarette companies and BSB as money which would be spent on food can subsidise their products, and of course Labour who created the conditions that created welfare dependency in the first place.

    • Mike Barnes

      “If you provide people with free food then demand will increase – any fool could see that except a a leftard.”

      So why do food banks only experience surging demand during a depression, during the worst economic recovery in 100 years? Why does demand peak at the end of the month when your benefits are likely to run out?

      You are basically arguing that food banks are the problem? Maybe soup kitchens caused the great depression of the 1930s.

      Anyway this meme keeps cropping up from dimwitted and cruel Tories like Lord Freud and Edwina Currie, and keeps getting put down.

      The University of Warwick released a report a few months ago, that may or may not have been suppressed by the government and declared:

      “We found no evidence to support the idea that increased food aid provision is driving demand. All available evidence both in the UK and international points in the opposite direction. Put simply, there is more need and informal food aid providers are trying to help.”

      • LadyDingDong

        Welcome leftard fool.

        • dado_trunking

          The Lady is solely responsible for the decline of Britain, betting on the one horse race that is/was the City whilst closing down the Hinterland. In Europe only the Greeks can be blamed for such inept and centralist living beyond their means.
          There, fixed it for you.

          • alabenn

            Almost everything you say is untrue, the city increased in size because she freed up its restrictive practices, manufacturing actually increased during her tenure, it only started to decline under the nincompoops in Labour, it is now expanding under the Tories, that should tell you something.
            She never shut the pits, cold hard financial facts shut them, productivity in almost all pits was pathetic and that clown Scargill wanted to make it worse, the miners picked an idiot to lead them, is it any wonder they lost the battle, although Scargill and the rest of the officials in the NUM are sitting very pretty, almost no pits and jobs for life, a sinecure topped up as pension trustees to line the well feathered nests.

            • dado_trunking

              Oh no, not again this but it’s not our, it’s their fault palaver. The facts remain that other nations around us did not close the mines and their industries that depended on them. Hence we lost most of our skilled labour. Others still have that skilled labour – we however, Tories or otherwise (I DONT CARE!) will not recreate that. We can’t. It’s over. We buy in technology now – everything is bought in.

        • Kaiser Of Crisps

          God you’re funny, as funny as dead Thatcher whose withered decaying teats you suckle on, you rightard tool.

          • Fergus Pickering

            Dear me, you are a crosspatch

      • Colonel Mustard

        ” . . . dimwitted and cruel Tories”

        Er, that is also a meme or more correctly a characterisation. It is a meme that Labour and particularly Labour trolls have been peddling for decades. Real Animal Farm stuff – “Tories bad, Labour good”.

        Unfortunately it is very difficult these days to determine the truth of anything since it is all beset by polarised, subjective, emotive party political propaganda or commentary of one kind or another. The left do excel at that though and of course they have the advantage in numbers when it comes to the Third Sector or anything to do with the word “charity”.

    • telemachus

      You are cruel
      You know nothing of poverty

      Read the Trussel report
      Proud folk struggling to get by and then a delayed payment leads to starving children and a desperate visit to the food bank
      I hope that you never see adversity

  • manonthebus

    ‘…but does the system have to be this punitive?’ Probably the answer is Yes. But punitive does not mean destitution. Society has to be weaned off dependency on welfare because it is bad for you. Welfare, like healthcare, will always expand to use up the money available, whether that is actual money or illusory money. It must be the same with food banks. If you open one, they will come. It’s free food.

    • Dawn

      So you suggest people should starve because they’re on zero hour contracts/been made redundant/ can’t find jobs because of the current government’s ineptitude.


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