A few days ago, the Trussell Trust released its annual figures showing its food banks had handed out 913,000 parcels of emergency food – up from 347,000 last year. I recently visited Readifood, Reading’s local foodbank, and it too suggested it was seeing similar growth in numbers using its services.
There are some obvious reasons why foodbank numbers have risen; the current government has encouraged public sector organisations such as Jobcentre Plus to sign-post people in great need directly to them for help. There is also the fact that the great generosity of the British people and big supermarkets has meant there is much more food to distribute so that more people can be helped.
I applaud this generosity and the excellent work undertaken by organisations such as the Trussell Trust and Readifood, they do an enormous amount of good work locally and across the nation in helping to meet emergency need. But, despite these obvious factors, the apparent exponential growth in demand for food banks is extremely complex and we require much more information to establish the cause.
This is why I am looking forward to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty’s joint study paper with the Trussell Trust later this year. This should help inform a debate that has lacked detailed information and is too dependent on anecdotal evidence.
Whilst the figures from the Trussell Trust last week are interesting, it is also important to dig deeper. The Trussell Trust’s data is some of the most robust we have at the moment, but, as with all statistics, it has limitations.
First, its analysis of six of its own food banks shows that 65 per cent of people only visited for assistance once. Just 7.5% of those visiting needed four or more vouchers. Although this was a small scale study, it does highlight that the national dataset does not distinguish between people who visit once and people who visit multiple times – it was not designed to do so – and therefore we should all be very cautious about saying “a million people” have visited in the last year.
Second, the biggest reason for referral, according to the Trust’s data, remains benefit payment delays, which accounted for 31 per cent of referrals this year.
The DWP (Department of Work and Pensions) has made progress in this area but there is much more work to do in ensuring money reaches its target quickly. The DWP rightly emphasises the importance of ensuring a full and effective roll out of universal credit in addressing the existing cumbersome system inherited from the previous administration.
I understand from Readifood, that there are concerns about moving to a monthly payment of benefits under Universal Credit from the current fortnightly. I am looking carefully at this issue.
Probably the most important thing a politician and Government can do is to look carefully at what combination of circumstances converge in an individual’s life before they reach a crisis point and approach a professional asking for a food bank referral voucher. This means not taking the easy political option of simply blaming a system or a political party or a government, it means digging in to people’s personal life experiences for answers. Tickbox responses are simply not helpful when faced with a much more complex set of circumstances.
The debate locally and nationally been far too much about two polarised political arguments. There are those who allege that the responsibility for a visit to a foodbank lies purely with the individual. To these people, the benefits system is adequate, providing the money is used as intended and a visit to the food bank is a reflection that “poor choices” have been made and money has not been spent wisely.
Others argue that the current Government has caused a crisis, should bear full responsibility and that savage welfare cuts and an “aggressive” sanctioning regime are entirely to blame. These people argue that welfare reform is fundamentally wrong and that is being poorly delivered. It is disappointing to see some in the Church taking this simplistic political position.
The reality that I find from my weekly surgeries and visits to those needing help is that every case is different and that sweeping generalisations about causes do not do justice to the complexity of individual family circumstances. It is no more the case that “poor choices” are at the root of every case than welfare reform is.
As Frank Field, the respected former Labour Welfare Minister, argued recently: “even if we abolished all the welfare reforms that the Government had done, we would not abolish the need for foodbanks”.
In a polarised debate it’s difficult to see clearly as other factors are crowded out by the noise of simplistic debate. “It’s your fault”, is not a remedy or a policy that will help anyone. There are other contributing factors we all need to consider and look at whether the evidence is there to support those factors. How have cost factors affected those going to foodbanks? Housing have risen for all generations, has this had an impact? The cost of utilities has risen, what has the impact of this been? Food and commodity prices have risen across the world and take up a far greater proportion of total household spending, what impact has this had. Families have saved less since the 2008 crash, does this mean people have had less to fall back on in hard times?
With a more flexible employment market people can move in and out of jobs at short notice having a big short term impact on their household income and benefits payments – how much of a problem has this been?
There is no doubt that since the 2008 crash, households have struggled and families have seen their finances come under pressure. As a result, when disaster strikes – the boiler breaks down, or the washing machine needs fixing, or hours at work are reduced at short notice – it can prove a heavy blow to the family budget and quickly turn into a crisis.
More often than not it is not one specific factor that causes the trip to the food bank, but the cumulative impact of many longer term issues building up. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to categorise these problems neatly, or to weight the different causes on a tickbox sheet. This means the data we have currently can only show the single most recent factor driving the food bank visit.
Unless we look at the complex reasons leading up to a family or individual presenting at the food bank, with a thorough and dispassionate look at these longer term causes, we will not be able to move on from the sometimes unhelpfully political debate we currently have and that makes solving the problem more difficult.
As a politician, it is my duty to ask the question as to what happened leading up to the moment of crisis. I often ask organisations difficult questions (as devil’s advocate) about the services they offer and the information they present me with. If I don’t it makes it harder to get at the truth and the evidence and if you don’t have that you can’t target limited resources towards where the problem lies in the future.
Finally, it is worth remembering that foodbanks are not a UK-only phenomenon, they have grown across the western world and during Governments of all political persuasions. Getting to the evidence will be the key factor in solving this issue.