What the foodbank debate tells us

Stephen_Timms_portrait.jpgBy Stephen Timms MP, Chair of Christians on the Left


The debate about foodbanks exposes the dark secret at the heart of this government: they just don't care.

Asked about the growth of foodbanks, David Cameron always gives the same reply: that demand for foodbanks went up tenfold under Labour. He is implying that things are no worse now than before the election.

The facts, however, tell a different story. One of the reasons the extraordinary Trussell Trust has proved so irksome to government is that it keeps meticulous statistics. And it refuses to suppress them.

In the year before the 2010 election, 40,000 people visited a foodbank. When Labour was elected, the Trussell Trust did not exist. Mr Cameron's claim of a tenfold rise is meaningless. The prime minister could justifiably point out that foodbank demand was a worry under the last Government too. However, since the General Election, demand has rocketed. Since April 2013 alone, over 500,000 people have used a Trussell Trust foodbank.

The Trussell Trust records the reason each person uses a foodbank. In 2012-13, 30% did so because of benefit delays, a further 15% because of benefit changes and 4% because they had been refused crisis loans. So 49% of referrals related directly to benefit problems.

Trussell Trust foodbanks only give food to people who produce one of its vouchers. Vouchers are held by GPs, social workers, Citizens' Advice Bureaux and police officers. They will issue a voucher if they are satisfied there is a genuine need. They have to tick a box on the voucher to indicate the reason for the problem.

The prime minister's soundbite gets him through Prime Minister's Questions. The secretary of state for work and pensions cannot duck the issue so readily. So he has made a series of absurd claims. He has said that the rise in demand for foodbanks has no connection with the benefits system. The foodbank volunteers I meet say this is laughable. Mr Duncan Smith also suggested that demand grew because of the publicity his department gave to foodbanks.

Food-bank.jpgThe education secretary Michael Gove was more honest about what ministers really think. He said the problem was that people are incapable of managing their finances. Lord Freud, the welfare reform minister, said that, where free food was available, people would of course help themselves - failing to grasp the reality of peoples' predicaments, and ignoring the voucher system.

Growth in foodbank demand reflects the wider cost of living crisis. Increasing numbers of those referred are people in work. But problems in the benefit system are playing a big part - straightforward cuts like the bedroom tax; major processing delays; and the enormous number of benefit sanctions - up more than tenfold since the General Election - where payment is withheld for alleged breaches of regulations. Foodbank volunteers say people who have been sanctioned often have no idea why.

Ministers could argue that they have to take from the poor in order to reduce the deficit. But they also claim that "we are all in this together" - and everybody can see that their policies are not hurting the well off. In fact, those earning over £150,000 per year had a large income tax cut last April. So ministers have to pretend their policies aren't hurting the poor either.

Iain Duncan Smith is livid that a church-based group bangs on about the hardship his policies cause. He thought he was safe with them - as with the think tank he founded, the Centre for Social Justice, which draws on the same vein of church-based social concern. He now refuses to meet the Trussell Trust, complaining in a letter that they have had the temerity "repeatedly" to "link the growth of your network to welfare reform".

When Iain Duncan Smith was appointed, he made a song and dance about lifting a ban on jobcentres referring people to foodbanks. But the ban is apparently back. A written parliamentary answer on 4 September stated: "Jobcentre Plus... does not refer people to food banks or issue vouchers". In fact, foodbank volunteers say many jobcentres still make referrals, but with their own version of the vouchers. The boxes to show the reason for the referral have been removed, so they won't give the Trussell Trust evidence of their own failings.

Thank God for the Trussell Trust and for its thousands of unselfish volunteers. But surely even these politicians must have some concern that their policies are causing so much hardship? Can they simply ignore it just because their own friends aren't affected? Why do they deny facts they must know to be true? The foodbank debate shows it more clearly than almost anything else: these people should not be running the country.


The Rt Hon Stephen Timms is MP for East Ham, Shadow Minister of State for employment, and chair of Christians on the Left

This blog was first posted at the Huffington Post 

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commented 2014-10-18 22:07:35 +0100 · Flag
Lost your way again….this is not the taxpayers alliance website.
This may help to refocus you….
21st Century Matthew 25:31-46
Posted by Darren Jalland
Then, the King said “I was hungry and you told me that it was my own fault for being lazy and believing that I was entitled to help from hard working families and that I’d probably spent all of my money on alcohol, cigarettes and drugs anyway.

I was thirsty and you assumed that I was desperate for gin or vodka, rather than water.

I was naked and you said that I would have more chance of a job if I took more care of my personal appearance, even though I wore all I could afford.

I was poor and you told me I was a scrounger who just wanted to sponge off the state and put stories about me on the tv and newspapers, despite knowing nothing about my circumstances.

I was sick and you denied me any help, told me to go back to work and assumed I was faking illness in order to scrounge.

I was in prison and you demanded that the key was thrown away and that I was kept away from all respectable, law-abiding members of society because I was a bad person who could never change.

I was a stranger and you ran, scared of me, told me to go home, that your country was full and that I was only there to steal your money, possessions and jobs.

For I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it to me."

What will your party do other than be Tory lite having read your article on compulsory workfare…..sorry….job guarantee. Radical policies are needed not tinkering at the edges.
commented 2014-02-20 14:04:28 +0000 · Flag
Today there has been a letter published in, of all newspapers, the Daily Mirror! from a number of Bishops on the subject of food banks. It would be interesting to know, – have they or anybody else bothered to find out – how many of those using food banks are smokers, drink alcohol , have expensive t.vs with Skye, mobile phones, I pads and other state of the art techno. stuff, to say nothing of running cars etc. Before the proliferation of food banks is used as a measure of need, perhaps a proper survey of what the recipients of food charity actually spend their money on ought to be properly undertaken by unbiased and non-political people, I think the result might be enlightening. We all have to decide on what our priorities are and food should come before non-essential luxuries. Simple eating may not be very exciting but it will provide the necessary nurishment that we need to live. It is obvious that the more food banks there are, and the ease of access, will create a market, just as the more roads we build generates more traffic.
commented 2014-01-09 12:49:56 +0000 · Flag
Food Banks have become a vital necessity. As Christians it is great to support and seek to strengthen the provision they bring to people in crisis. However, at the same time we need to be careful not to see them as something that should be a permanent part of life in Britian. At a recent diocesan conference in the Church in Wales (Llandaff) the work of Food Banks was supported but with an ammendment that look to condemning the fact that they have to exist in the first place. The wealth of this nations IS such that Food Banks do not have to exist. They exist because quite simply this government is not prepared to respond adequately to the needs of those in its care. Thank you Food Banks for the light you bring but I respectfully pray for the day when you no longer have to exist.