16 Feb 2011

Britain in 2011: people in work can’t feed themselves?

Can that be true?

I’ve been down to Salisbury (a city you associate with cathedral closes and green wellies) to find something you probably wouldn’t expect: a foodbank. It’s one of dozens of these US-style charity operations that have grown up unannounced around the country, handing out parcels of food to people unable to put a meal on the table.

Tens of thousands each year get parcels – mostly referred by GPs, health visitors, police, schools. That’s interesting in itself but we went to look at how the foodbanks are reporting a new phenomenon that throws light on life in Britain for many today. Their biggest growing cohort of people coming for help getting food on the table are folk who have an income, or people in a household where there is an income.

We knew that in-work poverty was a growing phenomenon in the UK – the latest estimate is that 53 per cent of working age households in poverty have at least one working adult. This is around 2.3m households (after factoring in housing costs). What the foodbank experience suggests is that these individuals are finding they plummet into crisis situations suddenly and more frequently.

Sometimes, we found, the emergency happens because agency work suddenly dries up – a construction worker we met can be on £800 one month and £170 the next. The fixed outgoings are geared more to the better income and are stretched to destruction by the plummeting one. And boy, do incomes plummet these days, without notice. To some, the labour market flexibilities introduced starting in the 1980s seem to be showing a lot of flexiblity in one direction. When you ask how many agency workers there are in this country, the estimates vary from around 260,000 (the Government’s Labour Force Survey) to 1.25m (the agency trade body the Recruitment and Employment Confederation).

Other factors that seem to trigger crisis situations for working poor we met in Salisbury were self-employed individuals whose income is erratic and workers forced onto lower working hours by their employers.

Much was made by some commentators of the glories of part-time work when the latest National Institute of Economic and Social Research figures came out revealing that 97 per cent of the jobs created since the recession ended were part-time. But look at the Department for Work and Pensions’ figures breakdown and you can see – for the first time – how many of those 97 per cent were not singing their way home at 3pm on a weekday. It seems that 1.2m of them actually wanted to work more hours but were being kept at lower working hours to keep the company ticking over or to keep company costs down. As today’s unemployment figures underline, it’s not the right time to go hunting in the job market, so people stay put and hope for better times.

For some needing food parcels the problem was accumulated debts and credit card payments eating into their disposable income. The personal debt figures for the UK tell you how widespread that must be. What all said was that the costs of petrol, food and rent – the basics – were having a lethal effect.

Tax credits don’t seem to protect these people. The market doesn’t want to pay them at the rate for the hours they want to work. Politicians have told workers that getting into work is the promised land …. but what if it isn’t? And what if the economic recovery doesn’t float all boats?

You can see our report on Channel 4 News tonight.

Tweets by @garygibbonblog

33 reader comments

  1. Saltaire Sam says:

    That is really scary stuff. Somehow we need to find a better balance to our economy, one that doesn’t see the top 1 per cent walking away with the lion’s share of the money.

    For years the conservatives have banged on about welfare into work but this report suggests that even getting a job is not necessarily enough. And hiding unemployment figures behind part time jobs is clearly not the answer.

    This country needs a major change of attitude. And I don’t mean more hand outs or big society helping hands, but an acceptance that someone’s work should at least entitle them to enough pay for a basic standard of living for them and their family.

    The immense gap between the top and bottom in our society is something of which we should be ashamed.

    1. Ea says:

      no, not be ashamed, we all can better

      but are you respponsible for the crimes of people thinking themselves as deitys ruling over us ??

      to be in anger certainly

      now, this anger is energy

      make constructive steps with your anger and you will work miracles ;)

    2. Phil Davison says:

      Well, does anybody know of a foodbank in Islington or Camden? Or failing that someone who I could get in touch with about it. I would contribute.

  2. Philip Edwards says:


    A fine piece of factual reporting that poses moral (not just financial) questions. Thank you.

    What it demonstrates consciously or unconsciously is the moral and financial bankruptcy of capitalism. To be clear, this is a system that knows nothing but organised maximum profit at the expense of the vast majority of society. In turn, the point about this is that maximum personal profit doesn’t equal economic efficiency. If it did, the only thing that would matter is increasing the number of millionaires in society. But modern history shows that is a cruel hoax.

    To maintain its position, capitalism uses every lie it can lay its hands to. Typical is the propaganda figure of agency workers at 260,000. Most recruitment agencies simply wouldn’t be in existence if that was the case. The figure is further disguised by the number of casual workers who operate as a private company.

    Tragically, “foodbank,” welcome co-operative action though it is, will replace “soup kitchen” as a hated emotive symbol of capitalism at its most evil. And that’s saying something….Unless of course it develops enough strength to get shut of capitalist monopolies Tesco and Sainsbury and…

    1. Scott says:


      A nice piece but surely a reality check needs to take place. The people in your article are NOT poor, just misguided and deluded Before you and they can claim to be poor they should give up their mobile ‘phones, tattoos and piercings. The charity supporting them is exacerbating the perceived problem and making the subjects dependent whilst making themselves feel good.
      Guidance and support is required – not handouts.

    2. Jamie says:


      You are plain wrong. People who find themselves in this position will have already given up their ‘tattoos and piercings,’ as you put it. Oh and you try working through and agency without a mobile phone.

  3. Philip says:

    I agree with what’s been said already – especially about needing to move to something more like the Scandinavian model rather than the Neo-Con economic model which has been foisted on us since the 1980s and which has only worked in the fortuitous economic circumstances of the “Noughties”.
    But i also think we need to educate people to manage their lives more responsibly. Why do people build up such large debts on the assumption that their incomes will remain at that level when in agency-type jobs or self-employment when experience suggests that incomes are not stable – especially at the top end? Those giving loans to people in such positions bear some responsibility – but why don’t schools give lessons in some of these facts of life? In a generation, British people seeemd to have changed from being worried about their debts to build up unsustainable debts, which anyone with common sense would avoid. Has common sense disappeared along with LPs and home-cooked meals?

  4. Ray Turner says:

    The National Minimum Wage is too low Gary. It needs to be at least £8 per hour (approx £20k for a 48hr week), and even that would leave most people struggling to make ends meet these days…

  5. sue_m says:

    Wait a minute! Did no one tell those sneaky foodbanks they can’t just set up unannounced and start helping people before Dave has initiated it under his BS mission and got a photo opp and taken the credit?
    Ok,more seriously, it has been the case for years that when well paid full time jobs go they are often only replaced by part-time low paid work, but the govt conveniently still counts these in the figures for jobs created. Perhaps when part-time jobs are created only half the quantity should go on the official figures as most people need two of these jobs to make a living.
    It is tough for most people on average or less than average wages and yet the elite who pull the strings in this country want to dispose of the minimum wage so they can make more profits. The wealth divide is truly a disgrace to this country.

    1. Mel Kelly says:

      It was the Tory party the set up the foodbanks and controls the Trussell Trust

  6. C Palmer says:

    Jon Glen, Salisbury MP hasn’t got a clue – I am a tory voter and if he puts this down to irresponsibility he will lose his seat – he has not a clue about the challenges faced by low income earners – agency workers and part timers might be ‘back in work’ but they have no security

    1. amc48c says:

      His response was very interesting. Out of touch, patronizing and judgmental. Altogether, shameful.

  7. English Pride says:

    I would like to know if Barclays boss along with the other bank bosses with their ridiculous bonuses, and the council chiefs on their 100,000+ a year income are contributing anything towards this food bank, to help these hard working people who can’t afford to live.

  8. Clive Gross says:

    Thank you for a great piece. Sat in disbelief listening to the ignorant comments of Salisbury’s Conservative MP. Shocking.

  9. English Pride says:

    Why can’t the people in control of the Country use a little common sense and stand back and look at the bigger picture and recognise what is creating this situation.

    The need for the US style food bank is created by the US style greed that is sadly growing in our country. I am talking about greed at the top, where the big business is and the big chains, squeezing out all local competition and small businesses, and the ridiculous overheads that people have to pay, created by Government, Councils etc. to feed their wasteful and ridiculous spending.

    They refer to the economy being similar to the 1920’s, how can this be so?, when there are more people than ever paying excessive amounts for tax, VAT, council tax, stamp duty, fuel duties, and of course the ridiculous spending on being part of Europe and all that goes with it. Where does all this money go? I wouldn’t imagine that in the 1920’s there was any amount of this ridiculous spending and all these wasteful people at the top bringing the working man down. When will they realise that it is not a bottomless well.

  10. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    This is the scenario we have faced for a long time. State benefits are given to people in total need , but not those trying to escape from state handouts.

    Benefits for a totally dependent family can equal £ 24,000 pa.. Some not dependent on state benefit can be living on £ 6,000 PA. P/T single earner workers who have mortages are hardest hit.

  11. Mel Kelly says:

    Definition of the Big Society : – Millionaires Making Money out of other people’s misery

    The big society is about the Tory party deliberately pursuing policies to destroy existing charities and replace them with Tory party “social entrepreneurs” and “social reformers” – hence the Big Society Bank, controlled by Bankers and the Tory Party.

    Before the election, City Bankers and the Tory party set up Tory Party “charities” which are the ONLY ONES being given big society contracts.

    The Tory party set up the Trussell Trust “American-Style” food banks before the election as they want to reform our society into one where we have no welfare state and we have to go to these Tory Controlled Charities to get food instead of benefits.

    Check out The Trussell Trust, the Shaftsbury Partnership (set up by the Tory Party to reform society) and Challenge Network (they are all linked and all set up and are controlled by the Tory Party, big society policy writers, city bankers and a Tory Mayor).

    They set up the food banks, now they are forcing job centre staff to give out vouchers for their organisation

    Channel 4 should be investigating properly, not spouting Tory party…

    1. Mel Kelly says:

      The government has confirmed this month it’s plans to remove social security benefits and replace them with Tory Controlled Food Banks and Soup Kitchens.


      And the Tory Party controlled Trussell Trust are charging churches £1500 plus an annual fee to set up a food bank and/or a soup kitchen.

      Since when did a charity charge churches £1000’s of pounds?

      To stop the government removing benefits we pay national insurance for and replacing them with Tory run soup kitchens and tory controlled vouchers for food send your opposition email to

  12. Mudplugger says:

    There may be truth in both Gibbon’s report and the local Tory MP’s view, but we can never know unless we could see a full ‘household budget’ for the cases featured.

    It is easy either to sympathise or criticise, depending on your natural default settings (as displayed by many in earlier comments), but Gibbon’s report was almost entirely fact-free.
    Yes, there is a Food Bank in Salisbury, yes it is doling out free food to some folk with jobs, but we were not provided with any real facts about their individual circumstances to judge their validity.

    Perhaps Cathy Newman’s Fact-Check Team could collect the data and present it here in spreadsheet format – them we all may have a chance of estblishing informed opinions. But I guess that won’t happen – never let the facts get in the way of a good knocking story, eh ?

  13. FrankSW says:

    I could’nt help noticing the disconnect between this story and the later one about climate change.

    All around us we hear of redundancies, cuts in police and many other public sectors yet this government is in the process of comparitively increasing its climate change expenditure by 15%. Together with a ‘comparitive’ 15% increase in foreign aid they have completley wiped out any savings of all the other cutbacks in all the other departments.

    Is that woman who is now having to take food aid aware that root cause of her lost her job was so that Cameron and Co can strut around the world stage dishing out millions here and there and subsidising building fairy windmills that will only ever be marginal electricity generators but double the average £1000 energy bill to £2000.

  14. Becca Rothwell says:

    The worst part about this is that while these families are struggling to afford enough to eat millions of tonnes of food is being needlessly thrown away by UK retailers.

    I work for another charity called FoodCycle who aim to combat both this food waste and food poverty at the same time. Our volunteers collect surplus food from supermarkets and other local stores and use it to cook nutritious meals for local community groups who are suffering from food poverty.

    In the past this has primarily meant the unemployed or destitute such as homeless groups, however we have now begun to open community cafes which are open to the public and offer an affordable nutritious meal at least once a week.

    I’m sure we can expect to see a lot more demand for these services and those of the food banks in the next year as more families fall below the poverty line.

  15. purvissamdra says:

    Hi I m still reeling from a comment on Channel 4s news last night… The person who suggested those on single wages are unable to budget. Could you please tell me the name of the person. Thank you

  16. sandra warde says:

    If I hadn’t heard what the local Tory MP said I wouldn’t beleive it.
    How dare he say that ‘people didn’t manage their affairs’ him on his £400/£700 a month ‘food allowance’.
    This just shows how out of touch MP’s are with the real world.I would like him to manage on £700 a month to pay all the bills and feed the family – he is a poor excuse for a ‘caring conservative’.
    Well done Gary Gibbon please keep up the great reporting – this is what proper journalism is about

    1. purvissandra says:

      Thats not to say what he does with his 65k basic wage.
      Come on lets face it the MPs will never have a real grip on reality..
      We are smply ruled by the great Bank of England and the Justice system and as long as the MPs are not in any way affected and live a cushy life they will always be puppets.

  17. Khalid says:

    “There but for the grace of God go I”.

    A lady interviewed said that we all are a couple of wages slips away from this. How true this is.

  18. Liberally Disappointed says:

    I fear the opinions expressed by the MP for Salisbury reflect a shameful, government-wide ignorance of the experiences of people on low income. I don’t think you need to have a “chaotic lifestyle” in order to find it difficult to make ends meet on a monthly income less than 1000 pounds.
    Example Outgoings for 2-bed terrace per month;
    housing ~500
    council tax ~100
    gas and electricity ~50 (very parsimonius)
    water ~20
    travel to work ~50 (1x bus pass)
    food (lean couple) ~200 (very basic needs)
    Total 920 which leaves little for clothing and “chaos” or even unforeseen outgoings.
    Perhaps people who make policy decisions should be forced to have a go at managing on a low/intermittent wage as part of their training?

  19. Chubby (for now) says:

    Ah, the MP for Salisbury, another politician disconnected from the realities of ordinary people. Basing their views and ideas on cocktail party conversations with the chattering classes. Shameful indeed “Liberally Disappointed”, shocking and dangerous, I would add.

    So, the bankers are going to Switzerland. Good riddance. Tax them now, dont let them take their money with them and wave them goodbye. One way to prevent a revolution, perhaps.

  20. Geoff says:

    This is absolutely shameful for Britain in the 21st century. We need to target our resources better and I must say, also be stricter about who can access our resources.

  21. GS says:

    It would be good if someone turned the discussion around sometime…

    Suppose an employer doesn’t pay someone enough for them to feed themselves and pay their basic bills and rent. That person has to receive tax credits or housing benefit. Isn’t that effectively a state handout to the employer and landlord? So who are the ‘scroungers’ in that situation?

    The minimum wage is only £5.93 per hour: £237.20 for a 40 hour week. Unless you’re living in one room or lucky enough to be in social housing how can anyone afford somewhere to live on that wage?

    Yet the Adam Smith Institute would like employers to be able to pay less than the minimum wage! Why? So businesses that aren’t actually viable enough to employ a person on a decent wage can effectively receive even more of a state handout!

    Then there are those businesses that exploit ‘interns’ – vulnerable and desperate young people who work for nothing. I would like to see a report done on that. The government should put a stop to it.

    1. margaret brandreth-jones says:

      I lived on a similar wage for years and had a mortgage, but admittedly not the same hrs, but there again could not get any more hours.
      One thousand pound per month is a very liveable amount for many . It simply depends on their individual outgoings.

  22. purvissandra says:

    Just to add if you look at Glens web page he is joining forces with Money Man Martin Lewis in order to teach students how to budget, cant help make but make you smile (ironically)

  23. LondonStreetFoodbank@gmail.com says:

    People can feed themselves, if they share, some don’t want to – but that’s people eh?

    For some people the Tory MP’s comments would be correct – but without these services some people would have to steal to get by. People who don’t truly deserve that pushing into petty criminality.

    More than enough food is thrown away. Westminster Council want to ban soup runs and Foodbanks in their borough. so have some other metropolitan districts mooted this sick idea of banning free food voluntary groups like ours from serving what would otherwise go wasted.

    It’s a shame that in less than a year our foodbank is the largest in London, despite some 300+ people being fed by voluntary action alone in central London per evening, all we get from the wider homelessness industry, poverty industry, council, police, and other food organisations like those above is ignoreland. No collaboration or sharing at all.

    Mind you, we wouldn’t trust the DWP with meal tickets, look how long they can leave people with no benefits. Plus – if you filled in the DWP form wrong for the meal ticket, would you owe the Big Society Bank £50?

  24. pat says:

    Phillip thats the bit of sense I’ve heard in a while. Admittedly life has changed immensely since i grew up but we never bought anything if we didnt have the money to buy it.
    Today everybody wants everything quick ,NOW! would be better.
    The companies push advertising , banks push loans and credit cards are a glorified free for all debt provider and where is the government to protect the unsuspecting public who havent a clue about economics and double dips etc..
    I learned to save money in a primary school project many moons ago I learned at home never to go into debt and I learned in high school about pressure advertisng as a reading requirement.
    There needs to be a re-education on the priorities of life and bringing up a
    family to help everyone realise that the boom of having anything you want has failed and left everyone paying to keep the banks afloat.
    School educating is also a good idea and what about the news media coudnt they help towards educating the public?
    I realise its not going to help all those in present difficulty but you have to start somewhere and as to home cooked meals where did that disappear to-down the road with common sense.

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