The claim

“There is mounting evidence that the inadequacies of the welfare safety net are now directly driving the growth of hunger and reliance on charitable food handouts.”
Church Action on Poverty/Oxfam report, 30 May 2013

The backgroundWe first tackled the rise of food banks earlier this year.

Both the government and opposition seemed to determined to make capital out of the growing demand for food parcels among low-income families.

We noted that David Cameron was right to say that the number of food banks went up tenfold under the last Labour government – but thought he was being a bit disingenuous.

The fact was that demand for free food has soared under the coalition.

Now a report published by Church Action on Poverty and Oxfam says around half a million Britons are having to ask for food handouts.

Surprisingly, although the causes of food poverty are many, the charities single out the benefits system for special criticism. Is that fair?

The analysis

The prime minister was right to say that food banks began to grow in popularity under the last government, but the latest figures suggest that the recent surge in demand outstrips anything we’ve seen before.

These numbers are the people who have used food banks run by the Trussell Trust – the biggest charity in the field.

Demand more than doubled in the last financial year, when the trust gave at least three days’ worth of emergency food to almost 350,000 people. That’s 100,000 more people than they were expecting, 170 per cent more than the year before, and 470 per cent more than the year before that.

The Trussell Trust runs the lion’s share of food banks nationwide but there are other local organisations doing similar projects.

This is what leads the Oxfam and partners to estimate, plausibly, that the total number of food bank users is now approaching 500,000.

What does this have to do with the welfare system?

The Trussell Trust has shown us figures which suggest that more than 50 per cent of people who come to the food banks do so because their benefits have been paid late, cut or stopped.

This could be due to clerical error, “sanction” (where benefits are withheld as a punishment for breaking the rules) or the reassessment process where some people are moved from sickness benefits to jobseekers allowance.

We don’t know which of these factors is the biggest.

The Department of Work and Pensions told us they are getting better at hitting their targets for paying people on time.

A spokesman said 80 – 90 per cent of all benefit claims are processed in 16 days or less, with an average of 10 days between “signing on” and getting the first payment.

How much of an improvement this is remains unclear. About 88 per cent of Jobseeker’s Allowance claims were processed within 16 days in 2009 and 2010, according to figures released in a parliamentary question.

There were about 3.5m new Jobseeker’s Allowance claims in the last 12 months, so if 10 per cent of all benefit claims are not being processed within 16 days, that means about 350,000 people are getting paid late.

“Sanctions or disallowances” – where claimants have their benefits stopped temporarily or permanently for various misdemeanours – have more than doubled in the last 10 years. Figures for 2012 are likely to top 700,000 cases, compared to fewer than 300,000 in 2002.

The Trussell Trust has also produced case studies of people who have had sickness benefits stopped after being wrongly assessed as fit to work.

Some individuals have had income for weeks while waiting for the decision to be overturned by a tribunal, and have had to rely on food banks. We don’t have statistics on how big a problem this is.

The bottom line is that the country’s biggest food bank network is finding that the majority of its users are singling out the benefits system as the reason they are asking for food handouts.

People are only served at the food banks if they are issued a voucher by a professional like a doctor, social worker or Jobcentre advisor. The voucher has to specify what caused the emergency, and the trust records the data.

The very latest figures from the beginning of this financial year show that benefit changes and delays are cited as the root cause of food poverty in more than 50 per cent of cases. In 2011/12 about 40 per cent of people directly blamed their woes on the welfare system.

For the first time, changes to the benefit system are now more likely to be cited as the reason for the voucher being issued than “low income”.

The verdict

The indviduals, schools, businesses, churches and others who donate money to Trussell Trust food banks might be surprised to learn that nearly one third of people who make use of them say they need help because of delays to benefit payments.

There’s no evidence that delays are worse under the current government under the previous one, but since benefit caseloads are so high, a small percentage of late payments adds up to hundreds of thousands of people a year.

Clearly, the effects of short-term financial difficulty will be more acute at a time of rising food prices and fuel bills and below-inflation uprating of welfare payments.

The government says the move to universal credit will simplify the benefits system, and ministers have denied that Jobcentre staff have been given targets on how many claimants they should be sanctioning.

DWP told us: “The benefits system supports millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed so no-one has to struggle to meet their basic needs, and the vast majority of benefits are processed on time every day.

“We welcome the contribution voluntary organisations and foodbanks, including the Trussell Trust, play in supporting local communities, beyond the safety net provided by Government. That is why Jobcentre Plus – for the first time – is now referring people to their services.

“Our welfare reforms will improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities, with the universal credit simplifying the complex myriad of benefits and making three million households better off.”

But the Oxfam/Church Action on Poverty report says: “The fact that universal credit will normally be paid monthly, rather than fortnightly, runs the risk that the experience of running out of money before the end of the month will become much more widespread.”

By Patrick Worrall