“The Conservative government allowed Jobcentre Plus to tell people that food banks existed, and the former Labour government would not tell them. And that was a policy decision to stop people knowing that there was help available … The real reason for the rise in numbers [of food bank usage] is that people know that they’re there – and Labour deliberately wouldn’t tell them.” – Jacob Rees-Mogg, 14 September 2017
The UK’s largest food bank network, the Trussell Trust, requires users to show up with a voucher from a recognised agency. These can include doctors, social workers, Citizens Advice or statutory organisations.
A voucher enables people to get a minimum of three days’ emergency food.
When the Conservatives came into office in 2010, they announced an official referral scheme with Jobcentre Plus, meaning staff could formally refer jobseekers to their local food bank.
However, by 2013, this had stopped as a national scheme. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) told FactCheck that formal referrals were replaced by simply “signposting” the local food bank.
In 2013, a minister confirmed that the DWP “is only a signposting body that does not get involved in any decision to award a food parcel. The act of signposting to any local organisation including food banks is not a formal referral or endorsement on the part of the DWP.”
It’s true that the national policy is still that Jobcentre Plus still makes people aware of food banks – and can refer them to a third party (such as Citizens Advice) – who can then issue a voucher. But it does not issue vouchers itself.
All this is at the discretion of district managers at the Jobcentre Plus, not the government.
According to the Trussell Trust, the reality on the ground is mixed. Some job centres don’t engage with their local food bank at all; some tell people to go to Citizens Advice or another third party who will then issue a voucher; while others apparently continue to issue direct referrals.
A Trussell Trust report in 2015 said that 60 per cent of its food banks reported having a good relationship with a local JobCentre Plus.
But it added: “In England, positive relationships between food banks and JCPs appears to have largely occurred due to actions of individual food banks or job centres, rather than as a result of ministerial efforts to ensure DWP agencies better address the needs of food bank clients.”
As for what happened before the Conservatives came into office in 2010, the DWP told FactCheck that it didn’t have any information about the policy of signposting under previous governments. The department said it was perfectly possible that, on a local level, individual job centres may have worked with food banks, but there is no national record of this.
Impact on food bank usage
Even if we forget about government policy, what impact does awareness raising by Jobcentre Plus have on food bank usage?
Despite pressure from campaigners, the government does not hold any information about the numbers of people who have been referred to food banks by Jobcentre Plus over the years.
However, the Trussell Trust commissioned an analysis of its data between 2014 and 2017, to see how many direct referrals came from Jobcentre Plus. The results suggests that these only account for a very small proportion of the three-day food supplies it hands out. In fact, the proportion has decreased.
In 2014-15, only 5.5 per cent were directly referred by Jobcentre Plus. This went down to 4.9 per cent the following year, and then to 5 per cent in 2016-17.
Of course, these figures need to be viewed very cautiously as they only account for direct referrals. It is possible that a significant number of people were referred via third parties, and who would not have otherwise used a food bank.
However, experts do not believe the role of Jobcentre Plus to be very significant in explaining the spike in food bank usage. Indeed, in 2014 a parliamentary committee looked at this exact question. Giving evidence, the director of Oxfam’s UK Poverty Programme, Chris Johnes, said this was “unlikely to be a major factor”.
Increasing number of food banks
Government welfare policy has been widely acknowledged to be a key factor in explaining why food banks are used so much.
The latest Trussell Trust statistics show that in more than a quarter of all cases, the primary reason people are referred to a food bank is that there has been a delay in their benefit payments. A further 17 per cent are referred because of changes to their benefits.
Indeed, the Trust says: “Our research shows that nationally, food banks in areas of full Universal Credit rollout to single people, couples and families, have seen a 16.85 per cent average increase in referrals for emergency food, more than double the national average of 6.64 per cent.”
But, of course, these referrals could not be made at all if food banks didn’t exist. So why are there so many? Is government policy to blame for this as well?
Clearly, a significant part of the reason must be demand – after all, there is no point setting up food banks in a places where everyone is rich and doesn’t need help providing basics for their families. So government policy is undoubtedly an underlying cause.
But the idea of building a large network of food banks across the country, to act as a welfare safety net, has been a longstanding aim of the Trussell Trust. The initiative was established back in 2004, when Labour were in government.
The Trussell Trust’s 2007 annual report states: “The aim is to socially franchise the food bank project to other community groups throughout UK … The trustees set a target of establishing fifty food banks by the end of 2010.”
This makes Jacob Rees-Mogg’s comparisons to food bank usage under the Labour government not very meaningful. After all, it could be argued that developing a national policy for a small network which only exists in a few locations may not make a lot of sense – but when that network expands nationwide, it does.
We can’t find any evidence to support Jacob Rees-Mogg’s claim that the increase in food bank usage is due – in any significant way – to the government allowing Jobcentre Plus to make people aware of them.
- The comparison to Labour’s policy is not useful, given that food banks were not as widespread. But even if we make this comparison, there is no evidence to suggest that, under Labour, some job centres did not develop relationships with food banks on a local level.
- The change in policy that Rees-Mogg seems to refer to has been watered down since it was first introduced. It is not national policy for Jobcentres to directly refer people to food banks.
- The referrals that do take place only account for a very small proportion of all referalls. And this proportion has fallen. Charities do not consider it a major factor.
- Considerable evidence suggests that the government’s welfare policy is a key reason why many people need to use food banks. Indeed, research suggests that areas with full Universal Credit see far higher increases in food bank usage.
If Jacob Rees-Mogg offers any evidence to support his claim which we are not aware of, we will update this blog.