Britain’s biggest food bank charity says more than 1 million needy people received free food in 2014/15, the biggest number on record.
The Trussell Trust says it gave food aid to 1,084,604 people compared to 913,138 in 2013/14 – a 19 per cent increase.
Jeremy Paxman tried to corner David Cameron on the growing use of food banks under the coalition in the first TV leaders’ programme last month.
The Prime Minister has praised the work of food banks, but other Conservatives have attacked the Trussell Trust for allegedly politicising the issue of food poverty.
As the numbers grow, the great food bank debate will continue to rage. Here’s what we know so far…
Trussell Trust staff prepare Christmas hampers
A million people? Really?
It depends what you mean. Trussell Trust phrase their statistics as “more than 1 million people used Trussell Trust foodbanks”.
But they are really counting the number of vouchers issued for three days’ worth of emergency food, not the number of unique individuals turning up.
Judging by comments on previous FactChecks, some people think this is an innocuous turn of phrase – as we might say: ‘Four million commuters use the London Underground every day’ when we are counting the same people going to work and coming home – and others think it’s a deeply misleading abuse of statistics.
It’s true that Trussell Trust users can get food more than once, but the system is designed so the same small number of people cannot come back again and again.
The charity says: “We cannot measure unique users on a national scale, but recent detailed evidence collected from a range of food banks indicates that on average 49 percent of food bank users only needed one food bank voucher in a year, and that only 15 percent needed help more than three times in a year.
“On average, people needed two foodbank vouchers in a year.”
The rules are set up to discourage “long-term dependency”. Users are not allowed to refer themselves: they have to be given vouchers by professionals like doctors and social workers.
If they cash in three vouchers in a row, food bank managers “will contact the referral agent about putting together a support plan to help the client break out of poverty”.
The Trust adds that “longer-term support from the foodbank is available in exceptional circumstances as agreed between the foodbank manager and referral agency”.
Is this the whole story?
No, the Trussell Trust (a Christian charity) is the biggest national provider of food banks. There are an unknown number of others and no official database.
Is it driven by supply rather than demand?
The argument that if you make more free food available, people will come forward to eat it, has been put forward by – among others – the Conservative minister for welfare reform, Lord Freud.
He told the House of Lords: “There is actually no evidence as to whether the use of food banks is supply led or demand led… food from a food bank — the supply — is a free good, and by definition there is an almost infinite demand for a free good.”
A government-commissioned review of the evidence on food banks found that: “There is no systematic evidence on the impact of increased supply and hypotheses of its potential effects are not based on robust evidence.”
The researchers from Warwick University who carried out the study added in a press briefing: “We found no evidence to support the idea that increased food aid provision is driving demand. All available evidence both in the UK and international points in the opposite direction.
“Put simply, there is more need and informal food aid providers are trying to help.”
Is there a link between government cuts and food banks?
This paper, published in the British Medical Journal earlier this month, found evidence of a relationship between austerity measures and the use of food banks.
It concluded: “More food banks are opening in areas experiencing greater cuts in spending on local services and central welfare benefits and higher unemployment rates.
“The rise in food bank use is also concentrated in communities where more people are experiencing benefit sanctions.
“Food parcel distribution is higher in areas where food banks are more common and better established, but our data also show that the local authorities with greater rates of sanctions and austerity are experiencing greater rates of people seeking emergency food assistance.”
“Sanctions” means benefit payments being reduced or stopped as a punishment for the claimant not complying with the regime.
It’s covered in the category of “benefits changes” – the third most widely cited reason users give for having to turn to a food bank after “benefit delays” and “low income”:
The use of sanctions against claimants of Jobseekers Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance has risen under the coalition. There were just over 760,000 decisions to apply a sanction in the last 12 months we know about (to September 2014) compared with about 709,000 sanctions in the same period in 2010/11/.
The study controlled for unemployment and other indicators of poverty, so it wasn’t simply the case that sanctions and cuts were signs of an area being poor.
Didn’t this start under Labour?
It’s true that the Trussell Trust’s chain of food banks had already begun to grow before the coalition came to power, although the scale of growth has accelerated under the present government.