A Labour government would tackle the root causes of the increase in the use of food banks across the UK, with the party to pledge that they “can never be allowed to become a permanent feature of British society”.
Shadow ministers will promise to solve jobcentre benefit delays, halt the proliferation of benefit sanctions, and address low pay in a five-point plan aimed at reducing the number of people forced to turn to food banks.
They will cite Trussell Trust statistics showing that nearly a million people used food banks in 2013-14, figures that are generally assumed to underestimate the number of people who went hungry as a result of food insecurity over the period.
Labour will promise a cross-government approach to end what it calls the “chaos of food policy” under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and will say that a Labour administration will make tackling food bank dependency a specific ministerial responsibility.
A target would be set to reduce the number of people who cite delays in benefits being processed as the prime reason for using food banks. Benefits typically take around 16 working days to process, although backlogs mean many disability benefit claimants have waited for several months.
Studies have shown that benefit sanctions – when payments are stopped for alleged rule infringements – are the prime reason for between 10% and 30% of food bank users being referred for food aid.
Labour says it will abolish jobcentre targets for increasing sanctions, and make hardship funds more quickly available for those who are sanctioned. The party has a longstanding commitment to abolish the bedroom tax, which is also driving food bank use in some areas of the UK.
It has also promised to address low pay, by raising the minimum wage to at least £8 an hour before 2020, promoting a Living Wage and ending zero-hours contracts, so that working people do not suffer the humiliation of being referred to food banks to put meals on the table.
The plan is a clear statement from Labour that it considers welfare reforms to be the biggest single driver of food bank use, a connection the government has always strenuously denied.
The shadow environment, food and rural affairs secretary, Maria Eagle, will say in a visit to a London food bank on Wednesday:
“The Tories’ attitude to the relentless rise in hunger in Britain speaks volumes for who they stand up for. They refuse to accept any responsibility for it, despite the fact their policies are making it worse.
“Labour will take a strategic and joined-up approach to food policy to ensure that everybody has the chance to eat safe, nutritious and affordable food, now and in the future. Emergency food aid should remain just that – food banks can never be allowed to become a permanent feature of British society.”
Numerous studies by charities and academics in the past 18 months have linked welfare reform, austerity and the shrinking of the welfare safety net to the rise in poverty and food bank use. Food banks were practically unknown in the UK five years ago, when the coalition was formed.
However, ministers have insisted there is no robust evidence that social security policy has triggered the rise in food bank use. The welfare minister, Lord Freud, argued that food bank use had expanded because charity food parcels were “free”.
The Trussell Trust, which runs 420 food banks across the UK, is committed to reducing the number of people needing to use them, but its policy is to keep a “safety net” service in place in each major town.
Source – The Guardian, 25 Mar 2015