Rising living costs, stagnate wages and welfare reform are frequently cited as the primary causes for rising food poverty and in increase in the demand for food banks.
New research reveals the stark reality behind food poverty in the UK and shows how benefit changes are fuelling soaring levels of hunger and poverty.
Think Money surveyed 70 independent food banks to discover why more families than ever before are turning to them for help.
The survey also reveals the growing strain felt by food banks, as a growing number of families regularly go without food and struggle to cope with welfare cuts.
There has been a 66% increase in the number of independent food banks opening over the last three years. This is in addition to food banks operated by larger providers like Trussell Trust, who handed out more than one million food parcels in 2014-15.
A staggering 59% of food banks users say they frequently go without food three or more times a week.
A Conservative MP has said stopping payments to benefit claimants is forcing people to food banks – contradicting a Government minister overseeing the crackdown.
Andrew Percy, who represents Brigg and Goole on Humberside, went on to criticise the “consistency” of the benefits sanctions regime and called for a review.
His comments in the House of Commons came minutes after Employment Minster Priti Patel argued there is “no robust evidence that directly links sanctions and food bank use”.
Benefit claimants can have their payments suspended or docked if they break the rules, but critics claim many of the breaches are trivial. The Work and Pensions Committee of MPs has twice called for an independent inquiry.
The Trussell Trust charity says a record one million packages were given out by food banks last year.
Mr Percy’s intervention followed the Labour frontbench and two SNP MPs berating the Government for fuelling the need for hand-outs of food parcels.
With a further £12bn in welfare cuts in the pipeline, what evidence is there to show that reforms to the welfare system are helping people into work and cutting costs?
The head of Housing and Communities at the London School of Economics (LSE) believes that savings are lower and costs are higher than planned.
Anne Power says:
“In 2013 and 2014, LSE Housing and Communities carried out a survey of 200 social housing tenants across the South West of England to find out whether welfare reform, introduced by the coalition government, was in practice helping tenants into jobs and making them better off.
“We found that the impact was direct, harsh and in most cases not leading directly to work. We have also talked to 150 social landlords and their tenants all over the country to understand the impact of cuts in benefits on the way landlords and tenants are managing.
“Our findings are striking. Welfare reform isn’t working as planned. Government savings are lower and costs are higher, particularly disability payments due to mismanagement.
“The ‘Bedroom Tax’, was introduced to make social housing tenants with one spare bedroom move home or pay more rent. This has led to empty homes in some parts of the country as many social landlords in the North and the Midlands have surplus larger properties which they have under-let to small households. Tenants now compete to downsize, leaving a costly supply of empty, larger units. Often tenants simply can’t find a smaller unit to move too.
“Sanctions, government-imposed penalties on job seekers who fail to meet Job Centre requirements, suspend all benefits with no notice. Many appeals have over-turned the job centre sanctions but often too late to prevent deep and sometimes tragic hardship. Housing benefit payments are also rising because evictions have forced tenants to pay higher rents in the private rented sector.
“Welfare reform is directed at getting a job. But older working age bands struggle because, after a long gap, skills may no longer be usable and jobs requiring IT require considerable retraining. Former manual workers often suffer serious injuries at work and can no longer do hard labour.
“Benefit cuts create longer term social costs too. For example, carers and their dependents may need a spare bedroom for a foster child or sick relative or night-time carer.
“The government is playing to popular attitudes. Spending on welfare, when austerity hits everyone, is not popular. There is a common belief that far more people cheat than actually do, whereas bureaucratic errors are far more common and cost more.
“There is general belief that people should work, whatever the job and certainly tenants we spoke to want to work. Tenants like working. But “booting” people into standing on their own feet can cut vital support lines without jolting them into a job. It can incapacitate them.
“Welfare reform is underpinned by a strong belief in the value of the market; if things don’t pay, they will stop happening, so if benefits don’t pay, people will stop depending on them. This over-simplified view has led to unintended and unnecessarily harsh consequences. As tenants feel less certain that they can rely on benefits, they find job centre interviews and the threat of sanctions too painful and too humiliating, so some just disappear off the unemployment register.
“The number of people actually finding work through job centre action is far smaller than claimed.
“On the other hand, tenants want to work whenever possible, even when pay is poor, so in that sense the strong work focus of welfare reform is positive. Tenants also like training and learning – and job centres send claimants on courses.
“Tenants are adjusting to lower incomes, although paying bills is a constant juggling act and it is no longer possible to take basic support for granted. The adjustment tenants are making would be far more painful if it wasn’t for advice organisations like CAB, churches and charities that offer emergency support. Food banks help in extreme circumstances.
“Social landlords are responding to welfare reform and the wider cuts they face with considerable anxiety. They know the vast majority of their 4 million tenant households are hard hit.
“Collecting rents becomes even more important, but far more challenging. Welfare reform has forced social landlords to recognise the need for more direct, face-to-face, front-line contact with tenants to ensure payments and help resolve problems. They develop opportunities for training and accessing jobs to help welfare reform work.”
Nearly five million people in fuel poverty cannot afford to keep the lights on and pay energy bills, according to new research published today.
Research by the Debt Advice Charity found that 4.7 million people across the UK are frequently cut off from their electricity supply, because they cannot afford to top-up pre-paid electricity meters.
Pre-paid meters are usually more expensive than other payment options, but fuel poor households say they rely on them to better manage energy costs.
Around 25% of families across the UK rely on pre-paid meters to help pay energy bills, with one in ten saying they are in arrears with gas, water or electricity.
18% of households questioned by the Debt Advice Charity said their gas supply is cut off on average every few months, while 7% were left without gas at least once per week.
Around 6% of respondents said they were regularly left without electricity at least once a week.
Households in the West Midlands and East Midlands have the highest rates of fuel poverty, with 63% of those in the East Midlands struggling to afford to top-up pre-paid meters.
Fuel poverty is defined as households who spend more than 10% of the overall income on fuel and energy costs.
A Debt Advice Charity spokesperson said:
“To see this level of fuel poverty in the UK is very worrying. Heating, lighting and hot water are basic necessities that everyone should have access to, yet there are many vulnerable households who are forced to go without.
“We would like to see more help given to households in danger of losing their energy supply.
“I would advise anyone whose energy is at risk of being cut-off to speak to their supplier as soon as possible to ask for help, and also, to contact the Home Heat Helpline for free advice on getting out of fuel poverty.
“The Debt Advisory Centre would also like to see those customers who are able to demonstrate that they can pay energy bills to be taken off pre-paid meters and put on to cheaper deals.”
Energy giant Npower recently announced the creation of a fuel voucher scheme for families struggling with energy costs. Dubbed “fuel banks” by critics, vouchers will be made available through Trussell Trust food banks.
The scheme is open to all families struggling with energy costs and not just Npower customers or pre-paid meter users.
The number of people reliant on food banks to help feed themselves and their families could rocket to more than two million, according to new research.
Research by Dr Rachel Loopstra, from Oxford University, forecasts that Tory plans for a further £12bn in welfare cuts could lead to a doubling in food banks users by 2017.
Trussell Trust, who operates over 440 food banks, gave out 1,084,604 emergency food parcels in 2014/15 – up from 61,468 in 2010/11.
The charity is just one of many food bank providers, charities and churches supporting hungry families across the UK.
The research also shows that rising food bank use is due to higher demand, rather than greater supply – as claimed by some government ministers.
According to a formula devised by Dr Loopstra, the number of food parcels given out per head of the population rises by 0.16% for every 1% cut in welfare spending.
Dr Loopstra said: “It coincides with spending cuts, welfare reform and record numbers of benefit claimants losing payments due to sanctions.”
Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves seized on the figures, saying they were further evidence of the hardship and misery caused by Tory welfare policy.
“It would be an absolute disgrace for food bank use to double”, she said.
“The welfare state is there to provide a safety net. It’s not doing what it’s meant to do when people have to rely on charity.”
Reeves said David Cameron’s pledge of more savage cuts to welfare benefits means he has no choice but to cut working-age benefits, because the Tories have ruled out any changes to pensions and pensioner benefits.
“The Tories cannot achieve their £12bn of cuts to social security without doing so and hitting family budgets hard”, she said.
“Child benefit and tax credits are now on the ballot paper next week. Labour will protect them, and families across the country now know the Tories will cut them again.”
Reeves blamed benefit delays, sanctions and the hated bedroom tax for the increased demand on food banks.
She said Labour was the only party committed to reducing the reliance on food banks.
> But hang on… didn’t she say Labour didn’t want to be the party of the unemployed ? And aren’t Labour promising more Workfare ?
“A Labour government would do this by axing the bedroom tax, getting rid of benefit sanctions targets and introducing protections for people with mental health problems, carers, pregnant women and people at risk of domestic violence.”
She added: “It’s inevitable, if the Tories get back in, that we will see further food bank use.”
Trussell Trust’s Adrian Curtis said: “Despite welcome signs of economic recovery, hunger continues to affect significant numbers in the UK today.”
Every week for the past year, Neil Robson has made a trip to his local Co-op and spent around £20 on a bag of shopping that he then carries to theWandsworth food bank in south London. Before he leaves home, he consults a list of the most-wanted items on their website, noting what they’re running out of (basic toiletries, UHT milk, tinned meat, tinned fish). This week he adds a tin of sustainably-sourced tuna to the bag.
Robson is a retired human resources manager in his 60s, who has never previously been involved in community charity projects. What drives him to make this regular gesture? “Anger. How…
The Green Party in government would double Child Benefit to £40 and reverse the closure of the Independent Living Fund.
Speaking at an event in Bristol, deputy leader Amelia Womack said it’s “scandalous” that families are forced to turn to food banks in the worlds sixth richest country.
“There are now 117 billionaires in the very same Britain where one in five workers earn less than a Living Wage”, she said.
“Austerity hurts the most vulnerable people in society – punishing the poor and the vulnerable for the mistakes and fraud of the bankers.”
Amelia Womack said the Green Party would reverse the closure of the Independent Living Fund, which enables disabled people to live as independently as possible in their own homes – rather than residential care homes.
“Nearly 18,000 disabled people with high-support needs rely on the fund to live their lives with choice and control, rather than going into residential care or being trapped at home”, said Womack.
“On 30th June the funding and responsibility of ILF care and support needs will transfer to local authorities. There is no obligation to use the money specifically for ILF.
“This cut in central Government funding puts at risk some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.
“Keeping the Independent Living Fund would cost around £300 million – and I’m proud to say the Green Party is committing to doing just that. We won’t stand by while this lifeline is cut away.”
She added: “But the Green Party isn’t just opposed to cuts – we believe in doing more, much more, to redistribute income within our society.
“That’s why we’re being honest about the fact that we’d increase tax for the richest in society – and it’s why we’re able to pledge that we’d double child benefit to £40 a week. For the 29% of children here in Bristol West who live in poverty, this increase will be life changing.
“It’s bold policies like these that set the Green Party apart from others. We don’t offer half-measures, or minor changes.
“In the midst of such struggle in this country, the Green Party are offering something unique: hope. We make this one very clear promise to voters: we will always stand for an economy, a society, that works for the many, not just the few.
“That means our MPs will never blame the most vulnerable for the mistakes of those at the top.
“It means that our MPs won’t go into any sort of deal with the Tories. And it means we’ll give a Labour Government a backbone – but we won’t hesitate to vote against them to ensure we’re true to our principles.”
Do you ever miss the era when you didn’t know what a benefit sanction was?
That innocent time, before the Department for Work and Pensions renamed a family a “benefit unit”?
One of the great luxuries of no longer having a Conservative-led government would be not having to learn any more about their intricately boring, functionally brutal social security innovations.
Look, I’m no Pollyanna. There are clearly question marks over a possible Labour/SNP coalition: how is it going to work, for a start, now that Labour has explicitly promised not to talk to the SNP? Prime minister’s questions would look like a cocktail party with two exes blanking each other. We’ll know they’re in love, but they’ll be too angry to see it.
And what, exactly, is Ed Miliband’s rent capping idea?
The beginning of a new courage, as he sets his face to the blizzard of the rentier economy?
Or a canny bid for the votes of people who don’t think any politicians are capable of anything?
These are battles for the future, and I would have them 1,000 times rather than watch unfold the nightmare of “in-work conditionality”.
As part of the universal credit pilot, last week saw the beginning of new requirements on the number of hours worked: under these regulations, anyone earning less than the equivalent of 35 hours on the minimum wage would be subject to pressure which could end in a sanction.
The second parent in the “benefit unit” would be required to work a minimum of 16 hours, taking the working week for the family up to 51 hours, before the threat of sanctions would be lifted.
Over the coming year, 15,000 families will be placed on this regime, to varying degrees of stringency: some will just be nudged with a fortnightly phone call, others will have to attend regular interviews which, as we’ve seen with the regular social security picture, comes with the ever-present risk of having your benefits removed and being left with nothing.
Labour’s Baroness Sherlock asked some searching questions in the Lords in January about the ethics of doing a randomised control trial in which one of the groups suffered a real risk to their wellbeing.
Lord Freud waved the problem off, but this is the man, remember, who thinks people use food banks because there is an “infinite demand for a free good”. He probably thinks these families only had children in the first place because they presented no immediate unit cost.
It may sound as though there is no moral dishevelment more profound than deliberately leaving parents without the money to feed their children (the cost of the trial, incidentally, is £15m, which I am prepared to bet real money is more than the scheme will ever save). But there are two other aspects, one cultural and one democratic, to consider.
First, as Lindsay Judge, who conducted research on the pilot for the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) to be released on Monday, points out:
“If you focus on hours, you individualise the problem of low pay. It allows employers to take their eye off pay, and it allows the state to take their eye off benefits.”
To be on low wages under this regime is to be at the mercy of many different pressures: employers who think you’re expendable and are less likely to make accommodations for you, whether that means flexibility or extra hours; government agencies who will focus on increasing your hours, regardless of what that does to your family; and an inbuilt discrimination in the fact that people on the minimum wage are expected to work more in the first place (since the “conditionality” element of universal credit is based on family income, not hours worked).
But if you were to take this policy, and the demands it makes of parents, and lay it over other debates – education, where the worthy parent is at the school gates and all over the homework; or health, where good parenting involves a lot of home baking – you can see that to be on the minimum wage is, by steady increments, becoming incompatible with “respectable” parenting. This is even starker for single parents, who are of course often judged as deficient in the first place.
The democratic deficit emerges from the CPAG’s research, in which it asked two groups, one high income and one low income, how much other parents should be expected to work. Judge describes “parents being shocked at the sharpness of the state in other parents’ lives. You come up against these sharp edges all the time when you’re a low-income family and they’re really unpleasant. People who don’t have that interaction with the state are really surprised.”
CPAG found that people tended to approach the issue as parents first and taxpayers second, concluding overwhelmingly that it has to be a question of individual choice; parents must decide for themselves how many hours they work.
“Everyone said, people should be able to make the same choices about work-life balance across the income spectrum. Policies that bear down in a coercive manner are not acceptable – and that response was found in the higher- as well as the lower-income group.”
So many benefit reforms are justified on the basis that the country is sick of a something-for-nothing culture. But when you ask in-depth questions about what other people’s lives should be like, and what kind of dignity a state should respect and uphold, a much more generous, human picture emerges.
The genius of so many of these reforms has been in the naming – “spare-room subsidies” and “work-related activity groups” – they sound like technicalities rather than financial traumas. I don’t know what the in-work conditionality would have to be called for parents to stand together against it: I’d sooner not find out.
Families in poverty who are forced to switch off their gas and electricity supply because they are unable afford spiralling energy bills will be offered free charity fuel vouchers under a pilot scheme. The so-called “fuel banks” initiative will provide a £49 credit for struggling families who use prepayment meters in a move designed to address the austerity-era dilemma of “heat or eat”. It is being run by energy firm nPower and poverty charities including the food bank network Trussell Trust.
The vouchers, which will provide enough credit to restore power, and keep lights and heating on for up to two weeks, will be available to people in crisis referred to food banks by welfare advice agencies, GPs and social workers.
Labour MP Frank Field, who has campaigned against fuel and food poverty through his all-party Feeding Britain initiative, described the scheme as an “important breakthrough” that would help families who face an agonising choice between putting money in the gas meter or food on the table.
But critics said it was a public relations move that could not substitute for low wages and cuts to the welfare state hardship funds, or distract from the “profiteering” fuel prices charged by the Big Six energy firms – including npower.
Inability to afford even switch on the cooker or heat bathwater has been a striking feature of poverty in the UK in recent years, as low-income households struggle to cope with shrinking wages, rising living costs and welfare cuts such as the bedroom tax.
Last year it emerged that Trussell’s food banks were issuing special “kettle box” food parcels designed for clients who could not afford to cook, or in extreme cases, “cold box” parcels for those who could not even afford to heat water.
The fuel bank scheme is explicilty aimed at households who “self-disconnect” from prepayment meters to save money. Research by the Citizens Advice Bureau suggests more than 1.6 million people go without electricity or gas every year in the UK.
The scheme, which will be available to all referred people, not just npower customers, will be piloted in 21 locations across County Durham, Kingston-upon-Thames and Gloucester. If deemed successful, npower will roll out the initiative nationwide, with the aim of support up to 13,000 households in the first year.
The vouchers will be distributed using Trussell’s food bank protocols, to individuals and families referred to them after being identified by professionals as being “in crisis”. Clients would be allowed three fuel vouchers in a year.
David McAuley, chief executive of the trust, said:
“In many cases people coming to food banks can be facing financial hardship that leaves them both hungry and in fuel poverty. By providing npower fuel bank vouchers at food banks, we can make sure that people who are most vulnerable are not only given three days’ food, but can turn on the energy supply to cook it and heat their homes too.”
Matthew Cole, npower’s head of policy and obligations, said the energy company had always worked hard to help its most vulnerable customers:
“It [the fuel bank scheme] will provide immediate and hassle free support to households where often the choice is between food or warmth.”
Matthew Cole of the Fuel Poverty Action campaign said:
“These fuel banks will do nothing to hide the harmful actions of the Big Six, including home break-ins to install unwanted prepayment meters, visits by bailiffs, and energy supply disconnections to vulnerable households.
“Our current, for-profit energy system is broken – only an affordable, public, and renewable energy system will make a meaningful difference to those affected by fuel poverty and energy debt. With the huge majority of public opinion in favour of public energy, it’s no wonder the Big Six are trying to improve their image.”
The Trussell trust, which this week announced that its 445 food banks distributed enough emergency food to feed almost 1.1 million people for three days last year, said that it was looking to create more business partnerships. It already has a food collection partnership with Tesco.
Record numbers of starving people are turning to food banks to help feed themselves and their families, shocking new figures reveal.
More than one million people received three-days worth of emergency food from the charity Trussell Trust in the year 2014/15, compared to more than 900,000 in the previous year.
The figures published by the Trussell Trust, supported by the Faculty of Health and Children’s Society, reveal the unquestionable reality of food poverty in Britain today – and the plight faced by so many families struggling to make ends meet.
A total of 1,084,604 people were given food parcels by the charity in the last year, including 396,997 hungry children – up 19% from 2013/14.
Meanwhile, the total number of food banks launched by Trussell Trust rose by just 5%, quashing claims made by some government ministers that rising food bank use is linked to the increased availability of ‘free food’.
Benefit delays and sanctions remain the largest driver of food bank use, but the figures also suggest that there has been a significant rise in the number of people on low-incomes requiring food aid.
Low-income referrals to Trussell Trust food banks, just one of many charities and organisations supporting the poorest in society, has grown by 20% since 2013/14.
The number of people citing benefit delays and changes as the main reason for turning to food banks has decreased slightly from 48% to 44%.
Referrals due to sickness, homelessness, delayed wages and unemployment have also increased slightly.
According to Trussell Trust, 10,280 tonnes of food were donated by the public last year.
A recent survey of 86 food banks provided greater clarity as to why people are turning to food banks. The main reasons given were low income, delays in benefit payments, sanctions and debt.
Mother of two, Susan says:
“I have an 18 month old son and an eight year old stepson, I work part time as a teacher and my husband has an insecure agency contract.
“There are times when he doesn’t get enough hours of work, and we really struggle to afford food and pay the bills. The food bank meant we could put food on the table.”
Trussell Trust UK food bank director Adrian Curtis said:
“Despite welcome signs of economic recovery, hunger continues to affect significant numbers of men, women and children in the UK today.
“It’s difficult to be sure of the full extent of the problem as Trussell Trust figures don’t include people who are helped by other food charities or those who feel too ashamed to seek help.”
Trussell Trust draws attention to the tragic story of a mum who was skipping meals to feed her children. “There are people out there more desperate than me. I’ve got a sofa to sell before I’ll go to the food bank”, she says.
“It’s a pride thing. You don’t want people to know you’re on benefits.”
Adrian Curtis continues:
“Trussell Trust food banks are increasingly hosting additional services like debt counselling and welfare advice at our food banks, which is helping more people out of crisis.
“The Trussell Trust’s latest figures highlight how vital it is that we all work to prevent and relieve hunger in the UK.
“It’s crucial that we listen to the experiences of people using food banks to truly understand the nature of the problems they face; what people who have gone hungry have to say holds the key to finding the solution”
Marcella, a former dental assistant recovering from a spinal operation, was helped by a food bank and said:
“It’s so hard to pay rent and survive at the moment. I have friends who are working minimum wage jobs who have had to go to food banks.
“People should not just be surviving, they should be able to live and have a life. I was less than surviving when I went to the food bank.
“Going to a food bank was very emotional for me, I felt a bit ashamed at not being able to support myself but they took the pressure off, they gave me advice and helped me to find a support worker.
“The food bank gave me faith that there are people who understand and who you can trust. We need to stop judging people and listen to every individual and understand how they got into the situation.”
Dr John Middleton, Vice President of Faculty of Public Health said:
“The rising number of families and individuals who cannot afford to buy sufficient food is a public health issue that we must not ignore.
“For many people, it is not a question of eating well and eating healthily, it is a question of not being able to afford to eat at all.
“UK poverty is already creating massive health issues for people today, and if we do not tackle the root causes of food poverty now we will see it affecting future generations too.
“The increased burden of managing people’s health will only increase if we do not address the drivers of people to food banks.”
Over 90% of Trussell Trust food banks provide additional services alongside food to help people out of crisis long-term.