By Maeve McGoldrick
Are Foodbanks becoming part of our welfare system? Ministers would say no. Lord Freud, the welfare reform minister recently said “Food banks are not part of the welfare system. We have designed our welfare system to support people with advances of benefit where they require it. It is not the job of the DWP to monitor this provision, which is done on a charitable basis.”
Jane, who heads up our reception at Community Links, is the first point of contact when local people come to us for advice. She has reported a huge increase in the number of people asking for help: “We used to hand out one or two vouchers each week for people to use at the local foodbank. We are now giving out around nine vouchers each week.” We also have our own cupboard of food as a reserve – now almost empty even though the local food bank restocked it recently.
“People are starting to value the foodbanks more than they value the jobcentre - they’re becoming more and more concerned with their immediate short-term survival. People aren’t living, they are surviving”.
Although we are a local community organisation based in Newham, east London, we have received calls from across London, across England and even from Scotland asking for advice on things like foodbanks and other emergency assistance. One desperate lady called us from as far as Aberdeen asking for help; we were able to guide her to where the nearest support was located. The most common reason people cite for needing a foodbank is a delay in their benefits being processed.
According to the Trussell Trust there has been 170% rise in number of people turning to foodbanks for emergency food in last 12 months, that’s a shocking 346,992 people – most of whom are working age families. The Trussell Trust highlights that only four per cent of people turned to foodbanks due to homelessness; 30% were referred due to benefit delay; 18% low income and 15% benefit changes (up from 11% in 2011-12). Other reasons included domestic violence, sickness, refused crisis loans, debt and unemployment.
Tesco have commissioned a report into food poverty in the UK and is organising a nationwide “food collection” with the Trussell Trust and FareShare at every one of its UK food stores. As a nation we have a history of charitable giving. Children in Need for example has become a national institution and has always been considered independent from the state with a solely charitable purpose. Given a prime time slot on the BBC each year, millions of people tune in to watch. Thousands of people not only donate their money, they also give their time to a huge amount of fundraising activity. In fact, according to the World Giving Index the UK is ranked 8th in the world, where 72% of us donate money, 26% volunteer and 56% would help a stranger.
So it’s not a question of whether, as a nation, we are willing to support people in our own communities who are struggling. The time volunteers commit to the Trussell Trust is testament to this.
However there is a point when we need to question the purpose of these good deeds. If, as it seems with foodbanks, that we are stepping-in with a humanitarian response to the state’s failures, then we need to call on our government to fix the root cause of the problem. Our welfare system is funded by our tax payments, and yet we also donate money and time in order to minimise the impact of ‘failure demand’ caused by errors in DWP systems. This is inefficient and a waste of valuable resource. Maybe it is not, as Lord Freud insists “the job of the DWP to monitor this [foodbank] provision, which is done on a charitable basis” But it clearly is DWP’s job to administer the benefits system competently, and not cause undue hardship at a time when families are already seriously struggling to get by. UK charity donations are freely given to support people in genuine need – not to shore up a failing state apparatus.
Foodbanks should not be considered as part of our welfare system; a system we created so that we should no longer need such things. It is shocking that DWP take no responsibility for the drastic rise in demand, especially when the evidence shows it is in part because of their administration failures. The implementation of Universal Credit will only exacerbate this. Particularly as the network of advice and support agencies that have assisted people negotiate the complex benefit system is being dismantled following the withdrawal of Legal Aid and advice funding.
Would we accept it if first aiders from St Johns Ambulance or Red Cross volunteers started treating sick people, because the NHS were not doing their job properly? Is this the Big Society staging a comeback? The foodbanks are becoming part of our welfare system, but they shouldn’t be.
We shouldn’t need both.
Image: Richard Cocks via Flickr