New evidence connects the rise in food bank usage to benefit sanctions and welfare reform

10 December 2014

A new cross-party report exploring the causes of food poverty in the UK has found that coalition welfare changes, ‘heavy handed’ benefit sanctions and benefit delays are amongst the complex factors which have led to the rise in food bank usage over the last three years.

Recent evidence from the Trussel Trust shows that their 420 food banks have provided emergency food to 913, 138 people over the last year; an increase from 128, 697 in 2011 – 2012. This latest figure does not include those who use independent food banks.

The cross-party report ‘Feeding Britain’, which received funding and support from the Archbishop of Canterbury, also pointed to low wages and the rising cost of housing, food and fuel compared with 2003, as further causes of hunger in the UK.

A separate report ‘Emergency Use Only: Understanding and reducing the use of food banks in the UK’ found that foodbank users have often been subject to one or more ‘significant crises’ including: job loss, bereavement, ill health, relationship breakdown , chronic low income or an ‘acute income shock’.

Moussa Haddad of Child Poverty Action Group summarises their research findings: ‘Income crisis triggering food bank referral was often linked to the operation of the benefit system (affecting between half and two-thirds of those from whom additional data was collected). Key problems that food bank users had encountered included a benefit claim that had not yet been decided (28-34 per cent of cases); benefits being stopped or reduced due to a sanction (20-30 per cent); and problems with disability benefits, including money being stopped due to being found fit for work (9-16 per cent)’. To read more about the report visit his blog.

These recent reports highlighted that a lack of awareness about discretionary forms of support and the difficulty in accessing this support posed further problems, leading people to use food banks as a ‘last resort’.

Iain Duncan Smith has promised to respond positively to this latest research and has announced that DWP staff will be advised to inform claimants that ‘short-term cash advances are available to people before their benefit claims are processed’ reports the guardian. He also responded to the recent findings by stating that: ‘We want to do everything we can to make sure that people do not stumble into a process of sanctions’ which he said includes finding ways that sanctioned claimants could avoid losing their housing benefit.

Nick Clegg has also called for a rethink of the way benefit sanctions are administered, following this week’s coverage of food bank usage. Other politicians continue to deny that there is a relationship between food bank referrals and benefit changes.

Iain Duncan Smith’s comments have been welcomed by Frank Field, co-chair of the cross-party inquiry who added that ‘It is vital both that emergency payments are made available and that they are actively publicised to prevent the need for using a food bank’. He also stated that the government must ‘take further action to limit the amount of time it takes to process a claim’.