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Benefit sanctions, greater poverty forcing more people in UK to use food banks

Published time: April 16, 2014 15:36
A volunteers sorts through donations of food at the Hammersmith and Fulham food bank run by the Trussell Trust in London (AFP Photo/Will Oliver)

​The users of food banks in the UK are people are being forced to do so as a result of benefit sanctions and delays, family breakdown or debt, and for many it’s the absolute last resort, Alison Inglis-Jones, from the Trussell Trust, told RT.

In March, the Trussell Trust, the largest food bank provider in the UK, and the parenting website MumsNet conducted a survey that revealed that more working families are struggling to make ends meet. In fact, more than half a million people are now dependent on so-called food banks to fend off hunger. The report comes alongside statistics saying that 1 in 40 had turned to a food bank for help, with more than 70 percent saying that they would only do so as a last resort. Nevertheless, the data for this year shows that there is an increase of 63 percent of people who are visiting food banks in the UK.

RT: The UK government says that the welfare reforms introduced a year ago, which temporarily stopped benefit payments, are in no way linked to the use of food banks. Can that be true?

Alison Inglis-Jones: We have research from Warwick University commissioned by DEFRA, the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, saying that there is no evidence that simply because food banks existed people were coming. But a number of university researchers have come up with the opposite – that welfare reforms are having a significant impact, and there does appear to be a closer link between benefit sanctions and benefit reform, and the way it's being implemented, and that being the reason of why people are coming to the food banks. The Trussell Trust has a system – the people are referred by front-line care professionals. That could be school governors, doctors, healthcare professionals employed by local authorities. They are given the vouchers by the job centers and by ourselves, and they give their vouchers to people. We have to assume that these 20,000 professionals that have the vouchers know what they are doing, they have an understanding of the families with which they are working. They hand a voucher to them and they tick the relevant box (benefit sanction, benefit delay, debt etc.). So we know why the people are coming.

RT: Do you think the idea of food banks is useful for society? Maybe it's just an easy way out for those who are not willing to work?

AIJ: The users of food banks are people who are coming as a result of benefit sanctions, benefit delays, family breakdown, debt. People who are unable to make ends meet for whatever reason. The idea of a food bank is that it creates a short space of time, a breathing space, so that people can have food. It's essentially three days’ worth of food. What we help them to do is to work with them to try and work out with them what's going wrong with their benefits sanctions. And it's often just the case of ticking the wrong box, or writing the wrong thing. We help them do that to find out what's going on and then send them to people who can actually help them more long-term. We are a short-time help.

RT: Do the statistics on food banks show the full picture of social problems in the UK?

AIJ: If you are suggesting that people are coming simply because they are not willing to work and they are there for free food – that is not the case. Again it's back to this issue of the 20,000 frontline professionals who hold the vouchers, these professional people. They don’t have vouchers for people to come to a food bank simply because they are not willing to work. They have intimate, good understanding of what these people, families are going through. On the basis of that, we rely on their knowledge. So it’s the frontline professionals who hold the vouchers, these people are extremely good.

We are the major food bank network for 400-plus food banks within the UK. What we think when looking at statistics of 113,000 for this year, an increase of 63 percent, and also the research that we have done with the MumsNet here, and also an understanding of what the food banks are doing and what’s happening with other food banks across the UK, this is the tip of the iceberg. There are many people who are very stretched financially, the cost of living has gone up, incomes are static, and there are many people living on the edge. That’s gives us the understanding that people are extremely stretched and it’s worth saying that research also indicates that people do not want to visit a food bank. We are the end of the road and so if people are coming who are really pushed, then there are others who are pushed but haven’t come.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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