Anyone who has followed our postings on the inexorable rise of the number of food banks and food bank usage in Britain will know two things: food aid is important in its own right, but it has also become a sort of shorthand for discussions of other things –inequality and particularly welfare reform.
The LibDem/Tory government claims that its approach to welfare reform is framed by three arguments:
1. AUSTERITY – In an age of economic austerity the welfare bill is too high to sustain and must, therefore, be cut. The welfare bill itself remains carefully unexamined in this argument. In fact it has two elements. The largest element is taken up by pensions and the government has pledged to protect this. The remainder takes the form of benefits.
2. FAIRNESS – It is right to cut benefits because work should pay and be seen to pay. ‘Hard-working’ people rightfully resent the second group of ‘free-loaders’ having the same standard of living as themselves. This argument depends on a spurious division of the population into workshy freeloaders and the hardworking – ignoring the fact that most welfare claimants are in work.
3. MORAL RESPONSIBILITY – People have become dependent on welfare. The government has a moral obligation to wean them off dependence and to become autonomous citizens in their own right capable of looking after themselves and their families. This one shamefully ignores the fact that most of those on ‘welfare’ are there as a result of misfortunes of one sort or another. Few have chosen to be dependent.
The government has cynically deployed these arguments over the past three years to counter criticism of its welfare policies. In addition it has also blatantly manipulated statistical data and brazenly lied.
The presumption is that in the end critics will give up and go away.
The problem for the Coalition is the shocking rise in real poverty on their watch, and as a direct result of their policies. This is an extremely uncomfortable fact for them. It’s not an easy one for them to deal with – but they are trying.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg do not care about tackling the reality of hundreds of thousands of people going hungry in Britain:
• 600,000 people used food banks between April and December 2013, almost twice the number in the same period in 2012;
• Approximately 40% of the beneficiaries of food bank aid are children;
• The Trussell Trust, the largest provider of food bank food aid, says less than three per cent of people visiting food banks are referred by Jobcentres. Only four per cent of people turned to food banks due to homelessness. 18 per cent are referred due to low income, 19 per cent as a result of benefit changes, and 34 percent because of benefit delays. Other reasons included domestic violence, sickness, refused crisis loans, debt and unemployment.
• Food bank users are restricted to just three visits for which they must have vouchers.
Clegg and Cameron do care about being seen to manage the debate about food bank use.
So much so that even when Christian leaders such as Cardinal Vincent Nichols and Archbishop Justin Welby attack the morality of the government’s actions they metaphorically shrug their shoulders.
Listen to David Cameron and Nick Clegg and you hear the British equivalent of US Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld who brushed off his critics when things began to go pear-shaped in Iraq by telling them: Stuff Happens
The Public Relations Approach to Food Poverty: Stuff Passes
The government’s approach to dealing with its citizens is based on the public relations assumption that if you deny, distort, manipulate, ignore, twist criticism long enough and loud enough then bad things will pass. Muddy the water enough and no one will see what’s going on. This is government according to a PR manual with the script written by the The Thick of It.
The government has been in almost permanent denial regarding food bank aid.
1st July 2013: Lord Freud, a minister for welfare reform in the Department of Work and Pensions and ex-investment banker, was asked in the House of Lords by the Bishop of Truro whether ministers conceded a link between the benefits system and food bank use. Freud claimed that it was difficult to “make the causal connections” and that “It is difficult to know which came first – supply or demand.” He later changed his mind and said: “If you put more food banks in, that is the supply. Clearly, food from the food banks is a free good and by definition with a free good there’s almost infinite demand.” Food banks generate food bank use.
10th September 2013: Michael Gove, ‘I had the opportunity to visit a food bank in my constituency only on Friday and I appreciate that there are families who do face considerable pressures. It’s often as a result of some decisions that have been taken by those families which mean that they are not best able to manage their finances.’ The poor are poor because they have made themselves poor.
On 10th January, 2014: Edwina Currie, ex-Tory Minister for Health, claimed that food banks make users poorer. She said: “Free food subsidises low wages; it helps support the black economy. It pauperises those it seeks to help. Like giving money to ‘homeless’ beggars on London streets, it encourages more of what it seeks to relieve.” Foodbanks cause poverty.
At the same time as ministers were giving their vacuous and insensitive response to the predicament of hundreds of thousands of British citizens, many of whom are actually in work – some with more than one part-time job – the government actually knew quite a lot more about food bank usage than it was letting on.
What Did the Government Know?
In early 2013, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) commissioned the Food Ethics Council at Warwick University to undertake research “to arrive at a better understanding of the ‘food aid’ landscape in the UK and the ‘at risk’ individuals who access such provision, as well as the means and drivers for seeking access.”
The Council undertook a Rapid Evidence Assessment (REA) of existing published empirical literature, supplemented by other evidence obtained through a ‘call for evidence’. (See: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/283071/household-food-security-uk-140219.pdf)
The Food Ethics Council’s report, ‘Household Food Security in the UK: A Review of Food Aid’ was ready for publication in June 2013. However, DEFRA held it back. It was finally released without comment on 20th February 2014. The authors were not consulted about changes made to the report and were only informed of its publication on the previous day.
Here are some of the key findings:
– Food aid users in the UK households employ multiple strategies to try and cope with experiences of food insecurity, of which turning to food aid initiatives may only be one.
– Turning to food aid is a strategy of last resort. When households have exhausted all other strategies (cutting back and changing eating and shopping habits, juggling budgets, turning to family and friends) and do finally turn to food aid, they will draw on as much assistance as possible (both food and non-food related support).
– The main drivers behind users of food banks identified by national charities and food aid providers include a) both immediate problems which had led to sudden reduction in household income e.g. job losses and problems associated with social security payments) and b) on-going, underpinning circumstances (such as continual low household income and indebtedness) which can no longer support purchase of sufficient food to meet household needs.
– Evidence suggests that demand for food aid may peak at particular time – at the end of a financial period (week or month) and during winter.
– Formal and informal (non-food) support was often provided by food aid organisations, who regarded this work as integral to their offering. This support included emotional help, other practical services and signposting to help elsewhere. Providers regard the non-food support they are able to offer through food aid provision systems or projects as a particularly important aspect of what they do.
None of these findings contradict the longstanding claims made by Child Poverty Action Group, the Trussell Trust, Cardinal Nichols and Archbishop Welby. They do, however, provide clear evidence that Lord Freud, Michael Gove and Edwina Currie are wrong.
Lord Freud is wrong to suggest that food bank usage is supply driven. The report states simply:
“…. (The) growing demand may have contributed to more food aid being provided, through existing and new structures (both networked and independent). There is no systematic evidence on the impact of increased supply and hypotheses of its potential effects are not based on robust evidence.”
The evidence also destroys Mr Gove’s claim that people use food banks because they are poor financial managers. The evidence makes it clear that people only use food banks sparingly as a last resort.
It also bursts open Edwina Currie’s patronising claim that the food bank aid system pauperises its users. People use the banks in the first place because they are food poor.
After they’ve digested the report the government should chuck away its ‘austerity’, ‘fairness’ and ‘moral obligation’ justifications for attacking the food poor and simply concede:
– Freud, Gove and Currie should concede they’re wrong and pass the message on to Cameron and Clegg.
– They in turn must apologise to Cardinal Nichols and Archbishop Welby for dismissing their concerns with such patrician arrogance.
– While they’re doing so they should mention it to the government’s hangers-on, such as Greg Mulholland, Leeds NW Lib Dem MP – who, when it comes for speaking up for the food-poor, have been silent.
– They should apologise to the food-poor who not only have fought hard to care for their families and friends but also have also had to suffer unnecessary hardship at the government’s hands.
– Finally, and most importantly, they should commit themselves to tackling the crisis of food aid seriously. No more PR; Cameron, Clegg, Freud, Gove, Currie and Mulholland. Do something!
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