Political action must be taken to eliminate food banks from the national landscape
As the Trussell Trust released the latest statistics on food bank use yesterday, a strange thing happened. The stats were pored over, and on the same night that the Tories were unable to put someone forward for a Newsnight welfare debate, Newsnight apologised for conflating the number of vouchers issued (1.1 million) with the number of people using the Trussell Trust network. Full Fact also got to work dispelling the notion that 1.1million have used food banks. The inference seems to be that perhaps if only half a million need a food bank, we can all rest easy. Never mind that some of those will have needed vouchers two or three times. Of course, these statistics never reflect the human costs; only the footfall of one food bank organisation, albeit the largest one. We don’t know how many people other food bank organisations like Fare Share feed or the multiple independent emergency food outlets operating many neighbourhoods. Or in fact how many people won’t go at all.
In my advice role, I recently saw a couple who had fallen into difficulties. Brian* had had an accident at work and was recuperating whilst his wife looked for work. Their only income was Statutory Sick Pay (£88 per week) and due to a shortfall between their housing benefit and rent, they had £23 a week to provide food, heat, light, water, clothes, travel, phone and toiletries. They were evidently close to the edge and reluctantly I offered them a food bank voucher. Brian’s wife looked unsure. She turned slowly to Brian who looked up and said adamantly, ‘I’m not going to no foodbank. I’ve worked all my life. I’d rather starve and die before I go to a food bank’.
International experience suggests emergency food rapidly becomes instituationalised as a secondary but very leaky safety net. In 2013, 65,000 Australians were turned away from food banks each month. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has just ‘celebrated’ its 28th Foodbank Day. The UK was just late to the party. The allure of the concept is difficult to resist – whether the multinational corporates enhancing their profiles whilst assuaging their corporate social responsibility, or the donor preferring to throw a packet of pasta and a tin of beans in a collection box rather than donating a £10 supermarket gift card for the user to spend as they wish, or even the emotional and religious payback for volunteers. Whilst the downstream work of organisations that support food banks is quite literally a lifeline to many, it fails to even start to address the causes.
Of course the Labour plan to reduce food bank dependency must be welcomed, but forgive some scepticism. One month ago, Rachel Reeves denied she had said Labour ‘were not the party to represent those out of work’ when of course it was precisely what she had said.
It is by no means a perfect plan. The aspiration is to ‘reduce’ not ‘eliminate’ food bank dependency. The plan does not address the very serious impact of council tax support in pushing people into poverty. It makes no mention of the very serious risk of digital-induced destitution under Universal Credit, or how monthly payments will impact on families (only Plaid Cymru mention these points in their manifesto).
Worst of all, it appears Rachel Reeves has been true to her word in that there is no mention whatsoever of what I argue is at the root of the problem: low income for ‘non-working’ families. I have previously argued that sanctions and benefit delays are simply catalysts placing those on subsidence level incomes so close to the precipice that one issue triggers a household emergency with all the social, physical and mental distress that entails. Low benefit levels and the low-pay no-pay cycle are the real causes.
But it’s a start. It is far better that than the lame excuses trotted out by David Cameron suggesting increased usage relates to Jobcentres referring to food banks. In fact, most self-respecting foodbanks resist referrals from either jobcentres or local authority. My local foodbank in York made that decision as the premise of Trussell Trust is that the referring agency must be able to address the underlying cause, rather than be the actual cause of it!
Examples abound of despicable quotes from Tories, ranging from Michael Gove’s suggestion that food bank use is a result of ‘decisions by families’ that are ‘unable to manage their finances’ or Esther McVey suggesting ‘it is right that more people are... going to food banks because as times are tough, we are all having to pay back this £1.5 trillion debt personally’.
So, much in the same way Owen Jones argues, I believe we must press for a Labour government first and foremost and then seek to persuade Rachel Reeves to adjust her rhetoric so that she appreciates that the Labour movement represents amongst others the unemployed, disabled people, sick people, carers, volunteers as well as working people. That is what a movement of solidarity means, which brings me back to the role of the unions.
If there is to be any hope that food banks are not part of the welfare landscape in the future, social action is paramount. There is a vital and urgent need to re-politicise the ‘right to food’ (which the UK signed up to) – so far, one may argue the downstream focus has depoliticised the issue as one in which charity is an appropriate response. There are causes for optimism – for instance, former Labour MP John Battle - in a call for social action - held a recent conference as part of Leeds Justice and Peace Commission titled ‘Food Banks: Charity or Injustice?’ whilst only last week the Remember Oluwale charity held a day to consider action to take to address the destitution of those most marginalised in Leeds. On a national scale, the eviction watches conducted by the likes of Focus E15, Sweet Way and others together with the ‘Poor Doors’ campaign serve to challenge the common orthodoxy that those in severe hardship will not participate politically. These relatively small but organised campaigns have achieved notable successes.
Imagine then how coordinated political action could address the blight of food banks on this country. The reformulation of the food bank model by Trussell Trust and others could provide a space for food bank users to exercise political agency supported by unions, who are surely best placed to assist not just in practical downstream assistance but upstream through their huge organisational and campaigning potential. That way, if elected, we can ensure Labour keep its promise to reduce food bank use but moreover, eliminate them from the national landscape.
*Names were changed to protect confidentiality