The food bank debate is stale. It’s time to move the conversation on.
The latest figures from Trussell Trust food banks, published today, will inevitably prompt much discussion and debate. The conversation is one which, as one commentator put it, is characterised by more heat than light. On one side, critics will seek to place the blame firmly with the Government – welfare reforms, sanctions, failures in the social security system, not to mention failure to tackle the growing section of the labour market characterised by low pay and insecurity. The lines from the previous Coalition Government are more nuanced: “the figures don’t prove anything”, they will say, or “there isn’t any reliable evidence” (conveniently ignoring the growing body of respectable, independent, research reports, their own attempts to hold up and influence investigations, and refusal to commission new research). Further column inches will be devoted to discussion of whether food banks represent “free food” for which, allegedly, there is infinite demand, or whether this demonstrates that the poor simply can’t cook or budget – as if cooking or budgeting are realistic options when your income unexpectedly disappears and you have no money. Hands will be wrung over the enormous waste built into our food supply system, and whether, indeed, passing it on to “the poor” is an appropriate solution.
With due respect to everyone involved, nearly everyone is right….and wrong. I suspect that’s what made the recent All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty such a difficult document to write that the end results are, to be frank, a noble but slightly disappointing compromise. The Trussell Trust figures published today don’t demonstrate anything more, or less, than the numbers of people using their food banks and the recorded reasons why they were referred. The Trussell Trust network has expanded dramatically over the last 10 years, and individual food banks within it will have expanded or developed their reach. That more people today are aware of the existence of food banks is undeniable. As academics are keen to stress, it is also true that the Trussell Trust numbers represent “a tip of the iceberg”, giving only the faintest indication of the unknown numbers of people struggling with an immediate financial crisis or on-going low income who either can’t, or chose not to, access a food bank.
And so a stalemate has been achieved. Going round the same old circles enlightens nobody, with the very real danger of boring, and losing, public opinion. Media attention will move on, policymakers will follow. This is dangerous because vested interests obscure the real issues: Food banks are good news for everyone, and no one. Undoubtedly good news for those who face a crisis and find they have nowhere else to turn. Good news for the hard-pressed public and voluntary sector bodies who, in those wonderful red referral forms, find they have something, at least, they can offer. Good news for churches and community groups longing to reach out to those who are struggling, and charities who want to help them. Good news for supermarkets seeking to increase their social responsibility stock (and profits). Good news for individuals who, angered by what they see going on in the economic and society, just “want to do something to help”. And good news for governments, desperate to curb their welfare bill, that someone else is offering to.
And there’s the rub. Food banks are, themselves, not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that, when it comes to providing a commentary on the society we live in, food banks are not a cause or a solution, but a symptom. A symptom of a changing labour market which fails to provide adequate work and wages for too many people, and a social security system which is increasingly ill-equipped to cope with that challenge. A symptom of wages which have been too low for too long, and benefits which have been pared back to match. A symptom of very real cuts to welfare provision, in monetary terms but also in increasingly crumbling, and failing, administration. A symptom of a society where, for a whole host of reasons, communities and families increasingly struggle to ‘look after their own’, let alone extend appropriate long-term care and support to others in need.
When I first started visiting Rwanda, over 10 years ago, people I met were incredulous that there could be families in Britain who struggled to provide a good standard of living for themselves. Most people, across much of Africa, Asia and South America would be appalled at the thought that, in Britain today, we have people who not just struggling to get by, but struggling to feed themselves. That we do is a damning indictment of our claim to call ourselves a “developed” nation. It should raise serious and pressing questions about our social contract and the nature, role and responsibility of our welfare state.
There has been, today, one surprising new development: according to the Conservative spokesperson, there are more people at food banks because they (the caring, socially responsible Government) have allowed Jobcentres to refer people to them. This was the point which made me sit up and take notice. The role of Jobcentres should be to assist people in financial need, to find jobs if they are able to, yes, but also to ensure no one is left destitute in the meantime. The correct place, and mechanism, for emergency financial support is the Benefit System. There are very real, and pressing reasons, why voluntary provision of emergency food aid should never be allowed to become an accepted part of that infrastructure.
Thanks to Trussell Trust and others, we do now know quite a bit about what lies behind food bank use. We don’t need more tired debate. We need the most recent figures from Trussell Trust (and preferably others) because we need a new conversation about each and every reason someone ends up at a food bank: about how long you should wait for benefit payment and where you can turn to for help in the meantime, about sanctions and their impact; and about how we appropriately treat and support those who are sick or disabled. We need the ongoing discussion, as prompted by the Living Wage campaign, about appropriate wages and zero-hours contracts. We need to be talking about the nature of our labour market, our tax system and our welfare provision – what we are prepared to pay for and who should foot the bill.
What is striking about the current state of the food bank debate is the previous Government’s reluctance to engage in exactly that conversation, from dismissing research evidence to the last night’s refusal of the Conservative Party to participate in a welfare debate. But we don’t need more hand-wringing about food banks, or even apportioning of blame, we need to move the conversation on.
Jane Perry is the lead author of the recent Emergency Use Only research into food bank use, writing here in a personal capacity.