Benefits sanctions to blame for UK food poverty crisis

In 2013, Trussell Trust food banks gave 913,138 people a three-day emergency food parcel in the UK. This number is increasing every day. Only five years ago, Trussell Trust had five food banks opened across Britain. Today, that number stands at more than 400. With the organisation claiming that “demand has tripled since 2012”, it raises the question of what the root causes of UK food poverty are, and whether or not society is well informed enough about the extreme poverty on our doorstep.

The reasons people use food banks vary – from being in between jobs to suffering from increasing issues of debt. The co-author of ‘Household Food Security in the UK’ states that the main statistical factor is that “food prices have gone up by 30-32% in the last 5-6 years”, whilst “over the same period, wages have stayed the same or fallen”.

The government continues to emphasise falling unemployment statistics, but in reality, 9.8 million people in the UK were in relative poverty in 2012. Arguably, the answer to the question of why increasing numbers of UK citizens are relying on food banks lies in a quotation from a local church leader of a Food Bank in Bristol, who stated that “23% of our clients, our biggest group, are here because their benefits have been stopped or reduced to such a level they can’t survive”.

The government continues to claim that “there is no robust evidence of a link between welfare reform and the rush for free food”, and yet the BBC’s Panorama TV documentary on ‘Hungry Britain’ appeared to suggest otherwise. Ian Hoswell, a UK citizen who resides in Brighton, was interviewed on this programme describing his recent sanction from his benefits. After missing a meeting at the jobcentre, Ian described the “drastic punishment” of having his benefits completely cut off for three months, from £71 a week to nothing. This case study reflects a growing increase in benefit sanctions under the Coalition government, with a record number of 875,000 benefits sanctions imposed in the year leading up to last September. If a citizen is judged to have broken the rules by their jobcentre, they automatically lose their job seekers allowance for at least one month, with the longest penalty available being three years. Increasingly, it is these people who are desperately turning to food banks due to a serious reduction or complete eradication of their income.

Dr David Webster, an Economics academic at the University of Glasgow has conducted statistical analysis studies on UK benefit sanctions over the past 2 years, and has found that “an awful lot of people are wrongly sanctioned”. His research reflected that “even if a sanction decision is overturned”, recipients of benefits “can go through quite a lengthy period” before their income is refunded, leading him to state that “people who start poor, are going to be driven into complete destitution”. Latest government figures show that in the past year, more than 133,000 who were sanctioned had the decision overturned due to officials making mistakes. This number shows that approximately 400 people are wrongly sanctioned every day in the UK. Suzanne Harkins is a prime example of the tragedy that can befall a person who is wrongly sanctioned. Suzanne had to rely on benefits for the first time when her husband fell too ill to work and she lost her job. With two young children to support, her benefits were wrongly sanctioned due to what the jobcentre stated was a “clerical mix up”. With the family income being reduced to £63 a week, Suzanne stated “my husband and I would go for days without eating”, as the majority of their income went towards bills and feeding their young children. Suzanne described the foodbank her family later turned to as a “lifeline” for their situation, claiming that the “sanction policy is a way of the government saving money”.

The UK Government’s Department for Work and Pensions disagrees with claims that sanctions are causing an increasing need for food banks, stating that “rules are made clear to claimants” from the start of the process of receiving benefits, and that, if citizens are sanctioned, they can apply for a loan. Describing sanctions as very much a “last resort”, Ian Duncan Smith, current Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, dismissed claims that the process was simply a money-saving policy.

However, a case study of a jobcentre in Grantham that was heavily featured in the press over the last year, may suggest otherwise. A wall chart that was displayed at this job centre featured statistics that highlighted to staff how much money could be saved through numerous different benefit sanctions, stating “more than £900 can be saved per one 3 month sanction”. Charles Law from the Public and Commercial Services Union described how a figure is set as an average in a cluster of jobcentre offices of how many sanctions each worker is expected to achieve, claiming “that is a target, even if it is not called one”. In response, the government defended benefit sanctions, stating that the wall chart was simply “an isolated local incident” which does not reflect policy and that “there are no targets for benefit sanctions”.

Numerous UK government officials and public figures continue to state that food banks are not helping the situation of UK food poverty. One notable example is Edwina Currie, former Conservative MP and Secretary of State for Health, who when questioned on whether she accepted that UK food poverty exists, stated, “No, I don’t […] people make choices and putting food on the table used to be the first choice”, suggesting that nowadays this isn’t the case, she continued, “one of the reasons for that is, they can get free food”. Claiming that food banks “are not a solution”, but “a trap”, she said, “I don’t think there’s a need for food banks as they do not teach “old fashioned lessons” such as “saving for a rainy day”. Ian Duncan Smith reiterated this argument in Parliament, stating that “people know they are free” and therefore “will ask social workers to refer them” to a foodbank. Chris Mould, current Chairman of Trussell Trust foodbanks, directly challenged this statement, claiming that “to suggest people are walking through the door because it’s a freebie, is to suggest that more than 18,000 agencies in the United Kingdom are collectively colluding” as it is they are who are signing forms saying “please help this person they are in trouble”.

Professor Elizabeth Dowler from University of Warwick stated that “food banks are an inadequate plaster over a gaping wound”, addressing the issue that government and policy makers should be investigating why increasing numbers of the UK population are having to turn to food banks today.

ESCAPE (Edinburgh Students Coalition Against Poverty) are currently attempting to tackle this issue by holding a monthly food bank collection point on campus in the Chaplaincy, on the first Wednesday of each month from 12-2pm.

 

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