Britain faces a hidden scandal where thousands of people cannot feed themselves or their families, according to a hard hitting report from Church Action Poverty and Oxfam.
The two charities, with the backing of the Trussell Trust, are calling for an urgent Parliamentary Inquiry into the relationship between benefit delay, error or sanctions, welfare reform changes and the growth of Britain's 'hidden hungry'.
The report: Walking the Breadline, highlights causes of the increase in use of food banks as down to changes to the benefit system, unemployment, increasing levels of underemployment, low and falling income and rising food and fuel prices. Changes to the benefit system are the most common reasons for people using food banks; these include changes to crisis loan eligibility rules, delays in payments, Jobseeker's Allowance
sanctions and sickness benefit reassessments.
Mark Goldring, Oxfam's CEO said: "The shocking reality is that hundreds of thousands of people in the UK are turning to food aid. Cuts to social safety-nets have gone too far, leading to destitution, hardship and hunger on a large scale. It is unacceptable that this is happening in the seventh wealthiest nation on the planet."
The Trussell Trust which is the biggest provider of food banks in the UK had last month reported that more than 350,000 people turned to their food banks for help in the last year, almost triple the number who received food aid in the previous year.
However today's report warns that the true number of hungry people could be more than half a million people, as the problem is not being monitored properly. It calls for Government agencies to record and monitor people experiencing food poverty in the UK in order to establish more accurate numbers.
Changes to crisis loan eligibility rules, delays in payments, Jobseeker's Allowance sanctions and sickness benefit reassessments are the most common benefit changes that led to people using food banks.
Niall Cooper, Church Action on Poverty CEO, and the report's lead author, said: "The safety net that was there to protect people is being eroded to such an extent that we are seeing a rise in hunger. Food banks are not designed to, and should not, replace the 'normal' safety net provided by the state in the form of welfare support."
The report recommends that:
· The House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee should conduct an urgent Parliamentary Inquiry into the relationship between benefit delay, error or sanctions, welfare reform changes and the growth of food poverty.
· The Department for Work and Pensions should publish data on a regular basis on the number and type of household who are deprived of their benefits by reason of benefit delay, error or sanctions; the numbers leaving and returning to benefits after a short period of time, and the number of referrals from Jobcentre plus staff to local food banks.
· The Department for Work and Pensions should commission independent monitoring of the roll-out of Universal Credit, to ensure that there is no unintentional increase in food poverty.
· All referrals to food banks/emergency food aid provision, made by government agencies, should be recorded and monitored in order to establish more accurate numbers on people experiencing food poverty in the UK.
· HM Treasury should make tackling tax dodging an urgent priority, including promoting robust and coordinated international action at the forthcoming G8 meeting in Northern Ireland in June - to reduce the need for future cuts in benefits.
Notes to Editors
For more information/copy of the report or to arrange an interview please contact Jonaid Jilani on 01865 472 193 or 07810 181 514 or firstname.lastname@example.org
A number of people who have turned to food banks are available to speak about their situation.
Niall Cooper Church Action on Poverty Chief Executive is available for interview.
Chris Johnes, Oxfam's Director of UK Poverty Programme is available for interview
Church Action on Poverty is a national ecumenical Christian social justice charity, committed to tackling poverty in the UK. We work in partnership with churches and with people in poverty themselves to find solutions to poverty, locally, nationally and globally. Further information can be found at www.churchpoverty.org.uk. Registered charity number 1079986. Company limited by guarantee, registered in England and Wales, number 3780243.
Case study: benefits and food prices
After selling all of her possessions to pay off debts, Jack was left with just a bed and a sofa and a few items that were later donated by friends. She has had to live on a budget of £10 a week for food for a long period of time. She had to make sacrifices to save money, including never using the heating, taking out excess light bulbs and not having a freezer or tumble drier. She buys basic products and tries not to buy meat or dairy products as they are too expensive. Her local food bank is able to provide
nappies and five items of food each week.
On reading an article in The Independent, she was shocked to find that nine of the 16 criteria that class a child as being in poverty applied to her own son, including: not having outdoor space to play, not having two pairs of shoes, and not having meat or dairy in his diet. "It was a shock to me. I thought, 'My child is in poverty', and I wondered if I was a bad mother."
As a result of blogging about her experiences, Jack is now working as a journalist and an activist on UK hunger issues.
Case study: benefit sanctions
Kay is in her early thirties, a single parent and currently expecting another child. She is currently on Jobseeker's Allowance and is required by her Jobcentre Plus Adviser to search for six jobs every fortnight. Although Kay will need to have maternity leave in the near future, work is very important to her, and she is still actively looking for employment and attends a voluntary job club on a weekly basis.
Kay has little knowledge of computers and therefore relies on the support of the staff at the job club to help her with her search, especially now that the Universal Jobmatch system (job searches and recordings) is heavily computerised. One week in March, the job club lost all internet connectivity, and therefore she only managed to enquire about one vacancy. However, during the following week she 'fulfilled' her six job search quota by searching for another five jobs.
Kay believed all was well until her next visit to the Jobcentre to meet her Adviser; she was told by her Adviser that her search "was not good enough" because her six job searches were not spread evenly throughout the two weeks, and although Kay tried to defend her case, stating that she had no internet access, she was told that she would be sanctioned.
Kay was sanctioned a week's money of £71. This not only caused a lot of stress to her (being pregnant, a single mother and now having a vital income removed from the household); it also had the knock-on effect of forcing her to rely on her family for financial support.