Food bank users triple in a year as the cuts bite

The number of people who received emergency food aid rose to 346,992 in 2012-13, up from 128,697 the previous year.

In these straitened times, food banks are one of the few guaranteed growth industries. New figures released by the Trussell Trust today show that 346,992 people received a minimum of three days emergency food in 2012-13, nearly triple the number the previous year (128,697) and  a fivefold increase since the coalition came to power. 

The trust, which does not accept walk-ins (only referrals), is opening food banks at a rate of three a week and says between 400 and 650 more projects are needed to cope with expected demand, not least as a result of the cocktail of welfare cuts introduced this month, including the 1 per cent cap on benefit increases (an unprecedented real-terms cut), the 'bedroom tax' and the 10 per cent cut in council tax support. As the New Policy Institute's Adam Tinson recently reported on The Staggers, 2.6 million families are affected by at least one of the three absolute benefit cuts, and 440,000 are affected by more than one, with the latter set to lose an average of £16.90 a week. 

Number of food bank users

2008-09 25,899

2009-10 40,898

2010-11 61,468

2011-12 128,697

2012-13 346,992

Figures from the charity showed that 30 per cent using food banks over the last year were referred as a result of benefit delays and 15 per cent because of benefit cuts. 

Here's the statement from Trussell Trust executive chairman Chris Mould:

"The sheer volume of people who are turning to food banks because they can't afford food is a wake-up call to the nation that we cannot ignore the hunger on our doorstep.

"Politicians across the political spectrum urgently need to recognise the real extent of UK food poverty and create fresh policies that better address its underlying causes. This is more important than ever as the impact of the biggest reforms to the welfare state since it began start to take effect.

"Since 1 April we have already seen increasing numbers of people in crisis being sent to food banks with nowhere else to go."

Those who had received emergency help, he said, included "working people coming in on their lunch breaks, mums who are going hungry to feed children, people whose benefits have been delayed and people struggling to find enough work."

Shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh said:

"The UK is the seventh richest country in the world yet under David Cameron’s leadership, we are facing a cost of living crisis and growing epidemic of hidden hunger, with some people increasingly unable to meet their family’s basic needs.

"These shocking figures show the number of people receiving food parcels from the Trussell Trust almost trebling in a year. This incompetent Tory-led Government needs to wake up to the human cost of their failed economic policies and change course now."

When challenged on the growth of food banks by Ed Miliband at PMQs last year, David Cameron unwisely hailed their volunteers as part of "the big society", prompting Miliband to reply, in one of his best lines, "I never thought the big society was about feeding hungry children in Britain." It will be worth watching to see how Cameron responds when, as they surely will, Labour MPs put the figures to him today. 

A volunteer sorts through donations of tinned food at the headquarters of the Trussell Trust Foodbank Organisation in Salisbury. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.