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.

Paul McMillan
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"We're an easy target": how a Tory manifesto pledge will tear families apart

Under current rules, bringing your foreign spouse to the UK is a luxury reserved for those earning £18,600 a year or more. The Tories want to make it even more exclusive. 

Carolyn Matthew met her partner, George, in South Africa sixteen years ago. She settled down with him, had kids, and lived like a normal family until last year, when they made the fateful decision to move to her hometown in Scotland. Matthew, 55, had elderly parents, and after 30 years away from home she wanted to be close to them. 

But Carolyn nor George - despite consulting a South African immigration lawyer – did not anticipate one huge stumbling block. That is the rule, introduced in 2012, that a British citizen must earn £18,600 a year before a foreign spouse may join them in the UK. 

“It is very dispiriting,” Carolyn said to me on the telephone from Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, near Falkirk. “In two weeks, George has got to go back to South Africa.” Carolyn, who worked in corporate complaints, has struggled to find the same kind of work in her hometown. Jobs at the biggest local employer tend to be minimum wage. George, on the other hand, is an engineer – yet cannot work because of his holiday visa. 

To its critics, the minimum income threshold seems nonsensical. It splits up families – including children from parents – and discriminates against those likely to earn lower wages, such as women, ethnic minorities and anyone living outside London and the South East. The Migration Observatory has calculated that roughly half Britain’s working population would not meet the requirement. 

Yet the Conservative party not only wishes to maintain the policy, but hike the threshold. The manifesto stated:  “We will increase the earnings thresholds for people wishing to sponsor migrants for family visas.” 

Initially, the threshold was justified as a means of preventing foreign spouses from relying on the state. But tellingly, the Tory manifesto pledge comes under the heading of “Controlling Immigration”. 

Carolyn points out that because George cannot work while he is visiting her, she must support the two of them for months at a time without turning to state aid. “I don’t claim benefits,” she told me. “That is the last thing I want to do.” If both of them could work “life would be easy”. She believes that if the minimum income threshold is raised any further "it is going to make it a nightmare for everyone".

Stuart McDonald, the SNP MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, co-sponsored a Westminster Hall debate on the subject earlier this year. While the Tory manifesto pledge is vague, McDonald warns that one option is the highest income threshold suggested in 2012 - £25,700, or more than the median yearly wage in the East Midlands. 

He described the current scheme as “just about the most draconian family visa rules in the world”, and believes a hike could affect more than half of British citizens. 

"Theresa May is forcing people to choose between their families and their homes in the UK - a choice which most people will think utterly unfair and unacceptable,” he said.  

For those a pay rise away from the current threshold, a hike will be demoralising. For Paul McMillan, 25, it is a sign that it’s time to emigrate.

McMillan, a graduate, met his American girlfriend Megan while travelling in 2012 (the couple are pictured above). He could find a job that will allow him to meet the minimum income threshold – if he were not now studying for a medical degree.  Like Matthew, McMillan’s partner has no intention of claiming benefits – in fact, he expects her visa would specifically ban her from doing so. 

Fed up with the hostile attitude to immigrants, and confident of his options elsewhere, McMillan is already planning a career abroad. “I am going to take off in four years,” he told me. 

As for why the Tories want to raise the minimum income threshold, he thinks it’s obvious – to force down immigration numbers. “None of this is about the amount of money we need to earn,” he said. “We’re an easy target for the government.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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