The Trussell Trust hits out at Cameron: the coalition has broken its agreement with foodbanks

The head of the UK's biggest foodbank network says the PM is wrong to claim that job centres have been allowed to give out vouchers.

The head of the UK’s biggest foodbank network says he is “annoyed, puzzled and confused” by the government, which he says has “broken its agreement” with foodbanks, directly contradicting the Prime Minister’s comments to parliament this week.

David Cameron told the Commons that the government had gone further than its predecessors to support the food bank movement, saying during Prime Minister's Questions that they had allowed job centres to give out vouchers to claimants to receive food in times of need.

But Chris Mould, head of the Trussell Trust that has started over 380 foodbanks across the UK, says that this is not the case:

“We’re annoyed, puzzled and confused because the reality is not as he paints it,” he says, “The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) had an agreement with us in 2011 and they’ve reneged on it. They’ve now said they won’t hand out vouchers to families in distress… The DWP is not doing what the Prime Minister is saying and this needs to be sorted out.”

The consequence of jobcentres not being able to give out vouchers is that families in dire need of food with no money are left hungry. Without the proper paperwork from jobcentres, foodbanks do not have the evidence they need that the person is in genuine need and are forced to turn them away.

“We don’t know the reason (why DWP have made this decision). From our perspective it’s a real problem because we have a relationship of trust with our donors. They need to know there is validity to these claims…If people come to us from jobcentres with no paperwork we say we can’t help. We need assurance.”

The head of the UK’s largest foodbank network goes even further, damning the government’s welfare reforms for causing a surge in foodbank clients across the UK. Between April and June 2013 when the welfare reforms were implemented, over 150,000 received help from the Trussell Trust, some 200% up on the year before.

“The actual (welfare) policy and its operational impact is causing problems,” says Mould, “Take the bedroom tax say, it’s got some logic to it, but when the provision of alternative (fewer bedroom properties) are not there then that means people simply fall short of cash. These people are not scroungers but they suddenly find themselves £14 a week short.”

Although it might be expected that people plugged into jobcentres would have their benefit needs met, Mould cites all kind of reasons why people fall through the net. The transfer of people from incapacity benefit to ESA and ATOS medical assessments are causing large number of appeals. These often result in the successful reinstatement of benefits, but people are often waiting weeks before they get the result. In the meantime, their benefits are stopped and they are left with nothing. Now many of them can’t get a foodbank voucher either.

“Whilst some jobcentres do a great job, we’ve got the data and the case studies to show that some are operationally inadequate and the advice they are giving is just plain wrong,” says Mould, who says he’s been trying to meet DWP officials since April, “We say we want to share this information and put things right, and they have rebuffed us repeatedly.”

In a further problem, DWP have said they won’t even record the reason for referring people to foodbanks (as they also refused to do under the previous government). This is not surprising, given that the Trussell Trust says over half of people visiting foodbanks in the first quarter of this year were referred due to problems with benefits - a 9% increase on last year when the reforms were implemented.

This revelation would obviously be embarrassing for DWP, and officials would rather that data disappeared. But Cameron told Parliament on Wednesday that he would never fail to take action simply because it might result in “bad publicity.” So did the Prime Minister deliberately mislead the Commons?

“What he said just isn’t happening on the ground,” says Mould, “What we’re dealing with here is confusion. I’d prefer to hope he was just badly briefed. He’s certainly not up to date with the decisions DWP has taken.”

Volunteers begin to process a food voucher at a Food Bank depot at St. Paul's Church in Brixton on October 23, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

Photo: Getty
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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.