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

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

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.