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
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.