In these straitened times, food banks are one of the few guaranteed growth industries. New figures released by the Trussell Trust today show that 355,000 people received a minimum of three days emergency food between April and September, a 300% increase and more than the entire number during the whole of last year.
The coalition has long argued that rising usage reflects increased awareness of the existence of food banks: supply creates its own demand. But the trust's figures suggest otherwise. They show that one in five people - 65,177 - were referred as a result of the welfare cuts introduced in April (up from 14,897 last year), including the "bedroom tax", the 1% cap on benefit increases (an unprecedented real-terms cut), and the 10 per cent cut in council tax support. In addition, 117,442 were referred due to delays in their benefit payments, compared with 35,597 last year. Trussell Trust executive chairman Chris Mould said: "Problems with welfare are not new, they have existed for years, but the reality is that when welfare provision breaks down, people go hungry. We're talking about mums not eating for days because they've been sanctioned for seemingly illogical reasons, or people leaving hospital after a major operation to find that their benefits have been stopped or delayed. It's not right that so many more people are now being referred to foodbanks due to problems with welfare, especially as much of this is preventable."
After pledging to scrap the bedroom tax at its conference, Labour has emphasised this point, with Rachel Reeves noting: "The Trussell Trust themselves point to David Cameron’s cruel and unfair bedroom tax as a major driver of this startling increase, as well as the wider cost of living crisis we are seeing with food prices and energy bills rising faster than wages month after month.
"This should be a wake-up call to the Tory-led government who are totally out of touch with the hardship their policies are creating. They should reverse the bedroom tax now, as Labour has promised to, using money raised by closing tax loopholes".
Labour has also used the trust's findings to reaffirm the case for an energy price freeze. Trussell warned that some recipients are too poor to afford the electricity needed to heat their food parcels and that higher prices will force more to choose between heating and eating.
Mould has now written to Cameron calling for an inquiry into the issue. He commented: "We said in April that the increasing numbers of people turning to foodbanks should be a wake-up call to the nation, but there has been no policy response and the situation is getting worse. The level of food poverty in the UK is not acceptable.
"It's scandalous and it is causing deep distress to thousands of people. The time has come for an official and in-depth inquiry into the causes of food poverty and the consequent rise in the usage of foodbanks. As a nation we need to accept that something is wrong and that we need to act now to stop UK hunger getting worse."
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, "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.