Volunteers sort through donations of food at the headquarters of the Trussell Trust Foodbank Organisation in Salisbury. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Ministers can no longer deny the link between food banks and benefit cuts

The long-delayed government-commissioned report slipped out today contradicts claims by ministers that food bank usage is driven by supply.

People, it turns out, are going to food banks because they’re hungry and in need. This finding, which chimes with the experiences of those of us with on-the-ground experience (including prominent members of the Catholic Church), emerges from a long-delayed report commissioned by ministers at Defra, and quietly slipped out today. It contradicts welfare reform minister Lord Freud’s assertion that food bank usage is driven by supply (if you build food banks, people will come for the free food).
 
In fact, as well as finding "no systematic evidence on the impact of increased supply" and that "hypotheses of its potential effects are not based on robust evidence", the report found that food bank use is "a strategy of last resort". People are proud, the evidence shows, and will tend to use them only once they’ve cut back on everything they can, and exhausted all other possible avenues of support. Indeed, food bank use is probably the tip of the iceberg: the report finds that, internationally, only one in five of those who are food insecure will tend to use emergency food support. Unfortunately, we don’t measure food insecurity in this country, but with food banks springing up across the country, from those linked to big national networks to small independent operations, perhaps we should.
 
The research looked at various sources as to why people are seeking food aid. In order of ranking, they found that reasons included: "loss of, reductions in or problems associated with, social security payments; low income; indebtedness; homelessness". A study the report cites from Citizens Advice found that the two main reasons for referrals for a food parcel were benefit delays and benefit sanctions. With sanctions at an all-time high, and the government proposing to make people wait for seven days to claim JSA after losing their jobs, these issues are only going to get worse.
 
The Defra pocket book (2012) highlights the compounded effects of falling income and rising food prices over recent years, which had "produced a double effect of reducing food affordability by over 20 per cent for households in the lowest income decile". Overall, the report makes clear that people go to food banks for both reasons of short-term crisis – job loss or problems with the social security system – and of long-term poverty – low income or indebtedness. 
 
The report also bemoans the lack of systematic UK evidence of why people go to food banks. We, like many others, are seeing the urgency of the issue daily in our work, and policy makers need to gain far greater understanding of the growing food poverty crisis. The explosion in food bank use is a national emergency, and it is imperative that we understand its causes so that we can eliminate hunger from British children’s lives.
 
In the meantime, there is a lot that can be done to tackle the issues we already know about. Jobcentre Plus advisers need to start making much better use of short-term benefit advances. To tackle the longer-term causes of food poverty, we need more action on the inadequacy of incomes, on supporting people into work that pays enough to live on, backed up by high-quality, affordable childcare, and on the structural problems in the social security system that are edging many towards destitution. 
 
Ultimately, food banks are a symptom of deeper problems. No child should be going hungry, and no child should be living in poverty. As part of its legal obligation to end child poverty by 2020, the government must publish its new Child Poverty Strategy by early April, and will be consulting on it shortly. It is a great opportunity for them to set out their roadmap to giving every child the nourishment they need, and the start in life they deserve. 
 
Moussa Haddad is senior policy officer at the Child Poverty Action Group 
Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.