The Tories are hoping to declare an economic turning point today with new figures expected to show that average wages have finally crept above inflation. But their message that the living standards crisis is easing will be undermined by the news that the number of food bank users in the last 12 months has reached a record level. The Trussell Trust reports that 913,138 people (582,933 adults and 330,205 children) received three days’ emergency food from its food banks in 2013-14, a rise of 163 per cent since last year (when the figure stood at 346,992). Half of all referrals were the result of benefit delays or cuts.
Ministers, who have consistently refused to meet with the Trussell Trust on the grounds that it is "politically motivated", are fond of claiming that the increase in food bank usage merely reflects a rise in the number of centres. Welfare minister Lord Freud has said that "by definition there is an almost infinite demand for a free good". In other words, supply creates its own demand.
But the Trust points out that while there has been a 163 per cent increase in food bank use in the last year, there has only been a 45 per cent increase in the number of food banks. The rate of new food banks opening has fallen from three a week in 2012/13 to two a week in 2013/14. In addition, it's worth noting that, contrary to Freud's claims, the Trust does not accept walk-ins, only referrals.
Here's the statement from Trussell Trust chairman Chris Mould:
That 900,000 people have received three days’ food from a foodbank, close to triple the numbers helped last year, is shocking in 21st century Britain. But perhaps most worrying of all this figure is just the tip of the iceberg of UK food poverty, it doesn’t include those helped by other emergency food providers, those living in towns where there is no foodbank, people who are too ashamed to seek help or the large number of people who are only just coping by eating less and buying cheap food. [See Notes below]
In the last year we’ve seen things get worse, rather than better, for many people on low-incomes. It’s been extremely tough for a lot of people, with parents not eating properly in order to feed their children and more people than ever experiencing seemingly unfair and harsh benefits sanctions.
Unless there is determined policy action to ensure that the benefits of national economic recovery reach people on low-incomes we won’t see life get better for the poorest anytime soon.
A more thoughtful approach to the administration of the benefits regime and sanctions in particular, increasing the minimum wage, introducing the living wage and looking at other measures such as social tariffs for essentials like energy would help to address the problem of UK hunger.
In response to the figures, 40 Anglican Bishops and over 600 church leaders from all major denominations have signed a letter demanding that the government took urgent action to reduce food poverty, described by the Trust as "the biggest ever faith leader intervention" the subject in modern times.
Labour's shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle said: "The vast increase in the number of households and families turning to foodbanks reveals the shocking truth of life under David Cameron’s cost-of-living crisis. While those at the very top get a tax break everyone else is finding life is harder under the Tories.
"Instead of hiding behind the Tory myth, that says the increase in foodbanks is driving demand, it is time Ministers got a grip and took this issue seriously."