What Amber Rudd said about foodbanks – and what she really means

The Work & Pensions Secretary will only admit Universal Credit fuels foodbank use when it’s not under her watch.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

During a tough interview with BBC 5 Live’s Emma Barnett, the Work & Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd got in a tangle about foodbanks.

When she was pressed on why there was a need for foodbanks in the fifth richest country in the world, Rudd appeared to suggest that there is less need than we think. That, actually, many people are using foodbanks because they simply don’t know about the benefits they’re entitled to.

It’s worth hearing the whole exchange. Here it is:

Emma Barnett: There’s a spike in the use of foodbanks, so it’s hardly a strong economy, and I know you’ve probably visited foodbanks and heard heart-rending tales?

Amber Rudd: Of course I’ve visited foodbanks, and I’ve acknowledged that there were some issues with foodbanks when they first started. But I find now that foodbanks are being very supportive of people who need it. We have work coaches, helping people…

EB: Well, thank God they’re there.

AR: We have, people, work coaches, from the Jobcentres, making sure that people are supported as they need to be, sometimes people don’t…

EB: We shouldn’t be living in a country that’s the fifth richest economy though with the need for foodbanks.

AR: I agree with that. I agree with that.

EB: You shouldn’t be as a Secretary of State having to praise them.

AR: Emma, I agree that we don’t want to have foodbanks. But sometimes I discover, when I go to visit the foodbanks, that there were people in there who don’t know what access to benefits they had, which is why it’s important that there’s a good relationship between us and foodbanks, which generally there is, so that I can ensure…

EB: Yes but there are people in there who desperately need them.

AR: I can ensure that people are getting the benefits they should be. I’m absolutely committed to making sure they should…

EB: Hang on, hang on, what percentage of people in foodbanks do you think shouldn’t be there because they don’t know about what benefits they can get?

AR: Well, my experience is that when I go and talk to them, some people do not, which is why we’ve agreed with a lot of the providers of foodbanks to make sure we have our experts there to help them. Sometimes they’re individuals who work for the Jobcentre, sometimes the people who run the foodbanks don’t want that, so instead we make sure there’s a designated person who can signpost them so that there is the support they need.

EB: Are you saying if everybody knew how to access the benefits they were entitled to…

AR: I haven’t said that, Emma. I don’t know if you’ve been to a foodbank. I’ve been to a few of them, and in my experience, as I’ve said, and this is my conversations with some of the people there, is that they need to understand sometimes what benefits they are entitled to, some people struggle to make those applications.

EB: But there’s still a significant group of people who do know what they’re entitled to and do still need to go, surely you accept that?

AR: I do accept that, and I know there are many different reasons for that…

EB: Right, so back to your core point about what you think the Conservatives were elected to do, I mean we could debate that but perhaps we shouldn’t waste our time together, you talk about a strong economy, I suppose it just doesn’t point in that direction when people are still in need of foodbanks in the fifth largest economy in the world… We’re in a position where you can’t reconcile the two, and perhaps more compassion needs to come from the cabinet about this issue instead of banging on about how good the employment figures are.

Although she eventually accepts that there are different reasons why people need foodbanks, Rudd’s main argument seems to be that people go simply because they don’t know how generous the government is.

Of course, there is a lot of truth in that Universal Credit can be confusing both to claimants and frontline staff. But this isn’t claimants’ fault. It’s the responsibility of the government, both for making the system harder by trying to simplify it, cutting Jobcentres, and failing to adequately train staff.

Over 100 Jobcentres have shut down (about 15 per cent) between 2016 and 2018, and those that remain have only a third of the resources and staffing they had in 2012, according to the Learning and Work Institute. Though Universal Credit was supposed to be “digital by default”, claimants must attend mandatory appointments and periodically submit physical evidence for their claims.

Jobcentres have also been struggling to manage the roll-out of Universal Credit. Mark Serwotka, leader of the public worker union PCS, told the work and pensions select committee last year that “many members reported that they had no training whatsoever”. The committee chair, Frank Field, spoke of the “lack of training and expertise at the front line in Jobcentre Plus”, which left employees “unprepared to deal with the most vulnerable claimants”.

While Rudd’s reference to Jobcentre staff or designated benefits advisers in foodbanks is welcome, it’s a result of the government’s own actions that they are needed in the first place.

Rudd has admitted in the past that Universal Credit contributed to foodbank use. “The main issue which led to an increase in foodbank use could have been the fact that people had difficulty accessing their money early enough,” she told the House of Commons in February.

Indeed, analysing data from its network, the charity Trussell Trust found that foodbank use has risen by 52 per cent in areas where Universal Credit has been fully rolled out for 12 months or more.

To counter the problem, Rudd pointed towards the changes made to the delivery of Universal Credit in last year’s Budget.

Firstly, changes to advance payments: claimants can repay advance payments (upfront loans) more slowly from October this year (at 30 per cent of the standard allowance, down from 40 per cent), and over 16 months instead of 12 months from October 2021.

Secondly, the two-week transitional housing benefit payments for claimants migrating to Universal Credit, to bridge the gap created by the monthly payment cycle.

Both these changes were announced before Rudd took over at the Department. So she hasn’t announced any fresh policies to follow up her admission that Universal Credit has been fuelling food bank use.

But in another interview yesterday, on BBC Radio 4’s World at One, Rudd was asked whether Universal Credit is still sending people to foodbanks. “No, absolutely not,” she replied:

“The issue that I referred to previously on foodbanks was about the initial rollout of Universal Credit where some people, a large number of people unfortunately, weren’t being paid on time as they had expected to be, and that transfer from their previous benefits to their Universal Credit wasn’t smooth enough.”

Anecdotally, there is no sign that these changes have made much difference to foodbank use in Universal Credit areas so far. Problems with the new welfare system remain a common reason for people visiting foodbanks today, mainly because of the five-week wait. Once the next foodbank use figures are out, we’ll see whether this has changed at all under Rudd’s stewardship.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.