The cynical politics of denying foodbank figures

When the government’s only response to hungry people is questioning the data, it’s losing the argument.

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On Wednesday this week, I visited a newly expanded foodbank in Warrington to report on the rising number of people going hungry. The hook for the piece was new figures collated by the Trussell Trust – the UK’s biggest foodbank charity, which has about two-thirds of the country’s foodbanks in its network.

The main findings are that in areas where Universal Credit (UC) has been rolled out for at least two years, foodbank demand has increased 48 per cent. For 18 months it’s 40 per cent and for a year it's 30 per cent.

The five-week wait for the first payment, which is built into the UC system, is causing people to go at least a month without money for food – hence the rise in foodbank use – according to the Trussell Trust’s data.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) responded only by questioning the data, without engaging at all with the rise in foodbank use. Here’s the statement I was sent:

“This report uses unrepresentative data to reach an entirely unsubstantiated conclusion. It categorically does not prove that Universal Credit is the reason behind increased foodbank usage.

“With UC people can get paid urgently if they need it and we’ve changed the system so people can receive even more money in the first two weeks than under the old system.”

People can get money upfront in emergency cases, but this is a loan that must be paid back by deductions from future payments. Yet the most interesting part of this statement is the denial of the data. What puts it in doubt?

According to the DWP, you can’t compare new benefit claimants under the new system with old claimants on legacy benefits. Yet the most revealing part of these figures is how drastic the impact of transferring to the new system is on people’s lives. Comparing the new experience with the old reveals the consequences of UC: a major change in some benefit claimants’ circumstances.

Then there’s the argument that the data only covers foodbank users, rather than the 2.3 million people on UC. But these figures aren’t supposed to represent everyone on UC – they’re supposed to measure the changing demand in foodbank use, and survey the reasons behind it. The Trussell Trust does this by collecting data from more than 60,000 agencies that refer people to foodbanks in its network. Referral data is the most reliable way of tracking foodbank use.

In any case, even if you look at the whole transition to UC, as Policy in Practice (run by one of the architects of Universal Credit, Deven Ghelani) has done this week, you see a glaring problem with the five-week wait. During that delay, 16 per cent of households yet to move to UC would be unable to meet their outgoings, and a further 25 per cent face an income shortfall – that’s over two million households altogether.

Responding to the DWP’s claims about biased data, the charity’s chief exec Emma Revie commented:

“It is very disappointing to see the Department for Work & Pensions’ response to this research. The experiences of people on Universal Credit cannot be denied. While the system may work well for many, it’s clear from the evidence of foodbanks and countless organisations there are also many people being failed. People have used their voice to report the flaws in the system that have pushed them to a foodbank and it is crucial our government listens.

“We’ve always been clear – Universal Credit is not the only reason people are referred to foodbanks, but issues with the new system are clearly pushing people through foodbanks’ doors. We can do better than this as a country, and we must. We can protect each other from needing foodbanks – but if we’re to do that, our government needs to be open to hearing when policies aren’t working for people.”

That last point is most telling in the disagreement over foodbank figures. Last June, the National Audit Office concluded that it would be impossible to measure whether UC achieves its economic goal of increasing employment:

“Both we, and the Department, doubt it will ever be possible for the Department to measure whether the economic goal of increasing employment has been achieved. This, the extended timescales and the cost of running Universal Credit compared to the benefits it replaces cause us to conclude that the project is not value for money now, and that its future value for money is unproven.”

If it is impossible to assess the reform’s benefits according to its own aims, and apparently – according to the DWP – impossible to use the best foodbank data available to see whether there’s a link between UC and foodbank use, then that’s a problem in itself. As former researcher for the Institute for Government think tank Chris McNulty points out, you “basically can’t measure its impact or merits”. It's yet another flaw in the running of an already flawed policy.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.