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  1. Spotlight on Policy
5 October 2023

Ending the need for food banks: Labour’s missing mission

Britain needs a bold, long-term plan to tackle the deepening hardship facing millions.

By Emma Revie and Paul Kissack

The Labour Party has a long tradition of policies that focus on rebalancing social inequalities – from its origins as a response to labour exploitation to founding the NHS and implementing the National Minimum Wage. It is a heritage that Keir Starmer looks to reflect in the proposed missions for a future Labour government. 

However, conspicuously absent from these proposals is a dedicated mission to address an issue which increasingly risks defining our own times: the rise of hunger and poverty in the UK. And yet bold and ambitious missions, such as improving the NHS and raising education standards – which are crucial – simply cannot be achieved without addressing the rise of hardship, and the impact this has on millions of families across the country. 

Increasingly, families on the lowest incomes are being forced to turn to food banks to get by. The number of parcels provided by the Trussell Trust network in 2022-23 was more than double (120 per cent higher than) the amount distributed five years ago. While the cost-of-living crisis and the pandemic have placed additional pressures on people’s incomes, these events alone have not caused this monumental increase: they have exposed and exacerbated the much longer-term effects of a broken social security net. 

Currently, 70 per cent of people who need to turn to a Trussell Trust food bank are in receipt of Universal Credit and 86 per cent are considered destitute. This means they can’t afford essentials such as food or heating, even when they are in receipt of the government’s main social security payment. 

This isn’t going unnoticed. The Trussell Trust’s 2022 public attitudes research revealed that the public are increasingly concerned about the hardship people are experiencing: 79 per cent of people named poverty as one of the most important issues facing the UK. Recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) found swing voters in so-called Red Wall seats are increasingly concerned about the levels of deep hardship they’re seeing in their communities, and that politicians aren’t taking the underlying causes of this hardship seriously.

Food banks are not a lasting solution to hunger and poverty, no matter how tirelessly food bank staff and volunteers work. Unless we address the underlying structural issues with our social security system, food banks will remain as much a fixture of our towns and cities as the parish halls and churches that often host them.

Our social security system isn’t simply an expense – it’s an investment. In one of the world’s largest economies, it should offer adequate support, to allow people to live with dignity and meet their basic needs. Yet over the last decade, social security has fallen increasingly short, with the real-terms value of payments reaching a 40-year low at the same time inflation hit a 40-year high, pushing people deeper into financial hardship. 

Analysis from our organisations shows that to afford even life’s essentials such as food and utilities, a single adult needs £120 a week. The standard allowance – the basic rate of Universal Credit, at £85 a week for a single adult – falls a substantial £35 short of protecting people from going without these essentials. This affects everyone receiving Universal Credit, as an inadequate basic rate puts pressure on other elements of support intended to help with additional costs associated with children or being disabled. 

Concerningly, almost half of households see their payments reduced even further as a result of a range of deductions and caps. Debt deductions, for example, can include repayments of debts to third parties, such as outstanding energy bills, but the majority of the amounts deducted relate to debt owed to the UK government: 60 per cent of people take out a loan from the Department for Work and Pensions when they first claim Universal Credit, often needed to help them get through the minimum five-week wait for the first payment. This leaves them repaying debts at often unaffordable rates right from the start of their claim. 

This is why the Trussell Trust and JRF have partnered on the Essentials Guarantee. This would enshrine – for the first time – a legally protected minimum level of support in our social security system, based on what is needed to cover essentials. An independent process would at least annually determine the level, based on the cost of essentials such as food, utilities and vital household goods. The standard allowance of Universal Credit would need to at least meet the Essentials Guarantee, and deductions would not be allowed to reduce support below that level. 

The Essentials Guarantee offers a bold policy to meet one of the central challenges of our times. It is a popular position across the political spectrum, with 72 per cent of the public stating that they support it. This included 82 per cent of 2019 Labour voters, 83 per cent of 2019 Liberal Democrat voters, and 62 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters. 

It is impossible to overstate the urgency and severity of the erosion of our social Advertorial In partnership with security system. In the absence of a proper safety net, problems that once might have just been a setback can become a paralysing blow. Being unable to afford the essentials erodes social connections, so vital to support people to find and take opportunities. 

Material hardship and the stress, fear and shame that go with it take a heavy toll on people’s mental and physical health. This undermines action to achieve Labour’s core ambitions on the economy and public services. Gaining good qualifications and securing work are made much harder when people can’t afford the essentials. The impacts of such hardship on people’s health create significant downstream costs to public services like the NHS. 

If Labour’s goal, as Keir Starmer states, is to “give Britain its future back” then it needs a bold, long-term plan to tackle the deepening hardship facing more and more people. The introduction of a policy like the Essentials Guarantee would be a significant step on the road to closing the doors of food banks, for good. It would be an investment in dignity, security and aspiration for the modern era.

[See also: An “essentials guarantee” can end the need for food banks]