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The Policy Ask with Emma Revie: “The national housing crisis is driving food bank need”

The chief executive of the Trussell Trust on the effects of the pandemic, social security and the shortage of homes.

By Spotlight

Emma Revie is the chief executive of the Trussell Trust charity, which operates more than 1,300 food banks across the country. Nearly three million emergency food parcels were distributed by Trussell Trust food banks in the 12 months between last April and March 2023. Revie was appointed to her role in 2017, after previously leading the youth charity Ambition (which was later merged with the bigger UK Youth organisation). 

How do you start your working day?

I like to wake up early so that I can have a bit of time reading the news and getting my thoughts together before the rest of the house awakes and the day gets going. Then, come rain or shine, it’s off out for a walk with the two dogs.

What has been your career high?

During the pandemic, despite facing impossible challenges, our network of food banks was determined to continue supporting people facing hunger. They kept going right through the lockdowns and worked tirelessly to provide emergency food and support in local communities up and down the UK. I am in awe of them and what they did then and continue to do today and it is the greatest privilege of my career to get to work with them.

What has been the most challenging moment of your career?

The first weeks of the pandemic saw all our greatest fears arrive at once; we saw a huge spike in need for support from food banks, food disappeared from supermarkets, referral agencies closed, many of our older volunteers had to shield, food bank premises were too small for social distancing and it goes on and on… it was very tough. But then partners and supporters stepped forward to volunteer, pledge food, donate funds and food banks found innovative ways to adapt their services overnight. It was such a challenging time but so inspiring to see people move mountains to help one another.

If you could give your younger self career advice, what would it be?

I would tell “younger me” something that gives “older me” a lot of comfort, when things feel difficult or overwhelming: that “this too will pass”.

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I would also tell myself to hold on to the truth that something is only impossible until it is done, so never underestimate what people can achieve together.

[See also: Food waste is a cost-of-living problem as well as a climate problem]

Which political figure inspires you?

Rather than political, I’d say one of my oldest friends, Sarah Chapman, who set up the Wandsworth food bank near where I live more than ten years ago, and still helps run it today. When I think about what community could and should be, I always think of her. 

What UK policy or fund is the government getting right?

The Household Support Fund has been vital in providing crisis support to people locally. We know cash-first solutions work best, where people in financial crisis are provided with money to buy their own essentials rather than having to turn to a food bank – it’s also a more effective and dignified response. A long-term commitment to this fund would go a long way to ensuring local authorities can use it most effectively to support those people who need it most.

And what policy should the UK government scrap?

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) can currently make deductions from people’s regular social security payments for the repayment of debts – such as to repay loans people have had to take to cover the five-week wait for their first Universal Credit payment, or to recover historic overpayments. This policy can make things really tough for families who are already struggling to manage tight budgets and creates a cycle of debt that is difficult to escape. Reforming deductions, with a focus on reducing the total amount that can be deducted and ensuring repayment options are affordable, would significantly reduce levels of need at food banks.

What upcoming policy or law are you most looking forward to?

We are very keen to see progress on the Renters Reform Bill and an end to Section 21 “no fault” evictions. Being evicted from the place you call home is a hugely dislocating and expensive experience and the national housing crisis is a huge driver of food bank need. Currently one in three people referred to food banks in our network have experienced homelessness and 68 per cent are renting. That’s why we’re keen to see more done to improve security, as well as standards and affordability, in the private rented sector.

What piece of international government policy could the UK learn from?

We know there are countries where social security is more explicitly focused on ensuring that people’s basic living costs are covered – something that would have a significant impact on reducing food bank need in the UK. Recent reforms in New Zealand resulted in an increase in benefit rates that considered the actual cost of essentials such as food, clothing, rent and utilities. Additionally, Japan’s Public Assistance focuses on topping up household income to a minimum living standard if it falls short.

If you could pass one law this year, what would it be?

If we are to end the need for food banks for good, we need to see our social security system as a vital piece of social infrastructure and an investment in our country. That’s why we’re pressing the government for an “Essentials Guarantee”, to make sure the basic rate of Universal Credit is at least enough to afford the essentials we all need such as food, household bills and travel costs. We all need peace of mind that no matter what happens to us – whether we lose our job, become unwell, or face a family tragedy – we will be protected.

[See also: Leasehold is the ultimate symbol of our broken economic model]

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