According to the BBC, which appears to have interviewed someone from the Trussell Trust, the reasons for the increased use of foodbanks are rising food and utility bills, job loss and less disposable income, and greater awareness of foodbanks. Hmm. These last two look suspicious to me. Money required for essential food isn't "disposable income", really - but if you know that there is a foodbank that will provide you with food if you're so skint you can't feed your kids, you just might maintain or increase your spending on less important things, mightn't you? Or am I being too cynical?
But what is much more interesting is the Guardian's report. This identifies two main causes for the increased use of foodbanks:
- the dire state of youth employment, coupled with high rent costs. 16% of those seeking emergency assistance from foodbanks are aged 16-24. Interestingly, the BBC failed to report these figures but did have an interview with a 23-year-old who was having to choose between rent and food. I suppose they went for the human angle rather than hard facts.
- the abject failure of the DWP bureaucracy to make benefit payments on time or correctly.
Now, I've been writing recently about youth unemployment. There is no doubt that we do have high levels of youth unemployment in the UK: the headline figures are bad enough, but they are "massaged downwards" by excluding young people who are doing short-term and/or part-time work, and all those who are working as volunteers or unpaid interns to gain experience as a gateway to a career. But there seems to be an assumption on the part of governments not only here but across the EU that parents will support their 18-25 year-old children. The UK government is proposing to withdraw housing benefit from under-25s, presumably in the belief that they can just stay with Mum and Dad. How they are supposed to do this while making themselves available for work anywhere in the UK is beyond me. And what about those youngsters whose parents have died, or separated, or moved abroad, or simply don't want them there? What about those who have been thrown out of the care system? Really the Government hasn't thought this through. If they go ahead with this measure far more young people will be using food banks (or sleeping in doorways).
But the best bit of this, without doubt, is the DWP incompetence angle. Now, I'm not blind to the Guardian's political sympathies, and it occurred to me that the reporters could be using this as an opportunity to bash the Government, so I checked the Trussell Trust's website. In the notes to their press release on the increased use of foodbanks, we find this:
The two main reasons that people were referred to foodbanks in 2011-12 were benefit delay and low income.
So the Guardian is right, it seems - and the BBC is wrong. Benefit delay is a major issue. The DWP has some explaining to do.
Actually DWP incompetence has been a running sore for a long time now. They simply don't seem to be able to cope with the instability of people's lives - an instability to which the Government is contributing by changing the eligibility criteria for benefits. Chris Mould of the Trussell Trust is in my view absolutely right to call them out on the dreadful effect that late payment of benefits can have on people's lives. People who are dependent on benefits for basic living expenses cannot tolerate bureacratic inefficiency or incompetence that leaves them without money for extended periods of time. They end up in arrears with essential bills, they may lose a place to live, they may even end up unable to feed or warm themselves. And we are not talking about the elderly here: the Trussell Trust make it clear that the elderly are not a large proportion of claimants at the moment. We are talking about working-age people who for whatever reason are unable to find enough work to support themselves and their families.
The DWP's response to the Trussell Trust's criticsm is mealy-mouthed. No apology for their inefficiency. No promises to improve the timeliness and accuracy of their claim processing. The tone of their response suggests that they think 80% of claims being turned round within 16 days is good. No it isn't, it's awful. That is one in five claims taking more than three weeks to turn round - and during that time the claimants receive nothing. Not a bean. No wonder the food banks are busy.
The DWP then blame the previous Government for their CURRENT inefficiency. You know, the Government that was voted out of office in 2010? I am getting more than sick of the propensity of the current Government to blame the last one for anything and everything that is found to be wrong now. They've had over two years. Even if it was a mess when they took over, they should at least have started to fix it by now. That they clearly haven't - in fact they appear to be making things worse - is down to THEM, not the previous lot.
But worst of all, the DWP try to change the argument. The issue raised by the Trussell Trust is the DWP's demonstrable inability to run a large and complex social benefits system effectively. But the DWP claim that the reforms the government is making to the benefits system will make it more effective. Words fail me. Bureaucratic inefficiency is bureaucratic inefficiency, whatever system you adopt. Changing what the system does won't necessarily make it work any better.
I'm not questioning here whether the Government's reforms of the benefits system are a good idea, although I do have serious reservations about them. I'm questioning their statement that those reforms will make the system more effective. Because unless the Government addresses the DWP's sclerotic processes and procedures, the reforms will make matters worse, not better. We can expect to see many, many more cold and hungry people waiting weeks and weeks for legitimate benefit claims to be met. And that, in a supposedly civilised society, is a disgrace.