Last week, details of a secret study launched by Tory ministers to investigate the rising demand for food banks in Britain were published by the Guardian.
Headed by the Department for Work and Pensions, the plan outlines a research proposal to investigate the “factors driving the use of food banks”, for which funding has already been approved. Objectives of the plan include an estimation of the extent of food aid provided by food banks as well as an assessment of the policies, actions and economic factors that have influenced the increase in food bank usage, with the final report to be published in August 2019.
Over the past five years, Tory ministers have refused to accept that welfare reform changes, particularly the introduction of universal credit, have been directly linked to the increase in food bank reliance and food poverty across the country. So, does this leaked report finally mark a realisation that food bank reliance is a direct consequence of austerity-inducing welfare reforms?
The Trussell Trust, which runs the UK foodbank network with over 4000 foodbanks nationwide, has repeatedly emphasised the link between universal credit and rising food bank usages in several reports since 2017. They cite poor administration and delays in payment for an increased reliance on the third sector.
Universal credit has also led to food bank projects reporting a 52% usage increase in the 12 months after the benefit scheme was rolled out by the government. Research carried out in March shows that only 8% of claimants said the universal credit payment covered their cost of living. It is already crystal clear to many individuals and politicians that the policy of austerity and foodbank usage are inextricably linked.
The Trussell Trust also note that it is families who have been hit the hardest by austerity. The increased austerity plan in 2015 under George Osborne cut both child tax credits and the first child premium, meaning families are bearing the brunt of this crisis.
The strain on families becomes even more apparent in the month of August, where the six-week school break also marks an absence of free school meals – putting three million children at risk of hunger. More than 428 holiday clubs across the UK will be providing free meals and activities for children who might otherwise go hungry, as reported by the all-party parliamentary group on hunger and food poverty.
As food bank usage spikes drastically over this period, the lack of government support to address this pandemic of holiday hunger is shocking, particularly when placed in comparison with the US where a holiday meal programme has been in place for over 40 years.
In March, the Department for Education announced £2 million in funding to support disadvantaged families during the school holidays. Whilst this appears to be a step in the right direction, the funding falls far short of achieving nationwide change. After all, Glasgow City Council alone had to invest £2 million in their holiday programme. This is in one city, for one summer.
It is clear that the scale of deprivation across Britain has been underestimated, proving the necessity of in-depth food poverty research.
Birkenhead Labour MP Frank Fields proposed a school holidays bill in September 2017 to pilot free meals and activities during the school holidays in areas of high socioeconomic deprivation. The bill was withdrawn as the government agreed to look into the issue further, yet still it remains the case that most services are provided by voluntary groups and are sporadic at best, with just 50% of the schemes running through the whole of the holiday period.
Emma Lewell-Buck, Labour MP for South Shields and member of the APPG hunger group, is another MP questioning the politics surrounding food banks. In an interview with the Guardian, Lewell-Buck explained: “Never before have you had people in work, working for their poverty… austerity measures [are] leading people to levels of poverty, even those in work, that we’ve never experienced before.”
Lewell-Buck called for a food insecurity bill in November 2017 to record the statistics of people who went hungry due to their financial situation. The bill, which will have its second reading in November, recommends a much broader definition of food poverty by measuring more than just food bank usage alone, highlighting an obvious shortcoming of the proposed DWP research.
Finding evidence of a link between austerity politics, universal credit and food bank dependency will not prove difficult given the wealth of politicians, volunteers and charities already arguing their case. Whilst this much needed research will confirm what many already know, it is hoped the plan will make ministers comprehend just how many people are suffocating under the weight of austerity Britain.
Perhaps the Government can then begin to tackle the breadth and complexities of food poverty before food bank reliance becomes a permanent feature of our society.