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Poor outlook

Keith Savage on the shame of food banks

The Trussell Trust has set a target to establish a food bank in every major British town. This is hardly something that you would really want to see achieved – in the sense that it is a shameful measurement of the dismantling of the welfare state.

According to the Trust there are already 250 food banks feeding over 125,000 people a year – a number that doubled in the last year. Even the free newspaper the Metro – which is hardly radical – ran a recent front page banner headline in its Manchester edition entitled Third World Britain, over a report about the work of food banks in the north west. To quote: ‘one woman walked a round trip of almost 20 miles through torrential rain to collect rations, while another, who had not eaten for two days, slogged 12 miles on foot despite suffering from rheumatoid arthritis'.

This is emotional stuff and rightly makes us angry. The fact is, however, that things are set to get worse and it may well be that food banks will multiply along with the high street charity shops.

In Derbyshire's High Peak a food bank was established a year ago. It is part of work done by a broader charity Nightstop, which was established to support and befriend the young, single homeless in the community. In some cases young people are offered a room in a local home by supporters of the charity. There have been instances of young people establishing temporary shelters in local woodland.

Nightstop is a national network of over 40 organisations, some of which have existed for around 20 years. In 2011 over 9,000 nights of accommodation were provided by volunteers to over 3,000 young people. In the High Peak, distribution of food to the young and homeless was a natural extension of the charity's work. However, It soon became evident that other sections of the community were going without food.

In some cases the withdrawal or suspension of benefits has left families without money, and there have been instances of Job Centre staff giving written notice of benefits being withdrawn along with a Food Bank voucher – ‘because they can help you out if you can't buy food'.

It was always envisaged that the collection and distribution of food would meet short-term crises – perhaps of a few days duration – whilst people waited for their next income. Recent changes to the sanctions applied to those failing to meet Job Seekers Allowance requirements can now expect to see benefits withdrawn for up to three years. With George Osborne's Autumn statement essentially cutting the value of benefits for each of the next three years, with further changes in the pipeline - such as the abolition of council tax benefit - on top of escalating fuel prices and a decline in social housing availability, the picture for those on low incomes appears grim.

As benefits staff are having to get tougher with claimants – by withdrawing money – so their own training for welfare reform is premised on the assumption that the unemployed are simply lazy and therefore deserving of harsh treatment. The ‘reforms' are designed to be remedial and are presented as a means of getting the voluntarily idle back to work. The notion that persistent long-term unemployment represents a political choice made by the government, and failure within the global economy, is not presented to those, unsurprisingly, on the unemployment frontline.

There is plenty of evidence showing that far from being happily idle there are many that are underemployed – working part-time hours for minimum pay rates. A recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) argues that poverty amongst those in work or underemployed is a growing issue.

Labour's recent attention to poverty amongst the working population – highlighting the fact that many of the benefit changes will reduce the incomes of those in work – is welcome. According to the JRF's Report:

  • 6.1 million of those who reside in working households are in poverty. Excluding pensioners, this is higher than the 5.1 million people in workless households in poverty.
  • Underemployment stands at 6.5 million. The number working part-time but wanting full-time work is now 1.4 million, up by 500,000 since 2009. A willingness among workers to do fewer hours is keeping unemployment in check.
  • The number of working families receiving working tax credits - payments to top up wages – has risen by 50 per cent since 2003, to 3.3 million in 2012.
  • 4.4 million jobs pay less than £7 per hour. Low paid work is common among hotels and restaurants, IT, finance and services, and wholesale, retail and transport jobs.

Julia Unwin, Chief Executive of JRF, said: "The most distinctive characteristic of poverty today is the very high number of working people who are also poor. Tackling poverty requires a comprehensive strategy, but overcoming the frail jobs market must be the starting point."

Meanwhile Charles Jolly of High Peak Nightstop observes that the charity is working “to cover up for the consequences of decisions made by George Osborne. Something we shouldn't have to do – but neither can we not do it”.

This article was tragically truncated in the print edition. The final thirteen words can be read here. Apologies to Keith and all our readers.