This week saw the publication of research on foodbank use in Britain conducted by the universities of Oxford and Chester, with the Trussell Trust. The report – entitled – #stillhungry – draws on four years’ referrals to West Cheshire Foodbank to provide an in-depth exploration of UK foodbank use. More specifically, the research explored additional detailed data collected about the reasons for referral and estimated duration of crises that prompted people to seek emergency food from the Trussell Trust, as well as exploring the personal characteristics of these individuals. Despite having a local focus, West Cheshire Foodbank is broadly representative of all Trussell Trust-run foodbanks, so this research contains valuable lessons about emergency food that are relevant across the UK.
The proliferation of research on emergency food emerging over the past few years has not been matched by a suitable policy response. Indeed, much of the debate over food poverty and use of emergency food has seen politicians deny the existence of food poverty and instead suggest that people seek such help because they spend irresponsibly or cannot cook. So what did our research find, and what sort of policy responses does it identify?
First, we found that the welfare safety net is not always adequate to provide protection against food poverty. Overall, 41 per cent of referrals to West Cheshire Foodbank reflected problems with benefits – either where benefits had been changed, payments had been delayed, or sanctions had been applied (see Figure 1). Issues with benefits also feature prominently across the wider Trussell Trust network. The increased stringency of work capability assessments means that many people with disabilities or health difficulties have been moved from Employment Support Allowance to Jobseeker’s Allowance, and greater support is clearly needed to help people adjust to the reduction in income this entails. It is also worrying that many sanctions are overturned on appeal – suggesting that the sanctioning process is not watertight, and raising concerns that vulnerable people are being inaccurately and unfairly targeted by an aggressive regime. Changes to the benefits system are therefore needed to ensure that people receive the correct benefits, on time, and are made known of the conditions of their claims to avoid being sanctioned. In this vein, the recommendations of the #stillhungry report included reducing the time taken to process and pay benefit claims, and ensuring that claimants fully understand the expectations upon them to reduce sanctions.
Second, people are increasingly being referred to foodbanks due to low incomes. In May 2014, low incomes accounted for 29 referrals to West Cheshire Foodbank, rising to 61 referrals in April 2016. The underlying reasons for this are however difficult to define, and are likely to reflect both low earnings, and the falling value of benefit payments. Low incomes are especially problematic given ongoing rises in household expenses. The cost of food rose by 12 per cent between 2007 and 2012 and increased costs of fuel, water, and transport have exerted further pressure on household budgets. These multiple pressures on household finances were recognised in recommendations made by the All-Party Parliamentary inquiry into hunger in the United Kingdom, including particular attention on utility costs. In #stillhungry, we also recommended that employers pay wages set by the Living Wage Foundation, and ensuring that welfare payments are sufficient for an acceptable standard of living.
Third, we found that the longest income crises were due to benefit sanctions and debt. Overall, 13 per cent of referrals due to sanctions were expected to last 13 weeks or longer, while 10 per cent of referrals due to debt were predicted to last this long (see Figure 2). Encouragingly, we found that sanctions became less prevalent as a reason for referrals over time. Long-term hardship was also triggered by debt, reinforcing calls to reconsider how high household expenses can be addressed and prompting calls for better regulation of creditors.
The well-publicised rise in emergency food and the increased visibility of UK food poverty has not yet received an appropriate policy response. This is not due to lack of evidence: a proliferation of research on food poverty – most recently the #stillhungry report – and the establishment of the all-party parliamentary enquiry into hunger in the UK have gathered a huge amount of information on the causes and consequences of food poverty. Yet national Government has taken no responsibility for tackling this problem. Some local authorities are using the devolved social fund to support foodbanks, and while this is likely to reduce immediate financial pressures on foodbanks, it is clearly an inadequate and short-term solution to a persistent and growing problem. Until concerted efforts are made across national Government departments, we are unlikely to see a concerted long-term reduction in the food poverty that prompts hungry people to seek help from foodbanks.