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General Election 2015


Foodbank usage has increased dramatically under the coalition but will Labour’s five point plan address the growing trend?

(6 May 2015)

Dr Kayleigh Garthwaite (Geography) provides the facts behind the increase in people using foodbanks in the UK and assesses the Labour Party’s plans to reduce the numbers dependant on foodbanks.

At the end of last month, Trussell Trust released their latest statistics on foodbank use. Their data shows that for the first time, UK foodbank use has topped 1 million. 1,084,604 people - including 396,997 children – received three days’ food from the Trussell Trust’s network of over 400 foodbanks in 2014/15, compared with 913,138 in the 2013/14 financial year, an increase of 19 percent.

Whilst problems with benefits remain the largest driver of foodbank use, there has been an increase in numbers referred due to low income in the last year. Benefit delays and changes have proportionately decreased from 48% to 44%, whilst referrals to foodbanks due to sickness, homelessness, delayed wages and unemployment have marginally increased.

Labour’s five point plan

Building on the party’s manifesto, which details the party’s plans to scrap the bedroom tax, ban ‘exploitative’ zero hours contracts, and increase the minimum wage, Rachel Reeves MP and Maria Eagle MP outlined Labour’s five point plan for ‘reducing foodbank dependency’.

Their first point relates to tackling low pay. Labour has pledged to raise the minimum wage to at least £8 an hour before 2020 and to end exploitative zero-hours contracts – both key reasons why people need to use foodbanks.

Their second point relates to ensuring there is a co-ordinated and effective approach to food policy in government, suggesting they will have a minister responsible for ‘tackling foodbank dependency’. This point is crucial if the drivers of foodbank use are to be addressed effectively.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly given that Trussell Trust data shows how 44% of foodbank referrals are due to benefits delays and changes, Reeves and Eagle state they will get ‘a grip on benefit payments delays, including Jobseekers Allowance, and Personal Independence Payments which have led to rising reliance on foodbanks’ - another welcome move.

The fourth point in their plan relates to abolishing Jobcentre benefit sanctions, specifically providing more support to ensure people with mental health issues, carers, pregnant women and people at risk of domestic violence are protected. Our research in a Trussell Trust foodbank in Stockton-on-Tees has found that the current sanctions regime aggravates people’s ill health, and is a particular problem for people with mental health conditions. Sanctions led to the loss of people’s only source of income, resulting in sanctioned benefits recipients often going without sufficient food or energy required to maintain good health or recover from illness.

Finally, Labour have been vocal in their intention to scrap ‘the cruel and unfair Bedroom Tax’ which has hit over half a million people, two thirds of them disabled, pushing families into debt and through the doors of foodbanks.

Tackling rising foodbank use

Labour’s intentions to address the current sanctions system, alongside tackling low pay and benefits delays, should all go some way to addressing the root causes of foodbank use. But it is also crucial to remember that people who use foodbanks are often dealing with multiple and complex issues, including ill health and how that relates to health inequalities. Trussell Trust data shows that foodbank referrals due to sickness have risen in the past year. Alongside this, people living on a low income face further difficulties in sourcing a healthy diet. Recent years have seen the rising inflation of food, fuel and living costs which has translated into people cutting back on fresh fruit and vegetables and instead buying cheap, sweet, fatty, salty, processed foods, resulting in worse diets and contributing to the rising rates of obesity, diabetes, and other dietary-related diseases - thus worsening pre-existing inequalities.

Foodbank use is rising due to necessity, not demand for ‘a free good’ as Lord Freud, Conservative minister for welfare reform, suggested. Our research shows that foodbank users are likely to be living with fairly long term financial problems, arising from low waged work, accumulation of debt, and living in areas of multiple deprivation, all of which can lead to difficulties in sourcing affordable and healthy food. Only an integrated approach which looks at the drivers of food poverty and insecurity, taking into account the complex reasons why people are turning to foodbanks, can begin to tackle rising foodbank use in the UK.