It is often the little things that, in the final instance, make people visit food banks. Earlier in the year, at two food banks in London, I spoke to several people who explained why they had sought help. Mohamed’s electricity had been cut off, meaning that he couldn’t charge his phone, leaving him unable to receive messages from the job centre, which docked him four weeks of jobseeker’s allowance for missing his appointment. Jack, a driver, had taken a small loan to renew his car tax, but when tax credits weren’t paid as planned, he missed a debt payment and his liabilities rose. Natalie had found a part-time job but there was a three-week gap between some of her benefits stopping and her receiving that first pay cheque.
In February, I wrote about the increase in the use of food banks. This is a charged issue, not only because of the origin of the lad on the front page of the Daily Mirror.
Charities such as the Trussell Trust argue that more people are receiving food parcels because more people need food. Demand is up, they say, partly due to specific changes to the benefits system made by the coalition government.
The Department for Work and Pensions says the increase is about supply rather than demand. It argues, for instance, that there are many more food banks than there were five years ago and points out that if things are free then people will want them. Media coverage about the issue might also have raised would-be users’ awareness.
On Wednesday, the Trussell Trust released data for the financial year 2013/14.
The rise in demand for food banks is partly related to changes to the benefits system. One of these changes is the toughening of sanctions faced by people who fail to meet one of the conditions for receipt of Jobseeker’s Allowance (a benefit for the unemployed) or Employment and Support Allowance (a benefit for the inactive). Sanctions are a necessary part of any welfare-to-work system but as currently designed they are leading to unnecessary suffering in return for no obvious benefit.
In the year from September 2012 – October 2013, 874,850 sanctions were applied to JSA claimants, a 16 per cent increase from the previous year, and more than double from five years previously. This could have reflected rising numbers of JSA claimants after the recession. But on Monday, a report released by Policy Exchange, a centre-right think tank not renowned for its love of cushy welfare, suggests that a growing share of sanctions are also issued in error.
David Cameron, prime minister, has described his government’s “welfare” reforms as a “moral mission”. I support much of what the coalition is trying to do; for example, the effective marginal tax rate for people such as Natalie should come down under Universal Credit. (It could also have come down without a massive project but that is for another post.) Any government taking power in 2010 would have had to cut the social security budget.
But the government’s haughty self-righteousness is risible in the face of evidence of unnecessary suffering. The rhetoric around benefits and the millions who receive them is already toxic. We could do without the idea that pointing out problems is somehow treacherous. If you look at what the Christian leaders are saying, as this atheist has, they are careful to focus on the practical consequences of specific decisions. There was only one side talking the language of crusade last week and it was not the ones whose job it is to promote the idea of ascension. Read more