The Labour Party talks a lot about the increase in the number of Foodbanks, stressing them as proof that under the Conservative-led Government the poor have got poorer. Usually there is a further implication that this is because Conservatives don’t care – or are actively antagonistic towards the poor. The alternative explanation – that the need was always there, but that more of it is being met as more foodbanks have opened, is dismissed.
The Labour narrative relies mainly on emotion – but to the extent that evidence comes into the equation it takes a jolt with the latest edition of the OECD social indicators. In 2007 and 2012 they commissioned Gallup World to provide survey which included this question:
Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?
In 2007 there were 9.8 per cent in the UK who said there had been. In 2012 that figure had fallen to 8.1 per cent. In many other countries the figure rose – the OECD average saw an increase from 11.2 per cent to 13.2 per cent.
In France more than twice as many rely on foodbanks than do in the UK. The Trussell Trust runs 400 foodbanks and provides 2,500 tons of food. They certainly don’t run all the foodbanks in the UK but they probably run most of them. In France it’s 100,000 tons from over 2,000 foodbanks. Is that because the Socialist Government there does not care about the poor? Difficult to see how this fits Labour’s narrative.
There will be all sorts of reasons why people with little financial margin face emergencies. One of them is bureaucratic delays in paying benefits. The latest figures show the number of benefits processed on time is up six percentage points from the 2009/10 level to 92 per cent.
Charities and churches will always be more flexible and responsive than the state when it comes to helping those in need. However, the decision to apply localism to the Social Fund – from the DWP to local councils – a year ago has probably helped.
In my borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, the Local Support Payment scheme has so far paid out £426,245 in goods and services to the borough’s most vulnerable customers. The decision to award goods and services rather than cash has meant the Council has been able to negotiate a substantial bulk discount on goods not available to individual customers and claim back the VAT paid on many items – the savings made will be re-invested back into the scheme.
Some of the concerns raised about the previous Social Fund scheme from advice agencies, was the time taken to process claims and the lack of support given to those refused assistance. The average time for processing a Social Fund payment was 10-12 days; under LSP the average processing time is one day.
Those who are refused a LSP are given advice on alternative forms of assistance within the community such as charities, discretionary schemes run by energy companies, and Credit Unions: £60,000 from the scheme has been allocated to London Plus Credit Union to assist those Hammersmith and Fulham customers who are not entitled to LSP, with interest free loans. Those appealing to the DWP over benefit decisions are eligible for LSP assistance – they were not eligible for help under the previous regime.
By all means let the churches and the charities offer constructive advice to the Government about reducing what remains a huge problem. But they should start by being honest and acknowledging the important progress that is being made.