The Labour lie about food banks – that their growth has been due to the callousness of the coalition government – is simple and has become familiar by the amount of airtime the BBC has given it over the past four years. Countering that message has been hard as the truth, as so often, is more complicated.
Anyone who has visited a food bank will have understood that most people who use them are coping with a short terms crisis.
Delays in receiving benefits are a huge cause of difficulties. Chris Mould, the Executive Director of the Trussell Trust has estimated that 44 per cent of food bank visits are due to delays of one kind or another.
This morning on this site, the Conservative MP John Glen, a member of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Hunger and Food Poverty, noted the Government has made progress in ensuring benefits are paid on time. The DWP can point to significant improvements: 92 per cent of claims are now processed on time (up from 86 per cent in 2009/10).
That is an important achievement for which Iain Duncan Smith deserves credit. But it is inherent in the system that there will be bureaucracy, inefficiency and inflexibility.
That is why the APPG’s Feeding Britain report about the huge challenge remaining is important.
So if fewer people are experiencing benefit delays are there other factors that still mean an increase in the number going hungry? Not according to polling for the OECD. That suggests the figure has fallen in the UK while the OECD average has increased.
Thus we are left with the conclusion that the growth in food banks does not mean more people need help. It means that more of those who need help are getting help.
Seldom do we hear Labour asked to apologise for their decision in 2008 – maintained by Yvette Cooper when she was Work and Pensions Secretary the following year – of banning Job Centres from referring claimants to food banks.
Was this because Labour wanted to suppress food bank use for propaganda purposes?
Perhaps. But I suspect more likely it just reflected the statist mentality. There was suspicion of independent initiative – even if was charitable rather than profit-making.
Quite understandably food banks rely seek evidence of real need before handing over the food parcel. A signed referral from the DWP would be one such example.Thus we had the grotesque situation that people were left hungry due to the DWP’s own administrative failings. Yet the DWP obstructed those trying to sort out the mess.
IDS lifted the ban – which the Trussell Trust welcomed. Localism has more been applied with the Social Fund having switched from the DWP to local councils – a year ago has probably helped. Some councils have made arrangements with food banks. Others – such as mine – have negotiated a substantial bulk discount on goods not available to individual customers. The average time for processing a Social Fund payment was 10-12 days now the average processing time is one day.
But while the Government should co-operate with charities – such as food banks – it should not be in charge. What worried me about the Feeding Britain was the implication that the Government should in some way take charge of the food banks. Nationalisation in this area would be just as disastrous as it has been elsewhere.
Then there was the recommendation in the report for increasing the minimum wage. (Incidentally the report cited with approval Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Given that they were apologists for Stalin this was deeply offensive whatever ones views on the minimum wage of the thinking of the Webbs on such a policy.)
The Government has decided to increase the minimum wage to £6.50 per hour. The report says it should be more. But what? £6.75? £7.00? £8.00? £10.00? £20.00? What would Jesus do? The Bishop of Truro won’t give us a figure. Presumably that is because he knows that if it is set too high that would mean more unemployment and make the problems that food banks cope with worse.
When it comes to subsidies for biofuels this report has highlighted a valid concern. It is absurd for supermarkets to be given an incentive by the taxpayer to burn food that is perfectly good (albeit passed some ludicrously risk averse sell by date) rather than donating it to charity.
Food banks are part of the Big Society. Those who donate to them and volunteer for them are local heroes. It is right for the state to collaborate with them. But it would be wrong to try and mount a takeover bid.