By Harry Phibbs
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The Labour Party have been keen to make political capital over the increase in the number of people using Foodbanks.
Labour's response crass for various reasons. Foodbanks were already expanding under the Labour Government. Most of those that use foodbanks are in a short term crisis.
The need for foodbanks isn't new – but more of them mean that more is being done to meet that need and to help people going through a bad time.
As I have written before this doesn't mean that general economic conditions are irrelevant. Increases in the price of food and energy have been above inflation – it is these price rises which hit the poor hardest. Politicians concerned about the poor should consider what can be done about this. While the Government can be proud of tax cuts for the low paid – that doesn't mean it is enough. The tax cuts may well be more than offset by higher costs for eating or heating.
I visited the foodbank in my borough recently. (It was the one which had earlier been visited by Ed Miliband.)
I discussed ensuring the council issued vouchers for those who needed them – for example those waiting for a benefits payment to come through. I suppose if my efforts are effective then more people will use the Hammersmiith and Fulham Foodbank and the Labour Party will say this of evidnce of increased poverty due to the uncaring Tories.
The Labour Party have got a particular nerve on this subject as the Labour Government banned Job Centre staff from being able to issue Foodbank vouchers. This ban was ended by Iain Duncan Smith. We have yet to hear an apology from Mr Duncan Smith's Labour predecessor as Work and Pensions Secretary Yvette Cooper. Nor from her predecessor James Purnell or Peter Hain.
I spoke about this to Chris Mould, Executive Chairman of the Trussell Trust the organisation behind the foodbanks network.
In the early days of foodbanks we had local arrangements with Job Centres.
The ban on Department of Work and Pensions staff from issuing vouchers came in just before Christmas in 2008. It meant extra hassle and extra obstacle for those getting help. They could still get hold of vouchers from other places like Citizens Advice Bureaus but it was harder for them.
The reason for the ban given was equity. The DWP said that as there wasn't a foodbank everywhere they wouldn't refer anyone to a foodbank as we didn't have one in every town. On the same basis they stopped giving details of Salvation Army hostels. They also said it wasn't there job to help people as they were an eligibility service not a social service. But they were the ones responsible who made the decisions. They knew if someone's benefit was being delayed.
It was a disagreement we had with the Labour Government. We thought it was just plain good sense to issue a voucher if it was needed.
We had a campaign against the ban. It was very, very helpful to us that Iain Duncan Smith lifted the ban even though it was against the wishes of officials in the DWP.
However efficient the DWP might say they are it is giving out benefits remember they have 22 million people. Just a fraction of one per ceent not getting paid means thousands of people who need to be fed.
Delay with benefits isn't the only problem. There could be a family able a tight budget who are able to manage – except if the washing machine breaks down, or the care breaks down and they can't go to work. There could be problems with loan sharks. But Mr Mould says that delays with benefits of one kind or another account for 44% of the foodbank visits.
From this April the responsibility to provide this emergency financial help for such cases is being localised. The Social Fund will be abolished and the funding for this element of it given to councils. It will not be ring fenced. They will have flexibility.
This has caused some anxiety. It will be in their interests to be as effective as possible. If people are made homeless as they can't pay the rent, due to a financial emergency, it is the local council that has to deal with it. Similarly if the crisis puts the care of children at risk.
A DWP spokesman said:
"We’re reforming the Social Fund because it is complex, over-centralised and poorly targeted, and replacing it with local provision to ensure this money goes to those most in need.
“We will transfer the current annual funding for crisis loans and community care grants to local authorities and the devolved administrations. They will receive the full programme budget of £178.2 million a year in addition to administration and start-up costs of our over £72 million which represents a fair settlement.”
This is a chance for councils to use their local knowledge, to be fleixble and innovative. To link up help for those in crisis with what they and local charities are already providing. Some are already planning to provide premises or funding for foodbanks. In Hammersmith and Fulham we are our tri-borough colleagues have been in tocuh with the Trussell Trust to discuss the most effective way of using our scarce resources.
Councils who have had to pick up the consequences of delay by the DWP now have an opportunity to show they can do a better job.
They can hardly do worse than the mentality shown by Miss Cooper.