Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Food Bank Controversy ...

Food Banks are much in the news at present, and are something of a 'hot' topic in many people's minds. The reason is not hard to find, we are bombarded with news items about the 'rising number' of Food Banks, and the need for them. Add in a liberal mix of politicians all trying to make political capital, abuse of statistics in the media and you have a ready made subject to 'prove' that poverty is on the rise. Recently a friend and former colleague who happens to be legally qualified and does voluntary work for a number of charities who work with those in need, on benefits or in low-paid employment. He had some very interesting things to say about the misrepresentation of the figures on Food Banks, and pointed me to a website which provides even more interesting information. 

The Trussel Trust is a major provider of food banks, and there website has a range of very accessible and readable statistics. According to their figures they have provided 913,138 people with 'emergency food supplies' sufficient for three days. Note that the numbers are for 'people' NOT 'families', and one more point of note in this is that each time a person returns, that person is counted as a 'new' customer. My friend informs me that this is further complicated by the fact that the referring charities hand out the food bank vouchers to individuals, NOT families, so a single adult applying and qualifying will receive one voucher, a second for a partner and another for each child. And they will receive the same number each time they reapply. Thus, someone who comes in say every fortnight and receives five food bank chitties is going to appear in the statistics as 26 times 5 people - 130 people in the years statistics.

Of course, not everyone does that, and the suggestion from the participating charities figures is that probably fully two-thirds of those in receipt of this assistance don't. The second half of this is, of course, to put the numbers into a proper perspective. As I said earlier, we are talking individual people NOT 'families'. Next we must look at it against total population in the UK, and we find that even with the 'repeat users' it is still actually quite a small percentage of the population. 

The Trust keeps a record of why people are drawing on the Food Banks, and now we find really interesting statistics on why people are 'in need'. The top three, in order, are -

1. Delayed Benefits
2. Low Income
3. Benefit Changes.

The fourth is equally interesting. It is listed as 'Other', but this includes those who persist in believing there is a horse somewhere, that will make them rich. Unsurprisingly, Debt and Unemployment come next, with Homelessness, Domestic Violence, and Sickness in that order. Certainly, in our society, the top three may be addressable, and numbers five, six and seven should be. 

Sadly, there is little one can really do about those who spend their wages (and family's domestic subsistence) in the local betting shop, short of shutting such premises altogether. However, we need, once again, to look at this in a balanced manner. Once again, the news papers and the 'word on the street' has been somewhat misleading. What it has failed to mention when reproting the 'increase in reliance on food banks' is that there has been a change in the way certain 'Benefits' were dealt with. 

'Benefit' is probably the wrong word to describe what used to be called a 'Crisis Loan' which was issued by a Local Authority and was supposed to 'tide a family over' a temporary shortfall in income. As of 1st April 2013, a change in the law switched off these funds, but switched it to an alternative system. Crisis Loans had to be repaid, which meant that ultimately all you were doing was deferring the crunch. Under the new system most Local Authorities issue 'Food Vouchers' which are redeemable at a Food Bank and give three days worth of food. These are not 'means tested' so anyone can, in an emergency, qualify. Naturally, those who would and could benefit most are the elderly, young folk struggling to get started, the homeless and the sick. 

We must also look at the sudden increase in the number of these food banks. Once again, it goes back to the changed legislation. The rise in the use of the food banks directly correlates to the rise in the number of these facilities. Did they increase due to demand, or did usage increase due to availability. It would seem to be a bit of both, not least due to the removal of a 'cash loan' system and its replacement with the vouchers redeemable only in food. As my friend put it, the loans had to be repaid, and there was no guarantee that the money handed out wouldn't wind up attached to a betting slip in the local bookmakers. Now, at least, those who receive the vouchers, get food on the table. 

Yes, it is a great shame that we need them, but the fact is we do. Almost 70 years of political meddling to 'lift people out of poverty' haven't achieved it, nor are they likely to. Human nature is, by nature, inclined to certain behaviours, and some of those tend to drive people toward poverty. So we have food banks, and more food banks are being opened, but it doesn't mean more people are 'falling into poverty' because the usage is increasing. Changes to the benefit of 'Emergency Loans' mean food vouchers, not money for the betting shop or the pub. 

Unfortunately, the stigmatising of Food Banks by the ignorant is putting off many who should be making use of them. That is something that concerns my friend very deeply - to the point it makes him extremely angry when he encounters those he considers 'numpties' who are grinding ideological axes founded on complete ignorance of the subject. As my friend wrote to me - 
Finally with all the do gooders shaking their heads in disgust at the foodbank, they have by default made them unavailable to many folks who wont accept the vouchers (my experience), because there is a now a stigma about them, thanks to all the best meant criticisms. Many are too proud to be seen going to them. They are usually the proud OAPS and genuinely most needy.
Yes, it's sad we need them, but they, like many things in life, are a necessary evil, and I plead with everyone to be careful when ranting about them that they don't by accident stigmatise them and the people who need them.
And the next person I hear using foodbanks as a cheap political point scoring tool “wull get their heed pood aff”

For those who don't speak Glaswegian, that bit in parenthesis translates as - "will get their head pulled off". In my view, they will deserve it.

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