Sunday, 10 February 2013

Foodbanks are a waste of time

Bear with me for a minute, before you get all angry.

A Hypothetical Scenario
Imagine, if you will, that your local counil had, as a cost cutting excercise, suddenly reduced the number of ambulances by 80%, resulting in many people not being able to get to hospital, or arriving in a much worse condition than might otherwise have been the case.

Would you and your neighbours get together and organise your own ad-hoc ambulance service, maybe using Dave's Ford Galaxy from up the road? Perhaps a fundraiser to cover expenses? And a rota of volunteers?

Or would you get really angry and challenge the council very strongly on why it was not performing its duty effectively? And to ask where, exactly, your taxes were going as they didn't seem to be going on provding services?

Or perhaps both of the above?

A Very Real Situation Right Now
The current economic downturn, combined with severe cuts in public services have put many people in dire economic need, and the general public has responded to this by forming foodbanks to provide the support that the state seems unwilling, or unable, to.

According to the Trussell Trust, who support the largest network of foodbanks in the UK, the number of people fed by the foodbanks in their network has grown as follows:

2005-06 : 2,814
2007-08 : 13,849
2009-10 : 40,898
2011-12 : 128,697

Typcially foodbanks will help a variety of people such as those who have had chnages in their benefits leaving them without money for a period of time, or asylum seekers who have "fallen through the cracks" during their appeal process and are destitute, or families who have had sudden expences to deal with.

It’s worth taking a moment to hear the testimonies of some of the people these foodbanks aim to support, with the following coming from the Trussell Trust, who work with communities across the UK in this area:


“When temperatures plummeted in January 2010 foodbank clients across the UK were forced to choose between eating and heating. For Anne-Marie and Danny, 22, a delay in benefits hit at the same time as Danny was off work with flu. He received no sick pay and finances got so tight that they were faced with eviction as well as having no money for food. The couple and their 18-month-old daughter, Tia, were living and sleeping in one room to reduce heating bills. They resorted to borrowing a tin of soup from their neighbours to stop little Tia going hungry...I don’t know what we would have done next if it wasn’t for the foodbank’, says Danny.”


“A primary school boy from Gloucester stopped attending school recently because he could not face the embarrassment of having no money for lunch. The mother of two explained that her husband had left her and that the benefits were in his name. He had not been contributing towards child care since leaving and when she informed the Benefits Agency all benefits were stopped, including child benefit, because of her ‘change in circumstances’. The support worker estimated that it would take two to four months for the benefits to be re-assessed...Fortunately, the foodbank was able to step in to help, enabling the boy to return to school.

Benefit delay and benefit re-assessment cause people across the UK to go hungry. Almost 40% of foodbank clients last year experienced benefit delay.”


And here in Nottingham, a typical story is that of Sue and her 5 children were referred to the Food Bank after fleeing from another city due to domestic violence. Despite intervention and support from Children’s Services and other agencies. The DWP took 6 weeks to process Sue’s benefit claims. When asked what she would have done if she had not been able to access the food bank Sue said had no idea. “I have no family in Nottingham and I don’t know anyone who could help me. I don’t want to think about what I would have done if the food bank not helped me”.

Or the case of Jane who has a 5 year old son and was referred to the food bank on a 3 week referral. Jane had missed her appointment to sign on due to an appointment with her social worker. Realising the appointment clashed she notified the DWP. However when she returned to sign on she was informed that her benefits would be sanctioned for 3 weeks as she had missed her appointment.

Or the case of John who was referred to the food bank following a 3 week benefit sanction. He went to sign on and has part of his job search his benefit advisor gave him 2 jobs to apply for. The companies were to send the job application forms directly to John. However both forms arrived after the closing date for the job, meaning John couldn’t apply. When John returned to the benefits office to sign on and explained what happened he was informed his benefits had been sanctioned for 3 weeks because he failed to apply for the 2 jobs.

Now, BFTF is fully supportive of foodbanks, as you can see here - but these are not an activity that people should have to spend their time on. In the case of BFTF, every moment spent supporting local foodbanks is a moment of precious "spare" time that BFTF would much rather spend transcribing interviews, or bigging up local high-tech companies, or walking, or helping the kids with their homework.

And BFTF gets the feeling that the conservative mindset is happy for the more caring in society to busy themselves with Foodbanks as it means they aren't able to challenge the social policies that caused the need for them in the first place.

George Lakoff describes the (US) conservative mindset as being one that “it is immoral to give people things they have not earned, because they will then not develop discipline and will become dependent and immoral" and that conservatives believe that "what you have to do is to reward the good [i.e. propserous] people with a tax cut, and make it big enough so that there is not enough money left for social programmes. By this logic, the [budget] deficit is a good thing. As Grover Norquist says “It starves the beast”’

Also, Olivier de Schutter, the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has commented to the Independent that "...what I shall commence upon in the UK is the idea that governments have a responsibility in ensuring adequate diets.” and also "pointed to the rise of food banks in developed countries as evidence that governments had shirked their “responsibility not to leave the poorest behind""

So what should be done?
BFTF has emailed the local MP, relevant council portfolio holder and Conservative Party with this :

I have been shocked to see increasing numbers of Foodbanks being set up in Nottingham and have been further shocked to find that, according to the Trussel Trust, around 40% of foodbank clients experienced benefit delay. I pay my taxes specifically so that the government can ensure the most vulnerable in society are taken care of and helped to find their feet. Why am I now having to spend my post-tax income on buying food and helping volunteers to do the job the government and local council should have done in the first place? I note that the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has pointed to the rise of food banks in developed countries as evidence that governments had shirked their “responsibility not to leave the poorest behind""

Here are three examples of what is happening right here in Nottingham:

Sue and her 5 children who were referred to the Food Bank after fleeing from another city due to domestic violence. Arriving in Nottingham they faced a 6 week wait for their benefit claims to be processed. Sue commented that "I have no family in Nottingham and I don’t know anyone who could help me. I don’t want to think about what I would have done if the food bank not helped me”.

Jane has a 5 year old son and was referred to the Food Bank by Nottingham Law Centre and given a 3 week referral. She missed a DWP appointment as itclashed with a meeting with here her social worker. She notified the DWP informing that her appointment with her social worker clashed with her signing on date/time and explained she would attend later that day to sign on. However when she returned to sign on she was informed that her benefits would be sanctioned for 3 weeks as she had missed her appointment to sign on.

John was referred to the food bank following a 3 week benefit sanction. He went to sign on and has part of his job search his benefit advisor gave him 2 jobs to apply for. The companies were to send the job application forms directly to John. However both forms arrived after the closing date for the job, meaning John couldn’t apply. When John returned to the benefits office to sign on and explained what happened he was informed his benefits had been sanctioned for 3 weeks because he failed to apply for the 2 jobs.

These kinds of delays (which I have no doubt also existed under the Labour overnment) are unacceptable in one of the richest countries on earth.

I have two questions.

Firstly, what steps - and with what timscale - are local and national government working to redcue the processing time for "changes in circumstances" to below 1 week?

Secondly, when will DWP practices change so that stories such as those from Jane and John stop happening?


Response from Cllr Liversidge : Received sympathetic response from the Councillor on 7th March saying "In terms of processing time for change of circumstances being too long, I agree but we are having to work within an environment where local government are having to make cuts in service also. However I will contact the relevant department and portfolio holder to ascertain how we can bring down this change of circumstance time." BFTF chased the Cllr on this on the 29th March and 19th April

Response from MP : After chasing on the 5th April, received a sympathetic response that said the MP would challenge the government on this issue.

Response from Local Conservative Party : Chased on 5th April and on 19th April. Received the following, rather sympathetic, response from Councillor Georgina Culley, Conservative Group Leader, Nottingham City Council

"The Trussell Trust set up its first food bank in 2000 and is a very important and successful charity that in many ways is a fine example of the ‘Big Society’, although I understand it has been argued to the contrary. Charitable community organisations are well placed to provide help to people in crisis and I believe the rise in the number of food banks is a positive thing for our society, showing that not-for-profit organisations and local groups can deliver services responsibly, quickly and in a non bureaucratic way.

That peoples need for food banks has risen is, however, not cause for celebration. We remain in troubled economic times and you are absolutely right that where people are entitled to help, they should receive it in a timely fashion. While the government looks to make sure that the benefits system works for all and is as cost effective as it can be, it is crazy that the situations you describe exist where late payment or over zealous bureaucracy from benefits staff leads to a person in crisis falling in to further trouble, increasing the eventual burden on the state in the long run. This needs to be got right and I would hope that the individual cases you have raised have been flagged up with the appropriate bodies for further investigation.

With regards to your comments about what DWP are doing to reduce the processing times for ‘changes in circumstances’ to below one week, I will happily contact the relevant ministers for a detailed answer for you. Nottingham City Council currently aims to deal with change of circumstance notifications within two weeks, I have asked why this is the target and what could be done to improve this, but I appreciate that certainly during the next few months with the changes in the benefits system and the move to Universal Credit, the benefits service will be under some inevitable pressure.

Regards your second query, without the complete detail of the cases you have raised I can not comment further on how DWP practices might improve these outcomes, but I agree with you that if the government is keen to make the benefits system more efficient and fairer for all, then it needs to ensure it is treating those it supports with due diligence and respect."

BFTF emailed back thanking Cllr Culley for this genuinely helpful response, that BFTF looked forward to a response from govenment on the issue of "changes in circumstances" but that BFTF did not agree that Foodbanks were an example of the "Big Society". BFTF pays its taxes specifically so that the government can ensure people do not starve in this country. It is one thing for the government to subcontract services to charities, it is quite another for government to expect taxpayers to fork out a second time to do the governments job for them (and this is not an invitation for lower taxes, this is an encouragement for the government to do its job)

BFTF also contacted some foodbanks to tell them that they needed to challenge local government if their users were facing "change in circumstances" delays longer than two weeks.

Response from Central Government : Received a response (via local MP) on 28th May from Mark Hoban MP (Minister for Employment). The, broadly sympathetic, response included the following :

"...The DWP handles 93.7 percent of all notified change of circumstances within 6 days. The average time taken to deal with a change of circumstances for Jobseekers Allowance is 2.74 days. While this is encouraging generally, any delays are regrettable and I recognise the difficulties this can cause, especially in the circumstances described in [BFTF's] first example. Without more detail I am unable to comment specifically, but typically a six week delay would be unusual and unacceptable...."

"...I know Jobcentre Plus staff within Nottinghmam hold regular meetings with key local partners, for example Citizens Advice Bureau, the Nottingham Law Centre and local community groups, to discuss issues of interest and concern. For example, there has been a meeting recently with Nottingham City Council's welfare rights team leader to discuss isssues and concerns raised by councillors about benefit sanctions...."

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