Lord Freud, the Minister for Welfare Reform, has again been asked for an explanation of the extraordinary rise in Foodbanks use. Remarkably he managed to produce another implausible answer which also contradicted his two previous contradictory and implausible answers.
He stated to the House of Lords:
“..clearly nobody goes to a food bank willingly. However, it is very hard to know why people go to them. The Defra report said that there was a lack of systematic peer-reviewed research from the UK on the reasons or immediate circumstances that lead people to turn to food aid.” (HL Deb, 4 March 2014, c1215).
In the past year Lord Freud has provided to the House of Lords at least two contradictory explanations for the unprecedented rise in foodbank use:
- In March 2013 he stated that “the really big expansion has been since September 2011 when jobcentre advisers were allowed for the first time to direct people towards them.” It turns out this wasn’t true – the rate of people coming to foodbanks was largely unaffected by this change and Jobcentres accounted for only a tiny proportion of referrals.
- In July 2013 he denied Jobcentres gave out foodbank vouchers and explained that “…food from a food bank – the supply – is a free good, and by definition there is an almost infinite demand for a free good.” This means he thought that people were going to foodbanks not because they were hungry but because the food is free and people think they might as well go get it. A statement – much repeated – so ignorant of the experience of being unable to feed oneself or one’s family as to defy explanation. It also turns out that this is not the case. The Defra reseach that Lord Freud now refers to makes clear that foodbank expansion is not “supply led”. Interestingly this research was passed to the DWP in June 2013, a month before Lord Freud made his statement.
- By March 2014 however Lord Freud had stopped trying to provide an explanation. Instead he pleads ignorance – “it is very hard to know why people go to [foodbanks]”. The Minister’s Department has implemented unprecedented cuts to benefits available to working age families, including the abolition of funds designed to provide emergency support. The Department has doubled the rate of “sanctions” which remove all support from often extremely vulnerable people. Now each month 5% of all Jobseekers are fined. 42% of appeals against these fines are found in the claimant’s favour – but usually the unjustly punished claimant has spent some weeks with no money. But Lord Freud finds it hard to know why people are increasingly turning to Foodbanks.
There is however a very good way of knowing why a person goes to a foodbank – ask them! If you don’t trust the clients you can ask the professionals who refer them. When you do the answer is clear. The Scottish Government commissioned its own (peer reviewed) research published in December 2013 which does just that. It states “Providers who participated in the study were in agreement that welfare reform, benefit delays, benefit sanctions and falling incomes have been the main factors driving the recent trend observed of increased demand for food aid”
The DEFRA paper quoted by Lord Freud, does point to the lack of systematic peer reviewed research into foodbanks but it does say that there is enough evidence to draw some conclusions. Namely that there are more people in need, that the “erosion of the welfare safety net” is implicated in this and that the increase in foodbank users is not driven by increased supply as stated by Lord Freud.
The role of failures in the benefit system in creating hunger is becoming increasingly clear. Lord Freud has been told this by researchers, churches, charities and by the hungry themselves – yet he still finds it “very hard to know why people turn to foodbanks”.
These words of John Wesley come to mind.“Hence it is that …. one part of the world does not know what the other suffers. Many of them do not know, because they do not care to know: they keep out of the way of knowing it; and then plead their voluntary ignorance as an excuse for their hardness of heart.”. From Sermon 98 on the text Mathew chapter 25 v36.