Foodbank use is up 13% across the UK but in areas with Universal Credit (UC) the rise is a horrendous 52%.
This figure is incredibly important. It is solid nationwide evidence confirming what churches and projects have been saying for some time – that many families are in trouble because of UC. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), which administer the benefit, should take this news seriously, but instead they reflexively attacked the Trussell Trust’s research.Reflexive attack is a common DWP response to criticism. To declare an interest, JPIT was on the receiving end of this kind of behaviour in 2015. We published data showing that 100 people with severe … Continue reading
The problem is not that the Trussell Trust’s research was critiqued – no study is perfect and all evidence should be examined with a critical eye. The problem is that DWP used recycled attack lines that did not engage with the issue or the data, lines designed to discredit and close down further debate.
What was the DWP’s response?
It is important to note that while Trussell’s research is new, the DWP attack lines were identical to ones used against other organisations’ research over recent years.
- “The reasons why people use food banks are complex, so it’s wrong to link a rise to any one cause”. A standard response was given to news outlets and quotes appear in many different places e.g. Independent, Daily Mail, ITV news, Coventry Telegraph etc
I call this the tobacco company defence. The disease process in cancer is incredibly complex, however when all other things are equal, a person who smokes is more likely to get cancer.
People’s lives are hugely complicated but the evidence suggests that when all other things are equal the presence of Universal Credit full service in your area makes going to the foodbank more likely.
Neither statement is welcome news but denying them is dangerous and potentially self-serving.
This line is several years old and the same formulation has also been used to bat away stories linking welfare changes to suicide – sometimes stories of individuals, but also a large scale peer-reviewed research published in a reputable academic journal.
- The research is “based on anecdotal evidence from a small, self-selecting sample of less than 0.04 per cent of current universal credit claimants”ibid
The evidence for 52% increase in foodbank referrals in UC areas is based on counting actual foodbank use – not anecdote. Trussell counted the number of food-parcels given out in the 32 centers that were in UC full service areas and looked at the change in numbers since UC was introduced. The principle is easy although in practice it is a big task.
A second piece of research looked at why the presence of UC quadrupled the rise in foodbank use, and to do this Trussell surveyed users in UC areas. A survey of 284 people exploring people’s experiences isn’t anecdote, it is qualitative research. The DWP should know this, as their evaluations of UC contain many such studies.
The 0.04% number used by the DWP is arrived at by dividing 284 by the total number of UC claimants. While it does the job of undermining good research it is just a plain silly thing to do. Firstly the research is about UC claimants in foodbanks so you should divide 284 into the number of UC claimants in foodbanks – which would make the percentage much bigger. Secondly a 0.04% sample size can be great – it depends on the questions you are asking. Opinion polls, used by the DWP, have sample sizes that are proportionately 100 times less.
This formulation is of attack is also not new. It was used to attack the Citizens Advice research showing that the 6 week wait for the first UC payment was causing rent arrears. Four months later the DWP spent £1.5bn attempting to address the problem identified by CAB’s so-called self-selecting and unrepresentative research.
Politics first – people after
However subjecting the DWP’s comments to this type of scrutiny is not really fair. The intention was not to engage with the evidence of foodbank use – it was about the politics of bolstering a flagship policy that is in trouble. In those terms the attack lines have done their job well. Criticism has been defected and those who want to don’t want to believe UC is driving foodbank use have been given an excuse to dismiss Trussell’s research.
The DWP’s political cover comes at a cost however. The experiences of people in foodbanks are publicly dismissed. The small army of foodbank volunteers and donors who provide the last line of defence against hunger are insulted (and at the report’s launch the audience were vocal about how offensive they felt the DWP’s comments to be). It also discourages honest debate grounded in evidence and experience – the sort of debate that we need.
Perhaps the DWP are reading the report behind the scenes and Trussell with their partners will be able to drive improvements in the system. I truly hope so. But unless those who share their knowledge, experience and research are treated with greater decency, the urgent job of making UC tolerable will become a great deal harder.
|↑1||Reflexive attack is a common DWP response to criticism. To declare an interest, JPIT was on the receiving end of this kind of behaviour in 2015. We published data showing that 100 people with severe mental health problems had their benefits sanctioned each day. The DWP’s response was that they did not recognise the number, which seemed odd as it was the DWP who supplied the data to us via Freedom of Information requests.|
|↑2||A standard response was given to news outlets and quotes appear in many different places e.g. Independent, Daily Mail, ITV news, Coventry Telegraph etc|