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Catastrophe, not carelessness, prompts visits to a foodbank

21 November 2014


Listening: the RC Bishop of Hexham, the Rt Revd Seamus Cunningham (left) and the Bishop of Jarrow, the Rt Revd Mark Bryant, visit Gateshead foodbank, earlier this week 

Listening: the RC Bishop of Hexham, the Rt Revd Seamus Cunningham (left) and the Bishop of Jarrow, the Rt Revd Mark Bryant, visit Gateshead foodbank...

THE tough, complex lives of those who use foodbanks are laid bare in a new report that documents how "life-shocks", including illness, bereavement, and job-loss, are compounded by a benefits system that leaves families struggling to put food on the table.

Published on Wednesday morning, the report - Emergency Use Only - was produced jointly by the Church of England, the Child Poverty Action Group, Oxfam, and the Trussell Trust. It seeks to fill a vacuum in research about the reasons for the increase in use of foodbanks (parcels distributed by the Trussell Trust increased from 346,992 to 913,138 between 2012 and 2013).

In-depth interviews were carried out with 40 people from seven foodbanks, in addition to analysis of data from more than 900 clients at three foodbanks (Tower Hamlets, Epsom and Ewell, and County Durham), and a detailed study of the issues faced by 178 clients at Tower Hamlets foodbank.

The researchers concluded that most users were facing an "immediate, acute financial crisis". This was often precipitated by events outside their control - a "failure of income which they did not instigate, or the effects of which they were unable to reverse". It was not uncommon for interviewees to have experienced several "particularly dramatic, negative life events", including bereavement, accidents, or physical or mental illness.

Kath, a mother with three teenage sons, one of whom has serious medical problems, had her child tax credits halved without notice. Raja waited eight weeks for his Jobseeker's Allowance to be processed after losing his job. His benefits were then sanctioned after he failed to complete an online job search because he didn't have access to a computer during the Christmas period (the library was shut). Mary and Neil, a young couple with a baby, struggled to survive on £20 a week after Neil lost his job, unaware of their entitlement to tax credits. The researchers found "no substantial evidence that foodbank use was significantly linked to participants' not being able to budget". Going to a foodbank was described by interviewees as "unnatural", "embarrassing", and "shameful".

The report calls on the Government to make changes to the benefits system, including improving access to short-term benefit advances and reforming sanctions policy. Of the 900 clients studied, 28-34 per cent were waiting for a benefit claim that had not been decided; 19-28 per cent had been sanctioned; nine-16 per cent had seen their employment support allowance stopped because they were found "fit for work".

On Wednesday, a government spokesperson said: "This country has been through the deepest recession since modern records began, and sticking to this Government's long-term economic plan is the only way to improve living standards.

"The report itself concludes it can't 'prove anything' - it uses self-selecting data and recognises there are complex underlying issues.

"We have a strong safety-net in place, spending £94 billion a year on working-age benefits, and we provide a wide range of advice and assistance for anyone in need of additional support."

The report acknowledges that the research is not nationally representative and "cannot provide definite numbers regarding how many foodbank users experienced particular issues". The researchers argue, however, that it provides "three case-studies of foodbanks in very different areas, giving a good indication of the likely prevalence of issues".

The Department for Work and Pensions Minister Steve Webb was due to attend the launch on Wednesday, but cancelled his attendance owing to "diary commitments".

Read the report in full here

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