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Minister denies that benefit cuts push people to foodbanks

26 June 2015


Anti-austerity: protests in London last weekend

Anti-austerity: protests in London last weekend

A GOVERNMENT Minister this week denied that there was any connection between benefit sanctions and the increased use of foodbanks.

The Employment Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), Priti Patel, told the House of Commons on Monday that she did not accept claims that the increase in sanctions in recent years had anything to do with the rise in foodbanks.

"There is no robust evidence that directly links sanctions and foodbank use," she said. Foodbanks did play a "vital role in welfare provision", Ms Patel conceded, but she rejected suggestions from opposition MPs that the Government had cracked down too hard on the welfare system and pushed people into hunger.

The most recent figures (News, 24 April) from the largest provider of foodbanks - the Trussell Trust - showed that more than one million food parcels were handed out in 2014-15, an increase of 19 per cent on the previous year (which was also a record high).

A parliamentary inquiry into food poverty, co-chaired by the Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, and funded by the Archbishop of Canterbury's charitable trust, found that about a third of referrals to foodbanks were prompted by delays and errors in benefits ( News, 12 December 2014). It recommended urgent reform of the welfare system, and a rise in the minimum wage.

The DWP has rejected many of the report's recommendations, including allowing Jobcentre Plus staff to use their discretion over whether to impose a sanction or not (News, 3 April). However, the chairman of the Trussell Trust, Chris Mould, said that it was simply not the case that there was no research linking sanctions to increased foodbank use.

"Independent research from the University of Oxford published in April 2015 found that areas of the UK facing greater unemployment, sanctions and budget cuts have significantly greater rates of people seeking emergency food aid," he told The Independent.

The row over foodbanks came shortly after tens of thousands of demonstrators marched to Parliament Square on Saturday to protest against the Government's austerity programme.

Trade union leaders and a Labour leadership candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, were among those who spoke at the rally. The Green Party's sole MP, Caroline Lucas, accused the Chancellor, George Osborne, of waging an "ideological war on welfare".

The latest wave of cuts will slash £12 billion a year from social-security spending, with tax credits for working families set to be cut significantly. The Government is reportedly considering altering the criteria by which child poverty is judged. It is at present under an legal obligation to eradicate child poverty by 2020.

The target - that no more than one child in ten lives in a household with an income below 60 per cent of the national average - was set in law by the last Labour Government.

The Conservative election manifesto had pledged that "better measures" for child poverty would be introduced. The Centre for Social Justice thinktank, founded by the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, has backed a change.

The latest figure, released on Thursday, showed that contrary to some predictions the number of children officially living in poverty had not increased during 2013/14. The proportion of people living on low incomes was also at its lowest level since the 1980s, Mr Duncan Smith said. 

Labour MP Frank Field, who chairs the Work and Pensions Select Committee, said that action to stop poor children becoming poor adults was vital. 

"We must therefore begin talking about, and measuring, poor children's life chances and how they can be improved. It is important that such measurements are accurate, but that they can also safely drive anti-poverty policy."

Alongside supporting foodbanks, the Church has consistently backed the Living Wage as another way to tackle poverty in the UK (News, 27 June 2014).

The Archbishop of York, who chaired a commission examining the future of the scheme last year, has written an article promoting the Living Wage - currently set at £2.35 more per hour than the legal minimum wage - for a pro-business campaign run by the Confederation of British Industry.

Archbishop Sentamu notes how many firms found that the increased costs of the Living Wage were outweighed by improved productivity and staff loyalty. "Proper pay and profit are OK. But there are limits. Human flourishing and well-being should come first," he concluded.

In a separate survey, less than half of UK Christians said that they believed that poverty was being eliminated. Forty-two per cent of those questioned in a survey by the child sponsorship charity Compassion UK agreed that significant progress had been made towards eliminating global poverty in the past decade.

They try to help but now need help themselves Government cuts mean that church volunteers who care for the poor are buckling under the strain, says Catherine Pickford

Tales from the church bread line In their own words: three people helped out of debt talked to Rebecca Paveley


Are people in your church suffering from benefit sanctions? Have your say here

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