Delays and gaps in the welfare state are behind the soaring numbers turning to food banks, according to new research into those relying on charity in Britain.
Minor adjustments to the benefits system could prevent many from needing emergency food, research commissioned by Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group, Church of England and The Trussell Trust has found.
The research was conducted using a combination of surveying more than 900 clients at three Trussell Trust food banks, as well as 40 in-depth interviews at seven food banks across the UK. The majority of food bank users surveyed were there as a last-resort. They also typically needed help after something happened to completely stop or dramatically reduce their benefits.
For more than half of those interviewed, the immediate trigger which sent them to a food bank was linked to problems with welfare, including waiting for benefits to be paid, sanctions, problems with Employment Support Allowance or missing tax credits.
Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) said: “Food banks have boomed not because they‘re an easy option but because people haven’t got money to eat – often because of problems with claiming and the payment of benefits. A delay in a benefits decision or a period pending a review can force hunger and humiliation on families, leaving them no option but the food bank. Rather than protecting these families from poverty at the time when they most need help, the system leaves them with almost nothing to live on.”
Improving access to short-term advances in benefits and simplifying the claims process would curtail the numbers falling through the cracks, researchers said. They also recommended a reform to the sanctions system, which stops benefits punitively for long stretches of time, often after minor mistakes, such as not attending a meeting.
Around one in five of those attending food banks had household benefits stopped or reduced because of a sanction and more than a quarter were waiting for a benefit claim which had not been decided.
The Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Rev Christopher Chessun, said: “This report offers a picture of people facing acute crises in their lives with fortitude and dignity. That this happens is no surprise to thousands of Church of England parishes around the country who help to provide care and relief for their neighbours by running and supporting food banks.
“It is vital that the measured and practical recommendations set out in this report are actively considered and acted upon by politicians of all parties to ensure that more and more people are not forced into relying on emergency food aid.”
Reliance on emergency food handouts has soared in the last two years. More than 900,000 people were given emergency food by the Trussell Trust in the last financial year, up from fewer than 130,000 in 2011-12.
David McAuley, Trussell Trust CEO said: “This new evidence brings into sharp focus the uncomfortable reality of what happens when a ‘life shock’ or benefit problem hits those on low incomes: parents go hungry, stress and anxiety increase, and the issue can all too quickly escalate into crippling debt, housing problems and illness. The Trussell Trust has consistently said that too many people are falling through gaps in the social security system. The voices of food bank users heard in this report have informed the united call from four respected anti-poverty bodies to implement simple fixes to the welfare system.”
A Government spokesman 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 £94bn a year on working age benefits, and we provide a wide range of advice and assistance for anyone in need of additional support.”