Hungry Britain: welfare cuts leave more than 500,000 people forced to use food banks, warns Oxfam

Number has trebled in past 12 months

More than half a million Britons have resorted to using food banks to stave off hunger and destitution, the Government has been warned.

Major charities signalled their alarm over a dramatic rise in the nation's "hidden hungry" – families who are forced to ask for help to feed themselves – because of wage cuts, the squeeze on benefits and the continuing economic downturn. The numbers have trebled in the past year alone and are likely to continue rising rapidly despite Britain's status as one of the world's wealthiest nations, according to a joint report by Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty.

They say cuts to welfare payments – including below-inflation rises in benefits, new Jobseeker's Allowance sanctions and reassessment of entitlement to invalidity benefits – are the biggest cause of the surge in demand for food banks in all parts of the country. The charities are also fiercely critical of the numbers of mistakes and delays in benefits payments, which leave claimants without cash through no fault of their own and lead to "food uncertainty" among Britain's poorest families.

The hunger crisis has been exacerbated by the falling living standards of many people in employment, who have seen their wages trimmed or their working hours cut. Rising food and fuel prices are also driving families into poverty, the charities add.

The cost of basic foodstuffs has leapt by 35 per cent and the cost of heating a home has jumped by 63 per cent in the past five years – a period in which many incomes have risen only marginally or not at all.

Mark Goldring, the chief executive of Oxfam, said last night: "The shocking reality is that hundreds of thousands of of people in the UK are turning to food aid. Cuts to social safety-nets have gone too far, leading to destitution, hardship and hunger on a large scale. It is unacceptable this is happening in the seventh wealthiest nation on the planet."

The Trussell Trust, the biggest organiser of food banks in Britain, said almost 350,000 people received at least three days' emergency food last year, compared with about 130,000 in 2011-12. But because there is an array of organisations distributing food, the new report conservatively estimates that well over 500,000 people are now relying on charity handouts.

Niall Cooper, the chief executive of Church Action on Poverty, said: "The safety net that was there to protect people is being eroded to such an extent that we are seeing a rise in hunger. Food banks are not designed to, and should not, replace the 'normal' safety net provided by the state in the form of welfare support."

The Government has sent out mixed messages over the steep rise in food bank use. While Downing Street sources had previously said welfare payments were set at a level "where people can afford to eat", David Cameron has acknowledged the work of food-bank volunteers as "part of the big society".

The Prime Minister visited the independent Oxfordshire West Food Bank in his Witney constituency in February, but did so without inviting photographers or journalists, and has so far failed to take up the Trussell Trust's invitation to visit one of its more established centres. The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, has joined a Food Aware appeal for food donations, visited the Witney food bank and raised the issue at Prime Minister's Questions.

Earlier this month, Tim Lang, a former adviser to the World Health Organisation and one of Britain's leading food policy experts, told The Independent that he feared food banks were becoming "institutionalised" and taking Britain back to a "Dickensian" model of welfare. The Trussell Trust launched a nationwide network of food distribution centres in 2004. It feeds people referred to it by social services and other professionals such as school liaison officers, doctors or Job Centre Plus staff. It now runs 350 food banks in all areas of Britain, manned by an estimated 30,000 volunteers, with an average of three new centres opening each week.

Its chief executive, Chris Mould, said yesterday: "We are seeing massive growth in the numbers of people being referred to us. Low income is a serious problem across the UK, with people facing acute challenges in trying to survive. Increases in basic prices of food and heating your home have a really big impact on people's ability to cope."

Today's report calls for an urgent parliamentary inquiry into the relationship between benefit payment delays, errors or sanctions, welfare reforms and the growth in the numbers of "hidden hungry".

It is also damning about ministers' failure properly to monitor the problem, and calls for agencies to record and monitor people experiencing food poverty in order to establish more accurate numbers.

Imran Hussain, the head of policy for the Child Poverty Action Group, said: "It is a national scandal that half a million British people are now having to turn to food aid. It is a problem that has quickly escalated and shows that something has gone badly wrong with the safety net that is supposed to help families in need."

Case studies: Living on the breadline

Brian Ahern

Retired postman, 57, from Stockwell, South London

I worked for my last company for two decades but had a nervous breakdown. I received a good pension of £95 a week, which meant I wasn't entitled to any benefits. Unfortunately, I had a problem with alcohol and this swallowed up all my money for a period of time. I first went to the Brixton food bank in May 2012. I'd got myself into a bit of a mess and it was the last resort for me: I literally didn't have a can of beans in the cupboard. I saw a sign in a shop window and was referred by Ace of Clubs, a soup kitchen and social centre in Clapham North. They do lunch for a quid – with dessert! I went three times, which was the most I was allowed with the vouchers I was given. They are very well stocked but I was surprised by how hard it was to have vouchers issued. They have helped me a few times and, now that I am over my crisis, I volunteer there. They are a great organisation and all the staff are very dedicated to what they do. People shouldn't feel shame in using them when they need to, but unfortunately there is stigma attached."

Karen Woods

Unemployed mother of one, 47, from south London

My daughter starts school in September. I went to a food bank because I couldn't afford to put food on the table for her. I receive Jobseekers' Allowance, child tax credit and child benefit but it is all swallowed by gas and electric bills, and by a loan I took out three years ago to pay for Christmas. Extra things need paying for – a missed bill, new shoes for my daughter – and then you can't afford food. I saw the food bank advertised and went in to ask how it could be used. I was then referred by a community centre. I had to provide proof of income. I didn't want to have to depend on charity – but it's either that or nothing."

Jane McBlane

Retired civil servant, 57, from West Croydon

I was at the Ministry of Defence for 20 years. I'm now unemployed but not old enough for a pension. When the council changed benefit payments on 1 April, I had no money for food. I complained to the council and they suggested a food bank. I have no family and don't want my friends to know about my situation, so had no where else to turn."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?