Food banks and welfare reform

A ‘right to food’ approach can help to determine ultimate responsibility for preventing hunger

Hannah Lambie-Mumford
Hannah Lambie-Mumford

Last week the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into hunger and food poverty was launched and today, the terms of reference will be finalised at a research summit in Portcullis House. The question of what is driving demand for food banks is likely to be prominent.

The rise in the number of people being helped by food banks, and extensive reform to the shape and nature of welfare provision, are trends that have been happening in parallel in the UK over the last year. In the context of the highly political food bank debate, no question is more political than the relationship between the growth of food bank provision and recent welfare reforms.

While local communities have been left to respond to realities on the ground,  their reporting of the effects of this reform has been met with mixed reactions from politicians and policy-makers. So,  what evidence is there of the impact of welfare reform on need for food banks in the UK – and what would constructive responses from policy makers and politicians actually look like?

My SPERI British Political Economy Brief, ‘Food Bank Provision and Welfare Reform‘ sheds light on the first half of this question. Based on a three-year study, it reports that the effects of welfare reform are impacting on the demand for food banks, and that these projects are growing and developing in order to meet this increased need. The research found that social security, and reforms to it, have been impacting on need for food banks in two distinct ways: people turning to food banks as a result of changes to entitlements (including capping benefits, changes to housing benefit and new local welfare assistance schemes) which are leaving them worse off and unable to make ends meet and inadequate processes (such as unfair or arbitrary sanctioning decisions, extensions to sanctions, and delays in payment) which leave people without an income altogether.

At a national level, food bank demand therefore appears to be signalling the inadequacy of both social security provision and the processes through which it is delivered. Locally, there appears to be further cause for concern, with confusion and difficulties being experienced with local assistance schemes, and reports that national funding for this provision will be cut from 2015.

With no sign that ineffective processes will be addressed, income levels reassessed or that the pace of reform will abate, we have reached an important juncture in the evolution of food banks, on the one hand, and the role of the state, on the other. As we contemplate the development of the future role of food banks and the longer term impacts of welfare reform  a key question hangs in the air – whose ultimate responsibility is it to protect people from going hungry?

A ‘right to food’ approach places obligations on the state to respect, protect and fulfil its citizens’ human right to food and views a state’s reliance on the existence of charitable food assistance as a signal of its failure to look after its people.

Such rights-based approaches are not meant to undermine the work of hundreds of volunteers and thousands of people who donate food to help those in need. Rather, they provide us with an opportunity to explore the range of interventions and policies required to ensure that everyone can have access to affordable and healthy food now and into the future. They draw particular attention to the importance of structural determinants of hunger and poverty.

Seen in these terms, then, responding to the growth in the need for and provision of food banks should involve a key focus on prevention. Ensuring food security for all will require a focus on adequate income levels as well as rising food prices and inequality. Within this there is, of course, a role for all stakeholders – the state, food industry and charity sector – in the prevention of hunger. But the right to food approach places ultimate responsibility on the state to protect its people from the indignity of food insecurity. Issues of hunger are issues of poverty too and holistic measures are required for its prevention.

These may seem like inconsequential even luxurious questions to be asking to those who work week in, week out to help people who have little or nothing. But they are, nonetheless, critical questions for local and national policy-makers to examine – and quickly.

The research provides several recommendations, which could be adopted to help guide the All-Party Parliamentary Group’s inquiry.  It calls for an assessment of the adequacy of reformed social security income levels as well as the level of the minimum wage. It also calls for a review of the fairness and effectiveness of social security processes, especially fitness assessments and sanctioning decisions as well as payment administration; and of the adequacy, sustainability and accessibility of local welfare assistance schemes up to and beyond April 2015.

Extended lengths for sanctions penalties and the potential for the abolition of local welfare assistance raises a particularly urgent question for the inquiry to consider in terms of how the state should protect people who are left without any sources of income at all from going hungry. If Members of Parliament wish to avoid a future where food banks and other charitable initiatives are the only ones responding to need at a local level, the question of how to ensure a social security system which is adequate, fair and protects people from hunger should be top of the terms of reference finalised in Westminster today.