By Graham Whitham
Last week it was reported that government ministers have drawn up plans to investigate how many people are being forced to seek emergency food support and the reasons why .
For many people this will feel several years too late, as the huge growth in foodbanks since 2010 has provided ample evidence that the social security system is broken and that many households are unable to make ends meet.
The number of foodbanks in operation, and the number of people accessing them, has increased over a prolonged period during which wages have stagnated, people have felt less secure in work, local authority budgets have been slashed, benefits have been cut, living costs have risen and the use of benefit sanctions has increased.
The response of society to these problems and the resultant increase in hardship has been nothing short of incredible. Groups of people, often led by volunteers, have come together to find ways to meet people’s basic food needs. In 2012 there were 200 Trussell Trust foodbanks in operation across the UK, they now operate over 400. In 2013, one estimate suggested there were 60 emergency food providers in Greater Manchester. GMPA’s Emergency Food Providers Map shows there are now at least 171 (most of which are independent providers run by localcommunity groups).
This is an incredible societal response. However, it is not a substitute for an effective social security system that prevents people from falling into hardship in the first place. A proper policy response is required from government, one that acknowledges the consequences of a stripped back and punitive benefits system and starts to heed concerns about the rollout of Universal Credit.
Government plans to investigate the causes of increased foodbank use represents an important step towards recognising the need for fundamental reforms to the social security system that can help fix the broken safety net and provide a platform on which we can drive down poverty.
There are things the government could do today to help address the hardship people are facing.
A Child Poverty Action Group report out this week shows how simply design flaws with the monthly assessment of pay and circumstances (flaws the government were warned about back in 2012) in Universal Credit are pushing people into debt and hardship. Design flaws the government could address now.
Reinstating the scrapped discretionary Social Fund, ending the two child limit on benefits, introducing the yellow card system for benefit sanctions and making sure people on Universal Credit keep much more of their earnings are all measures that would help alleviate financial hardship.
In a week when the Trussell Trust have been calling for extra donations to help them meet increased need during the summer holidays, it is clear that many households in the UK are being pushed into unnecessary hardship and that we need a swift response from government.