~ David Cameron, 16 January 2013
Food banks: a damning indictment of the government’s failure to tackle hardship, or a shining example of citizen action?
David Cameron has praised volunteers who help distribute donated food to the needy as “part of what I call the Big Society”.
But he has been repeatedly needled by Labour on the issue. Last month Ed Miliband said food poverty “appears to be getting worse on your watch” and told Mr Cameron:
“I never thought the big society was about feeding hungry children in Britain.”
Today Mr Cameron responded to a Labour question on food banks with an interesting statistic:
“The use of food banks went up tenfold under the last Labour government.”
“So before they try to use this as some political weapon, they should recognise this started under their own government.”
The vast majority of food banks in Britain are run by the Trussell Trust, a Christian charity.
Food is donated by churches, businesses, schools and individuals, stored in local depots and distributed to people who are given vouchers from doctors, social workers and others.
The first food bank opened in Salisbury in 2000, and numbers remained low until 2004, when the trust adopted a franchise model to encourage the spread of a food bank network.
The network grew to 50 branches by 2009, but the rate of growth has soared over the last three years, with the 300th food bank due to open this week.
The Trussell Trust has published these figures showing the proliferation of the number of individual people using food banks:
Three things immediately become clear. Mr Cameron is absolutely right to say that the numbers of people being fed by food banks went up tenfold on Labour’s watch.
There were fewer than 3,000 users in 2005/06 and more than 40,000 by the end of 2009/10.
But we are talking about relatively low numbers, so putting things in terms of percentages makes the increase sound bigger.
Compare that with the rise after the coalition comes to power: from 40,898 in 2009/10 to 128,697 in 2011/12.
You could say that’s only a threefold increase compared to a tenfold increase, but that would be a misleading way of describing the trend.
It would be more accurate to say that the number of people using food banks reached 40,000 after six years of Labour, then grew by an additional 90,000 in just two years of the coalition.
And the Trussell Trust expects the number of users to hit 250,000 by the end of this financial year.
The other obvious point is that the early growth of the food bank network precedes the recession.
That causes problems for Labour if they want to suggest that food banks are symptomatic of recent mismanagement of the economy.
A Coventry University study on the growth of the food bank network revealed differences of opinion on the role of the economic downturn among key figures in the food bank movement.
The report concluded:
“Some strategic-level interviewees felt that rising unemployment, as a consequence of the recession, had led to a rise in ‘need’ which could help explain the rise in the number of food banks and the numbers of those clients helped…”
“This view was contentious, however, with other strategic-level participants arguing that the ‘needs’ being met by food banks were largely pre-existing before the current recession.”
When the charity was set up in 1999 the founders were convinced there was a “hidden hunger” among people living below the poverty line that wasn’t being addressed.
The move to a social franchise model in 1994 encouraged food banks to spread and it’s difficult to separate this natural expansion from the effects of the recession.
But the current leadership of the Trust now clearly believe that the economic downturn is one of the major drivers of demand.
And while it’s obviously a matter of opinion which side is more to blame for Britain’s economic woes, the charity is critical of coalition moves to restrict the growth of benefits and tax credits.
Chief executive Chris Mould told us Mr Cameron was “manipulating the numbers”, adding:
“If you start with one food bank, then getting to ten is a tenfold rise. It’s really not a good statistic. It misses the point.
“We are growing for two reasons. We have been working very hard to help communities set them up, so growth is partly a consequence of doing a lot of work.
“But it wouldn’t work if there were not people going hungry who health visitors and social workers wanted to refer to us. Every time we launch a food bank, we find there are people going hungry.
“The recession, as it becomes ingrained, inevitably means that more people have fewer alternative options when they need help. We are seeing an increasing problem as a result.
“That is why we are very concerned about some of the recent decisions taken by the government on benefits and tax credits and the restrictions imposed on their growth.”
It’s clear that food banks started under Labour and began to grow rapidly before the global financial crisis.
And Mr Cameron is technically correct to say that the use of food banks went up tenfold under the last government.
But he’s expressing himself in percentages in order to cast Labour’s record in the worst possible light.
It’s equally possible to say that food banks fed just tens of thousands of people a year under Labour and are now on course to feed a quarter of a million people.
And there’s no sign of demand slowing.
The number of users hit 210,000 in April last year.
In the two weeks before Christmas 2011 8,500 people collected food parcels.
This year it was 27,000.
We can’t say exactly how much the economic downturn is to blame for the growth of food banks, but insiders are convinced it is a major factor.
Of course, the question of whether Labour or the coalition are more to blame for the flat-lining economy is a whole other can of worms.
Ultimately, it’s perhaps unwise for either Labour or the coalition to try to use the growth of food banks as a “political weapon”, as both sides are vulnerable to criticism.
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