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08.12.14

Problems with benefit payments to blame for rise in hunger

Problems with benefits are the single biggest cause for the huge rise in food banks, according to a new report from a cross-party group of MPs and church leaders.

The all-parliamentary inquiry into hunger and food poverty, led by the Labour MP Frank Field and the Bishop of Truro, Tim Thornton, also mentions an income squeeze and excessive utility bills as reasons behind the rise in demand.

The inquiry was unable to calculate the exact number of food banks in the UK as so many are independent and run by individual groups. It did ascertain the number food banks run by the charity Trussell Trust has grown from a handful to 420 in the past 10 years. It also heard suggestions there may be at least as many food banks operating independently.

According to the report, many families are afraid of being evicted for rent arrears, or having their gas or electricity shut off, so “they go without food and therefore see food banks as reintroducing that buffer in their finances which many have lost”.

It goes on to call for the government to set up a new network called Feeding Britain, to coordinate the work of food banks and other voluntary organisations across the country. They currently receive only 2% of the 4.3 million tonnes of waste food generated by the food industry every year.

Praising the volunteers who run the food banks, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby wrote in yesterday’s Mail on Sunday: “This extraordinary achievement has been done without the assistance of central government. If the Prime Minister wants to meet his Big Society, it is here.”

By contrast, the report is severe in its criticism of the Department for Work and Pensions, saying: “Benefit-related problems was the single biggest reason given for food bank referrals by almost every food bank that presented evidence to us.”

The report adds: “The inquiry is concerned that there are avoidable problems occurring in the administration of social security benefits, which have a particularly detrimental impact on poor and vulnerable claimants.”

It cites an example of Jobcentre Plus staff having to rely on two different computer systems, each on different screens, in order to calculate and process a claim, if more than one benefit is involved. The inquiry argues this is likely to delay the processing of a benefit claim. The inquiry also heard that personal documents, including birth certificates and medical records, sent as part of an application for benefit had gone missing within the Department for Work and Pensions.

The report says: “The inquiry has gathered a broad idea of the benefit-related issues that have triggered, for some people, a prolonged period of hunger. There is an urgent need, though, to facilitate more in-depth analysis in future.”

“Our evidence shows that the current system is cumbersome, complicated and fails to respond effectively to the daily changes in people’s lives,” the report continues. “Changes are urgently needed to create a benefits system that is truly fit for purpose in the twenty first century.”

The inquiry team is also critical of the way sanctions are imposed for some claimants who unintentionally fail to follow the rules. While it acknowledges there are people who cheat the system, others have been punished because they did not understand the rules, or for trivial reasons – including one man sanctioned for writing on the wrong side of a form.

Frank Field, co-chair of the inquiry, said: “The most worrying aspect is the sheer inability of the department to deliver benefits efficiently and accurately. Some families wait… 13 weeks for their benefits to be processed, and this is a benefit where people are eligible because they have got no other income.”

Commenting on the report, deputy PM Nick Clegg said there was "some evidence" that benefit sanctions forced people to use food banks temporarily.

"Whilst it is of course necessary to have sanctions in the benefit system, I think we should introduce a sort of traffic light system so that some of the sanctions are not imposed quite as 'overnight' as they sometimes are," he told the BBC.

"That might help alleviate some of the problem."

A government spokesperson said: “This report is a serious contribution to an important debate, with many good ideas, and recognising that the reasons behind demands for emergency food assistance are complex and frequently overlapping.

"As a country we have enough food to go around, and we agree that it is wrong that anyone should go hungry at the same time as surplus food is going to waste. There is a moral argument as well as a sustainability one to ensure we make the best use of resources."

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