By Leon Spence
Two weeks ago, on one of the rounds of television interviews that politicians are known to do on Sunday mornings when most of us are at church, the Prime Minister, Theresa May, appeared on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show.
During a lively interview Marr, ever the consummate professional, took Mrs May to task about the increasing use of food banks in Britain; linking it to the limiting of nurses’ salaries to increases of just one per cent over the past few years. Marr asked: “We have nurses going to food banks at the moment; that must be wrong?”
It is fair to say that the Prime Minister, never the most charismatic of interviewees, dithered slightly in her response: “There are many complex reasons why people go to food banks…”
As you might expect, social media and the thousands of political ‘commentators’ that spew vitriol from it at every utterance from a Conservative politician went mad. One popular user (@chunkymark) with more than 61,000 followers, including senior Labour politicians, posted a tweet saying ‘Theresa May is a disgrace if you vote Tory you should be ashamed of yourself Nurses going to food banks!!!’ [sic], while another (@johnvoteyes), and many more like him, was a little cruder: ‘Thresa May [sic] says there are many complex reasons nurses go to food banks no there is not. It’s because they are ******* starving’ [sic].
Now it’s fair to say that I took a particular interest in Mrs May’s comment, and the subsequent response, for two reasons. First, you simply cannot get into a debate with anyone who takes an interest in politics with views on the left of the political spectrum without them invoking at some stage the astonishing rise in food banks, and how no-one who cares for others could ever vote Conservative.
The second reason is more personal. Around seven or eight years ago I was a paid member of staff working for a charity as a money advice worker; part of my duties was collecting donations and issuing food parcels at our own food bank which had been established for many years. It is fair to say my personal experience of food banks was an eye opener.
Nearly a decade after working in a food bank I wanted to know whether the reasons for needing the assistance of one had changed. Was it as simple, as Marr implied in his question, that key workers were not being paid enough to live? If that was the case, what about people on benefits? Or, as my experience showed me all those years ago, are there more complex reasons?
Let me explain. When I worked in my food bank I would often get a call from reception to tell me some poor soul or other had presented themselves at the front desk with a referral from a professional who was working with them; it could easily have been a doctor, social worker, school or job centre but the key point was that no one could simply turn up asking for food.
The referrals I used to deal with were almost without exception not issued because those in need didn’t have enough money to live day to day, because their benefits or wages were insufficient to pay their bills. No, the overwhelming reason why, in my experience, people used and needed food banks was because of some sort of change that had happened in their lives.
For many families, who – entirely understandably – never manage to save for a rainy day, a relatively minor change can have a huge effect. If you are living on benefit and you’re a single parent with a toddler, a washing machine breaking down can cause, in the short term at least, severe financial hardship. But is that the Government’s fault?
If you have a steady, even well-paid job, and suddenly get made redundant, all of those things you’ve relied on and are often tied into, such as mobile phone contracts or credit card bills, have to be addressed and a new level of income takes time to acclimatise to. How is any government to help people in those circumstances effectively?
And, yes, if you are a staff nurse getting by on an average salary of around £23,000 and your relationship breaks down, it takes time to get used to paying the bills on your own. How can the Government ever stop that?
When I worked at a food bank those types of scenarios were far, far more common than any other. It really was about circumstances changing over and above anything else.
So what is the picture now?
The Trussell Trust is a charity with Christian roots that has been around for about 20 years now. To all intents and purposes it has become the leading provider of, and expert on, food banks in Britain today. At present the trust and its volunteers are running 420 food banks around the country.
Coincidentally, just a couple of weeks ago, the trust released its report on food bank usage for the year 2016/17. In the year ending 31st March 2017 the trust reports that it issued 1,182,954 three-day food parcels, an increase of 73,645 on the previous year; about 6.6 per cent.
The trust stresses that its figures do not relate to unique users and that on average most people needing their help require around two food parcels per year, although this, of course, can vary.
Similarly, and I checked this for some time but would be more than happy to be proved wrong, the trust doesn’t clarify whether the number of parcels issued are done so as a result of a growing network, or whether individual food banks are busier.
In any event the Trussell Trust claims to have helped very nearly 600,000 people over the course of the past year, including 436,000 children; their own regional breakdown shows the north west of England and Scotland as the areas of the country where they have provided the most aid.
But what I wanted to understand is, why? Why have so many packages been needed? And it is here that the trust’s assessment is most illuminating.
The trust’s report states that the largest reason (26.45 per cent) for referrals is because of ‘low income’; in their words, ‘anyone who is struggling to get by on a low income. This could be people in work, or people on benefits for whom a small crisis can be enough to mean that they cannot afford food.’ Surely this definition includes the changes in circumstances that I experienced all those years ago?
The next two most common reasons are benefit delays (26.01 per cent) and benefit changes (16.65 per cent) – similarly scenarios that relate to time lags when circumstances change and re-assessment is needed.
In short, overwhelmingly, food banks are issuing parcels for the same reasons that they have always done albeit there appear to be far more of them now; and it is absolutely right to question the reasons for that.
It’s entirely possible that those living lives with reduced job security are more likely to experience change. It’s entirely reasonable to highlight, as the Trussell Trust has done, that the benefit system under the new Universal Credit regime is not responsive enough. And, yes, it’s not unreasonable to at least question whether food banks are not to some extent a self-fulfilling problem, with a growth in supply finding the demand to sustain them.
But here is my point. The issue of food banks isn’t, and never has been, simply a political one. There are many reasons, both economic and societal, why food bank usage has increased; the only certainty is that they are complex.
So when Mrs May, or any other politician, highlights that fact over the coming election campaign, a proportion of voters will undoubtedly question the speaker’s morality. In truth what they are doing is recognising the real complexities of the society we live in.
Surely, that’s what responsible politicians of all persuasions should be doing?
Leon is a councillor, writer and charity trustee. You can follow him on Twitter @cllrleonspence
Picture: Centre manager Michele Lawrence gives a fuel voucher to a client at the Trussell Trust Brent food bank, Neasden, London.
Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Archive/PA Images.