Food banks: A good or bad sign of the times?

22 Oct 2014 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 28 Oct 2014

Bob Stronge, Chief Executive Advice NI
Bob Stronge, Chief Executive Advice NI

The biggest growth area for the charitable sector over the past few years has been that of food banks. Bob Stronge chief executive of Advice NI says there will be many more once Welfare “Reform” kicks in.

So is this a manifestation of David Cameron’s “Big Society” or is it evidence of the government abandoning the needy and reneging on an international obligation?

Scope examines the issues.

Food Banks are springing up everywhere, but how many there currently are in Northern Ireland is anybody’s guess. There’s no central register and no formal co-ordination with the voluntary or statutory sectors.

Bob Stronge said: “The presence of food banks in a particular area is the result of the kindness and generosity of church and community organisations, but there is no overall co-ordinated response to need, so there may be many areas not served at all.”

All we do know is that, according to the Trussell Trust, which has helped set up more than 400 food banks to date, there are three opening somewhere in the UK every week.

It had helped to set up nine food banks in Northern Ireland by December of last year, who between them fed 1,538 people in the first three months of 2013. There are plenty more now but there is no one place you can go to for a list of them.

There are a wide variety of reasons why people find it increasingly difficult to feed themselves adequately, but one theme recurs: food bank co-ordinators report that many of their clients have experienced delays in being paid benefits. Payday loan companies and illegal lenders are also an increasing scourge and some users of food banks have mental health or addiction issues which mean that they struggle to budget.

Demand set to rise

Over and above that is the price of food in Northern Ireland: according to a survey conducted in 2012 the average annual household food bill here was joint-highest in the UK with London at £3.201. Average income in London is 36.6% higher than Northern Ireland.

Food bills are set to rise even further, but that’s not the worst of it. Bob Stronge points out that Welfare Reform will hit Northern Ireland harder than the rest of the UK because of the number of people here with disabilities: 7% compared with a national average of 4%. Unemployment is also higher here and 23% of people claim a benefit, as opposed to 16% in GB.

The net result of that will be an increasing demand for food banks, yet because of the lack of co-ordination there is no means of ensuring those who have immediate need for food can get access to the help they need.

And there’s another issue at stake.

The UK is a signatory to an international covenant that commits it to providing citizens with the right to an adequate diet.

Yet delays in benefit payments and the low levels set are leading to more and more people requiring help from food banks to cover their most basic needs. This does not seem consistent with the basic principles of a Welfare State: ie that the public take on responsibility for ensuring that all citizens have the minimal provisions for a good life.  The concept has traditionally been supported by all parties, including the Liberals who first introduced the concept in the early 20th Century and the Conservatives who partner them in government.

So it seems that an all-party consensus around the role of the state in protecting the vulnerable may be breaking down, what is beyond dispute is that there is no longer agreement about what that principle means.

It appears to be starting to be replaced by the sort of ad hoc philanthropy that was the norm in the 19th Century, at least as far as the basic need for an adequate diet is concerned. So the needy are becoming increasingly dependent on the kindness of others rather than being able to rely on the intervention of government.

Bob Stronge wants to see an official government inquiry into the reasons why so many people (up to 500,000 across the UK) are dependent on food banks in order to survive.

“Something must be wrong,” he said. “Overall the British economy is growing fast, and this is, after all, one of the richest nations on earth, so it should not be the case that so many people cannot feed, or for that matter clothe themselves. Socially we’re going backwards, not forwards.”

He wants to see some other reforms on the Welfare agenda, ones that tackle the roots of food poverty: the long delays in processing social security benefits and tax credits, and ensuring that those on benefits and in low paid employment – the working poor – get paid enough to meet their basic needs.

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