Most of us intuitively feel that food banks should not need to exist in a country as wealthy as ours. Yet over the last eight years provision of emergency food parcels has doubled. Reducing the need for food aid could prove both a popular ambition and a tangible measure of progress for the next Labour government. However, it would require the party to face down its fears about arguing for significant investment in the social security system.
I spent the end of last year talking to people using food banks about the circumstances that had led them there, for a report with the Independent Food Aid Network and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Many had reached the breaking point of initially seeking food aid due to a crisis, such as losing a job, or experiencing an error or delay with their benefits. However, they had often continued to need support because they could not make ends meet on the benefits they received.
People I spoke to on universal credit had just seen the end of the £20-a-week Covid-19 uplift, but many suggested it would take an uplift at least twice this size for them to be able to comfortably cover their basic costs. Since then, benefits have been losing their real-terms value – they were only uprated by 3.1 per cent in April while inflation has exceeded 9 per cent. The extra one-off payments announced by the ex-chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in May will help to ease the pain but are only a temporary fix.
There are, of course, wider factors contributing to the demand for food aid that Labour should look to address, particularly around low pay and insecure work. Support from local authorities and the third sector has been hollowed out by a decade of cuts.
Cutting the five-week wait for universal credit and moving away from a system of punitive benefit sanctions would also make a significant impact. But with unemployment benefits at their lowest real-terms value since the early 1990s, the central question of the adequacy of social security will have to be addressed.
Labour is understandably wary of making major spending commitments up to two years out from the next general election, particularly around an issue as politically contentious as benefit rates. However, a headline commitment to end the need for food banks would be harder for the Conservatives to attack and more likely to inspire public support. It would also provide a solid foundation for a debate about whether the support people get is adequate.
Ultimately, the only way to eliminate the need for food banks is to ensure that no one is allowed to fall below a level of income that leaves them unable to afford food. The Fabians’ Going with the Grain report last year found that almost 75 per cent of people agree that benefits should cover more than just very basic food and shelter. The more divisive question is whether people believe current rates are sufficient to do so.
Labour could try to defer and defuse this question by proposing an independent body to recommend benefit rates that ensure people can meet their basic needs. Building on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s ‘minimum income standards’ work, this body could use deliberative approaches to foster public engagement and bolster the perceived legitimacy of the recommendations it makes.
But ensuring benefits are adequate is just half of the equation. Many people are not currently receiving the support they are eligible for, because they are not aware it is available or are reluctant to claim it. Labour should explore how it could better encourage take-up of benefits, in collaboration with local authorities and the third sector, and even look to automate claims where possible.
In addition, a statutory duty on all public bodies to help protect people from destitution, as well as being symbolically powerful, could make it clear that this is a shared responsibility of fundamental importance. A ‘right to food’ could also provide a basis to challenge decisions and actions (or inaction) that contribute to food insecurity.
These kinds of systemic objectives and policies have the potential to reframe the way the public understands and perceives poverty, by shifting the focus away from individual responsibility. They would also make it harder for subsequent governments to backslide on the progress the next Labour government is able to make.
Labour needs to find ways to change the terms of the political debate around poverty in order to open the door to more transformational change. A commitment to end the need for food banks, backed up with bold and innovative policy ideas, could help the party to achieve this.
Image credit: Catholic Church of England and Wales via Flickr