Today’s announcement from Iain Duncan Smith that the Department for Work and Pensions are trialing placing job advisers in food banks is a welcome one. Not least because it shows an acceptance on his part that there is a link between food bank usage and problems with benefit payments, something he has resolutely refused to acknowledge for the last two years.
The DWP should absolutely be helping food bank users sort out the benefit problems that have driven them there in the first place. But the pilot is in just one food bank – does the DWP have the capacity to place advisers in each of the 400 Trussell Trust food banks, let alone the hundreds of other independent food banks across the country?
The logistics are just one flaw to Duncan Smith’s plan, though. The final report of the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty, of which I am a member, calls on the government to tackle the underlying drivers of food insecurity, in order to reach a point where no one any longer needs to use a food bank. The job advisers pilot risks the DWP institutionalising food banks, entrenching the idea that they’re just a necessary part of the ‘big society’.
Instead, the DWP should focus on addressing the underlying problems that lead to food bank usage – not just benefit delays, errors and sanctions, but low pay and the poverty premium. This still plan falls a long way short of a serious and coherent strategy our report, Hungry for Change, calls for. Many of the report’s 14 recommendations require joined up action across government, including from the DEFRA, the Business Department and the Department for Health. If Iain Duncan Smith really cares about tackling food poverty, he needs to start by working with his fellow government ministers.