A Defra-commissioned report into the growth of food aid has been delayed. Could it be that it links welfare reform with the explosion in food banks?
Article from Patrick Cutlers blog in the Guardian
The longer that Defra sits on the research it commissioned into the rise in emergency food aid in the UK – essentially, explaining why there has been an explosion in food banks – the more we will wonder what it has to hide.
My guess as to why it is being kept under wraps? To spare Lord Freud’s blushes.
The Sunday Times reported last week that the report was being “suppressed.” It speculated that the mysteriously parked report (which was ordered in February and delivered in early summer) was “understood to show a surge in food-bank use.”
Well, that’s not news. The surge in food bank use was why the report was commissioned in the first place. We know from data collected by theTrussell Trust and Church Action on Poverty that the surge has been building for at least two years, accelerating in April when many of thewelfare reforms came in.
Even ministers accept that more and more people use food banks. So that can’t be the reason why the report is deemed so politically sensitive. The government is dragging its feet over the report’s publication, I suspect, because it establishes a clear link between welfare reform and the rise in the number of people using food banks.
That will not go down well at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) which, as it has an interest in the research, will have been asked by Defra to comment on it. According to some accounts, DWP is uncomfortable with the report. Why? Because DWP ministers have invested a lot of political capital in denying the existence of a link between welfare and the growth in food banks.
In July, the welfare minister Lord Freud told the Lords:
The provision of food-bank support has grown from provision to 70,000 individuals two years ago to 347,000. All that predates the [welfare] reforms. As I say, there is no evidence of a causal link.
Indeed, it has become an article of faith for the DWP to insist that food bank use has nothing to with it or welfare reform. Job centres, we are told, do not “refer” claimants to food banks (even though official DWP forms exist for purely this purpose) but merely “signpost” them; food bank users do not go to food banks because their benefits have been stopped but because the food is free (as Freud memorably argued: “Food from a food bank… is a free good, and by definition there is an almost infinite demand for a free good.”); and thus the pretence goes on.
So imagine the discomfort if a peer-reviewed, government-commissioned report, carried out by the foremost experts in UK food poverty, and drawing upon a wide range existing sources of evidence (qualitative and quantitative, from both UK and abroad) concludes that welfare reform and food bank use are inextricably intertwined.
As a wild guess, I’s say that the report will note that benefit delays, increased benefit conditionality and sanctions, benefit changes, low income (and rising cost of living), debt, unemployment, and the wider effects of austerity, are all contributory factors to the to the general rise in emergency food aid.
I don’t claim supernatural powers in asserting this. Even a passing acquaintance with the existing research in the UK (and the more substantial body of work carried out in the US and Canada, where food banks have grown rapidly and are now part of the welfare mainstream) will tell you that social security cuts drive food bank use (just ask the Hollywood actor, Jeff Bridges if you don’t believe me)
I asked Defra what the current position was with the report and it replied:
Government funded research projects are required to go through the necessary review and quality assurance process prior to publication. Once this process is complete, the report will be published on the Government’s website.
I suspect that as it does not appear to be veto-ing the report, the DWP will try and shrug off the embarrassment it may cause (Labour will make hay with it) by downplaying the Defra exercise as a quick and dirty piece of work (indeed, the official term is Rapid Evidence Assessment, involving a few weeks’ intensive work) and so almost by definition not entirely “robust”.
To which one might reply, well, it was the government that commissioned it.
The wider and more important issue, of course, is what the government will do with the valuable knowledge its report contains. Another wild guess: not a lot. But you live in hope.
Earlier this year Chris Mould, the Trussell trust executive chairman, told me he had tried in vain to get an audience with ministers to discuss the connections between welfare reform and the rise in food poverty.
Frustratingly, it seemed they were somehow always too busy to listen to what he had to say. He reflected:
Until ministers understand the reasons why the [welfare] system isn’t working, nothing can be done to change it