ANTI-POVERTY CHARITIES are proposing a major shake-up of the UK Government’s economic and social security policies to end the need for food banks across the country.

The Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) and Feeding Britain, alongside the University of York and Living Wage Foundation, report that while the knock-on effects of Covid-19 have made it more difficult for groups such as the self-employed and disabled people to afford food, many of the deep-seated causes of hunger stretch back more than a decade and can only be addressed by radical changes in Government policy.

To that end, the charities are working with backbench MPs on a raft of poverty-busting bills – covering benefit rates and assessments, job creation and stronger protection for low-paid workers – that will be introduced to Parliament in the autumn.

Among the new findings which underpin the proposals are data from the House of Commons Library which show that, in the decade between 2010 and 2020, families with at least one disabled member and in receipt of Universal Credit (UC) or equivalent benefits suffered a real terms cut of £624 in their annual income. By contrast, families where nobody is disabled, and not in receipt of UC or equivalent benefits, saw a real terms increase of £728 in their annual income. Moreover, 600,000 families containing at least one person with a work-limiting disability will be made £20 a week worse off by cuts to UC in October.

The charities cite evidence from the Feeding Coventry and Feeding Leicester networks showing that 60 per cent of people requiring emergency help were either disabled or had a long-term health condition. Elsewhere, Feeding Devon share the example of a deaf person “getting weaker and weaker” who was underweight and “forced to choose between food and heating her home”, and report that, “throughout our rural isolated area we have a lot of young people who have developed mental illness such as severe anxiety, agoraphobia, depression, and suicidal thoughts”.

Analysing recent research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the charities also find that, in last year’s first national lockdown, the number of disabled people in households needing to use a food bank increased by 55 per cent. In the second half of 2020, food bank use among working households increased by 52 per cent, and the number of self-employed people losing work and needing to use food banks increased steeply, in some cases to five times its previous level.. Twent -five per cent of those relying on charitable food aid projects were self-employed people who had lost work.

Caroline, a member of the Covid Realities research programme and a self-employed registered childminder, described the horror of the downward spiral from financial security to insecurity: “Financial instability creates a bigger vacuum that you get lost in. You’re not able to buy food, you’re not able to pay your bills, you’re not able to pay for your heating, and so you get sucked into debt even more. The more you’re sucked in, the harder it is to get out. I rely on parents being employed to keep me employed […] one parent’s hours were reduced from 40 to 16, they still needed childcare but couldn’t afford it. The rug was pulled from under her and so it was pulled from under me at the same time […] you do have to prioritise the bills, the heating, and the food is the last thing the majority of us as parents think of.”

Similar evidence was given by Feeding Derbyshire: “many people have no savings and so no safety net. We supported one lady who was rehomed with two young children in a small rural village after a relationship breakdown. She was self-employed but had not had her business for long enough to qualify for Covid-19 support. Her new home had no carpets or curtains and her car failed its MOT. She could not afford the repairs and so couldn’t access a good value food shop.”

Emma, a member of the Covid Realities research programme, drew particular attention to the scourge of insecure work: “Working on an hourly rate is all well and good, provided that hours are regular and set out consistently. Living on a basic budget and having an hourly income is very hard if the hours aren’t there. If you have a bad few weeks with reduced hours, it has a knock- on effect. That shortfall can then spiral for months as you are just trying to catch up. Working-class people want a chance to thrive, not just survive.”

In setting out the scale of the challenge facing the Prime Minister’s ‘Levelling Up’ programme, as well as the acute need for new policies to create jobs in ‘left behind’ areas, the charities also cite data from the House of Lords Library showing that, in two-thirds of the areas covering coalfield communities in some of Britain’s older industrial heartlands, rates of unemployment and child poverty last year were equal to or higher than the national average. Members of the Feeding Derbyshire network, for example, noted that access to reliable work is difficult in coalfield communities where people live in dispersed villages and small towns, with only seasonal or irregular work available within a reasonable distance.

Commenting on the findings, Sabine Goodwin, Co-ordinator of IFAN, said: “Food banks cannot continue to take responsibility for the impact of a broken disability benefits system and insecure and inadequately paid employment. As the upcoming cut to Universal Credit is set to push yet more people into poverty and food insecurity, it is more important than ever that the Government makes fundamental changes to the social security system and ensures that wages and working hours match the cost of living.”

Andrew Forsey, Feeding Britain’s National Director, added: “While the pandemic has prompted the Government to repair a number of holes in our country’s safety net, these findings shine a bright light on the many holes that still exist. If we are to abolish hunger and eliminate the need for food banks, every last one of those holes needs to be repaired. The bills being presented to Parliament on the back of these findings will offer the Prime Minister the tools he needs to achieve that objective.”

Dr Maddy Power, Research Fellow at the University of York and Co-Chair of IFAN, said: “Listening to people with direct experience of poverty and food insecurity and to food banks, it is clear the devastation that government cuts over the past decade have caused for disabled people and those in low paid, insecure work. As we emerge from the pandemic, it is vital that we learn from people with direct experience of poverty in order to rectify a broken social security system and ensure financial security for all.”

* Read Structural Inequality, Disability and Food Insecurity here.

* Read Secure work and a secure safety net – a new role for the labour market and social security in preventing the need for charitable food aid here.

* Source: Independent Food Aid Network