Between April 2013 and March 2014, 71,428 people were forced to rely on emergency food packages in Scotland alone.
Last week the Panel on the Independence of the Voluntary Sector heard evidence that a Tory MP and senior aide of Ian Duncan Smith threatened the Trussell Trust with forced closure over what was described as the ‘politicisation of poverty’. Chris Mould, chair of the Trussell Trust, reported that in March 2013 he was threatened with forced closure as a result of the charity’s public campaigning. Mould said that they had become deliberately less vocal in the aftermath of this conversation.
One month after this exchange, food bank vouchers were altered in order to obscure the reasons why people were going to the food banks. The vouchers had originally stated whether benefit delay, benefit change, or refusal of crisis loan was responsible. This part of the voucher was done away with so that the food banks had no way of knowing what had caused people coming to them for help.
Three months later, in July 2013, Lord Freud claimed that benefit sanctions and delays had nothing to do with the spike in food bank usage, but instead that people were using food banks because they wanted free food. Last month the Work Services Director for the Department of Work and Pensions, Neil Couling, repeated this suggestion that food banks were unrelated to benefit sanctions and delays while giving evidence to a Scottish Parliament Committee.
The Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee are currently looking into the issue of food banks to see if there is a link between increasing usage and the UK Government’s welfare reforms. They met on the 4th March for a round table discussion on the subject, and you can read the transcript here. They met again for a second round table discussion on 29th April, and this time they received evidence from the Work Services Director for the DWP. You can watch Neil Couling give evidence here and read a full transcript here.
I would like to highlight some of the points made by Neil Couling, speaking in an official capacity for the DWP, to give an accurate picture of the DWP’s approach to benefit claimants, welfare reform and food banks as it stands at this point in time. The following excerpts are taken from the transcript available on the Scottish Parliament’s website.
Jobcentres across the Country Have Been Inundated With Thank You Cards From Sanctioned Claimants
Jamie Hepburn: In your memorandum you say: “It is a mistake to see sanctions as a punitive measure”.Do you think that benefit recipients see it that way?
Neil Couling: I do not know. My experience is that many benefit recipients welcome the jolt that a sanction can give them. Indeed, I have evidence — which I can share with the committee if members want it — of some very positive outcomes from just those kinds of tough conversations. They are tough conversations to have on the jobcentre side, as well as for the claimants. Some people no doubt react very badly to being sanctioned — we see some very strong reactions — but others recognise that it is the wake-up call that they needed, and it helps them get back into work.
The Deputy Convener: So, jobcentres across the country have been inundated with thank you cards from people who have received sanctions.
Neil Couling: Yes — that is not so remarkable.
Increase in Food Bank Usage is Supply-led Growth Rather Than Demand-Led Growth
The Deputy Convener: “Mr Couling, a variety of people — you heard some of them today — have told us that the sanctions regime is a major driver of the growth of food banks. Do you agree?”
Neil Couling: “No. I have been thinking about how, if you asked me that question, I might help the committee to understand a bit more about the growth of food banks and what is going on there. I thought that the end of your previous discussion was interesting: people were speculating about how to stop the growth of food banks, when the Trussell Trust’s objective is to put a food bank in every town in Great Britain — that has been the trust’s stated objective since 2004.
It is interesting to consider whether we are witnessing demand-led growth or supply-led growth. I can share with you two bits of evidence that suggest that growth is to do with supply and not demand. First, the Trussell Trust produced figures a couple of weeks ago and said that a million people had used food banks in the past year. The trust reckons that it accounts for about a third of the food bank sector, so if we gross the figure up to 3 million and work out weekly usage we get to about 60,000 people a week — that is with a generous grossing up.
In Canada, where the population is half that of the United Kingdom, at 32 million, the weekly use of food banks is not 60,000 but 700,000. In Germany, Deutsche Tafel, which is the equivalent of the Trussell Trust, reckons that in 2009 it helped a million Germans a week —not 60,000 but a million — and its most recent figure is 1.5 million. Germany is not some kind of welfare wasteland, where no help is available. That makes me think that supply is what is driving the growth. Why would poor people respond in a different way from rich people to incentives and things that they can claim or get?
The Chairman of the Trussell Trust has responded to this point in a letter to Neil Couling which explains why this comparison is disingenuous, misleading and inappropriate:
Comparison with food banks in Canada and Germany is entirely inappropriate. The Trussell Trust food bank model was specifically designed so that it is not similar to the Canadian and German models (or the prevailing models in the USA) at key points that are fundamental to the way the Trussell Trust food bank works and fundamental to the experience of the client and fundamental to how a Trussell Trust food bank would describe its goals in offering the service. For example Trussell Trust food banks do not offer a self – referral or walk in service; they do not aim to provide long term support for people on low incomes; they emphasise sign posting to help clients recover from the crisis that the professional referring them decided was the reason they needed a food bank referral. I spoke last April at the European Public Policy Conference in Paris alongside Professor Stefan Selke, whose most recent book “Schamland” provides a profound and challenging critique of the German Tafeln and the impact the movement’s development has had on welfare policy and practice in Germany. Stefan’s book is subtitled: “The poverty in the midst of us”. At that conference we identified four fundamental ways in which the Trussell Trust model differs from the Deutsche Tafel approach and why we can consequently expect profoundly different outcomes.
Couling’s point is invalid, the comparison is useless, and he is being misleading – either deliberately or through ignorance.
We Live In A Society In Which We Have Poor People And Rich People, And People Will Maximise Their Economic Choices.
Neil Couling: “The second piece of evidence on which I draw is the experience of the social fund in 2006. The previous Labour Government did four things: it reduced the rate of repayment; it extended the time over which people could repay their social fund loan; it increased the amount of money that people could borrow; and it made the fund much more accessible, by enabling individuals to access it by telephone, which took away the face-to-face challenge that used to go on in jobcentres.
In the space of three years, the number of applications for crisis loans trebled. It is ironic that, at the time, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Opposition said that that was evidence of greater welfare problems and more crises. It was not; what we had done was expand a service for people who have not got very much money, and — surprise, surprise – they applied for it.
That is why, in my view, it is supply-led growth that is going on, which will continue over the years ahead, whatever the path of welfare policies. We live in a society in which we have poor people and rich people, and people will maximise their economic choices. That is just how economies work.”
To my knowledge the actual qualifying criteria for a crisis loan was not changed. Steps were taken to make crisis loans more accessible to people who would qualify for crisis loans anyway. ‘Rich people’ were never maximising their income using crisis loans. If crisis loans are made more accessible and more people then apply for them, this is evidence of the success of the initiative. While it may not indicate a greater number of crises than existed previously, it puts a greater number of ‘crises’ on the government’s radar and it the government should take this greater number into account: increasing accessibility provides the government with a more complete picture of welfare problems and economic crises.
And What Do You Say To The Experts? “People Will Tell You Things (Lie) To Maximise Their Economic Choices”
The Deputy Convener: Dr Filip Sosenko, from Heriot-Watt University, told the committee that the growth is demand led, not supply led. He said that the evidence for that is robust and reliable and that welfare reform is a major factor —
Neil Couling: He should look at Germany, should he not?
The Deputy Convener: He said that welfare reform is a major factor in fuelling the demand for food aid, and a variety of people who work with folk on the ground have told us that people who come in cite sanctions and other welfare reform matters as factors. Are all those people, including Dr Filip Sosenko, wrong?
Neil Couling: They should look at Germany and try to understand what is behind growth there. I think—
The Deputy Convener: With respect, they have looked not at Germany but at what is happening on the ground here in Scotland and across the rest of the United Kingdom, and that is what they have found.
Neil Couling: Indeed, and people will tell you things in order to maximise their economic choices. In the same way as people will tell you, “I am looking for work”, because they know that if they say that they are not doing so there will be consequences and they will get sanctioned, people will tell you things when they present to food banks. It might not be wilful deceit that is going on; it might well be their belief about the situation. Then, the food banks will record that and it will be presented back as a fact. However, that does not establish a causal link. The supply argument is a much stronger argument. Academics are not exploring the supply argument though; they are looking at what people are reporting in food banks and citing that as evidence. That does not make it right; it is just what they are doing.
The Deputy Convener: I am bound to say that I find that a very unconvincing argument indeed.
Kevin Stewart: I would go so far as to say that it is complete and utter nonsense.
Kevin Stewart: There has been a 209 per cent increase in the number of benefit sanctions since 2006. The number of cases in which a decision to sanction somebody’s benefits was made has more than tripled, from 25,953 in 2006 to 80,305 in 2013. In that time, the single largest increase took place between 2012 and 2013, when there was an increase of 15,463 benefit sanctions in a single year. In your paper, you say that you are looking for “‘tough’ rather than co-operative attitudes of caseworkers”. Is that the reason why there has been such a massive increase in such a short period of time?
Neil Couling: I do not agree that there has been “such a massive increase” in the way that you set it out.
Kevin Stewart: It is 209 per cent.
Neil Couling: It is not a 209 per cent increase.
Kevin Stewart: Those are House of Commons figures, Mr Couling. Are they wrong?
Neil Couling: Yes they are — in that sense. The first thing you have to do is look at the number of people on benefits. You cannot just use a figure from 2006 — of what unemployment was in 2006 — and then compare it with today. It is a ridiculous calculation to make, to be quite honest.
Kevin Stewart: So the calculation from the House of Commons library is “ridiculous”.
Benefits is a reserved matter. While the Scottish Government is questioning benefits it has no power to legislate about them. Here, a senior director for the DWP is contradicting (to the point of ridiculing!) the figures used by the House of Commons about benefit sanctions. The Scottish Government has no power over this.
An Evangelical Device to get Religious Groups in Touch With Their Local Communities
Ken Macintosh: Earlier, the deputy convener asked about the rise in the use of food banks. We were talking about supply and demand. You talked about examples from Germany and Canada. We could also point to America and other places. Is it the Government’s intention for food banks to be institutionalised in this country? That is clearly a different approach to food banks.
Neil Couling: The Department for Work and Pensions has said — I will paraphrase it a bit —that the growth in food banks is nothing to do with us. As somebody has pointed out, they are a community-led response. We support food banks to the extent that we signpost people to them from jobcentres, but the Government does not have a policy on the growth or otherwise of food banks.
Ken Macintosh: We are looking at food banks as well as welfare reforms generally. You talked about the States. Food banks are an integral part of the approach to welfare there, whereas we have never taken such an approach in our country. Food banks have always been there as a charitable response from the community, but they have not been part of our welfare system. I am not sure whether you answer for the Government, but is the Government not even concerned that we are developing a system in which food banks are an integral part of welfare rather than just a charitable response?
Neil Couling: I do not think that it has been proved that food banks are an integral part of the welfare system. They are responding to a desire of people to contribute to them — they are a charitable establishment in the main, although the Scottish Government has given them some funding. Food banks are outside the Government and state sphere. General UK Government policy is to applaud voluntary and community action. For the Trussell Trust, food banks started as an evangelical device to get religious groups in touch with their local communities. As far as I know, the Government has no policy on evangelism.
Neil Couling has indicated that he is sceptical about the necessity for food banks. He has implied that the figures for food bank usage are compromised by illegitimate use by those trying to maximise their economic circumstances. He has repeatedly stated that he believes benefit sanctions – which ensure a benefit claimant has no income at all for a certain period of time – have no impact on the necessity for food banks. Here he attempted to discredit the Trussell Trust by painting them as a purely evangelical project. Chris Mould, chair of the Trussell Trust wrote to Couling requesting that he either provide evidence for or rescind his comments as they are ‘directly challenging the integrity of a registered charity and its trustees both past and present’. Couling responded by citing the Trussell Trust website which refers to their being ‘driven by Christian Principles’, which isn’t quite the same as being a evangelical organization. Couling is attempting to smear the food banks by implying that they are cynically luring vulnerable people into evangelical outreaches. This is not what food banks are doing.
To put it lightly, this is a mess. Senior members of the DWP ridiculing House of Commons figures, dismissing the rise in food bank usage as ‘supply-created’, citing totally alien food bank systems from other countries as evidence of this, and implying that both rich and poor people alike are maximizing their economic circumstances by using food banks.
The Scottish vote is proven to have no significant impact on the complexion of the Westminster governments that do have a say.
So where do we go from here?