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Social Justice

Government accused of ‘institutionalising’ food banks in new guidance for councils

Councils have been told by the government to direct low-income families to foodbanks as part of a new winter support fund.

The government is “institutionalising” food banks by telling councils to direct struggling families to emergency food handouts this winter.

In fresh guidance to local authorities on the Household Support Fund (HSF), the government frequently refers to food banks as part of the infrastructure local authorities should work with to keep families out of destitution.

The HSF is a temporary £500million cashpot to help families in poverty afford essentials, but it was announced the same week the government cut universal credit by £20 per week. 

The Westminster guidance lists examples of how English councils should manage the funding. The advice does mention giving families money directly – twice – but encourages the use of supermarket vouchers and referrals to food banks throughout. 

Local authorities should opt for vouchers instead of cash – and “consider restricting usage” – to avoid the risk of recipients spending it on anything beyond what the government says is acceptable.

Charities are named in the guidance as “delivery partners” to help meet the fund’s “policy intent” of helping people access basic necessities. 

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But it highlights the government’s increasing over-reliance on the third sector to plaster over soaring poverty while ignoring calls to address root causes, food bank experts have said.

“Any available government funding should be used for direct cash payments to anyone unable to afford food and not to bolster food banks,” said Sabine Goodwin, coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN) which comprises more than 500 food banks across the UK.

“Embedding charitable food aid further through government funding is tantamount to institutionalising food banks in this country.”

The ringfenced funding is to support people through the final stages of recovery from the pandemic, the government said, with the cashpot set to close in four months. But UK poverty was already increasing before the Covid-19 crisis, with the number of working people unable to afford essentials hitting a record high well before the country entered its first lockdown.

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Councils have been told not to use the funding to help people access money advice services. But charities and food banks have spent the past year working together to provide exactly that and end the need for food aid altogether.

The guidance was released just days after NHS figures showed illnesses linked to Victorian poverty and lack of food were making a comeback, with cases of scurvy and malnutrition doubling since the Conservatives came to power in 2010.

“If we’re to end the need for charitable food aid in the UK then a cash first approach to food insecurity is fundamental,” Goodwin told The Big Issue. IFAN is working with local groups to roll out referral leaflets directing people to financial support they could already be entitled to.

“Temporary and inadequate sticking plasters are no substitute for a proper social security system that offers certainty to families in hard times,” Jonathan Reynolds, Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, told The Big Issue.

“People are facing a very difficult winter because of Conservative chaos, tax hikes and cuts to universal credit.”

Credit: Independent Food Aid Network

The project is already in operation in 44 local authorities across the country – most recently in Birmingham – with work underway in another 55 areas. Resources are being placed in GPs, libraries and schools as well as food banks to help people facing financial crisis quickly see the advice and cash options available to them “before they reach crisis point”, with the aim of putting money in people’s pockets and end the need for food handouts.

But the household support fund places emphasis on giving people food vouchers and charity referrals instead.

Councils should also be wary of “fraud risks”, the government said. 

“This language is not helpful,” Goodwin said. “This was an opportunity for the government to be clear about the significance of a cash first approach in reducing the need for food banks.”

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The guidance points to the government’s own data on people who need universal credit, free school meals and free prescriptions as a starting point for local authorities to identify households most in need.

While the third sector fights to cut poverty at a local level, the government should be focusing on benefits which pay enough to cover the cost of living, providing job security and ensuring work pays enough to keep families afloat, Goodwin added.

Councils must also make it clear that the funding comes from the government in any publicity material or social media posts, according to the document.

Worrying About Money? cash-first referral information can be viewed here.

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