By Garry Lemon, Head of External Affairs at Trussell Trust
In the House of Commons on the 18th October last year, MPs were debating the biggest change to the British welfare system in a generation – a radical transformation that will eventually affect millions of UK households. On that day, MPs were locked in debate around Universal Credit, which aims to simplify the current system of benefits by rolling several benefits and tax credits into one package, while making it easier for claimants to find work.
But by April 2017, some of the 428 foodbanks in the Trussell Trust network were beginning to raise the alarm about this new form of benefit which was just beginning national rollout. Foodbank managers began to report a sharp increase in demand, prompting us to create Early Warnings, research that revealed Universal Credit was indeed leading to foodbank demand rising more quickly.
We shared this evidence with government, and when it came time for us to release our latest set of statistics (which showed 586,907 three day emergency food supplies were given to people in crisis in first half of this year by Trussell Trust foodbanks, a 13 per cent increase on the same period last year) we also called for specific reforms to Universal Credit to make the system work better, instead of locking people in poverty and destitution.
In that October Universal Credit debate, foodbanks – both Trussell Trust and independent – were mentioned almost 50 times. Evidence gathered by The Trussell Trust and shared with MPs of all major parties helped them to call for, amongst other things, a shortening of the six-week wait that must be endured before people receive the money to which they’re entitled.
Soon afterwards, the Chancellor laid out his Autumn Budget. After years of cuts to the welfare state, we saw something new. It was announced that £1.5 billion was to be ploughed back into the Universal Credit system, including a shortening of the 6-week wait. The Chancellor said: “I recognise the genuine concerns on both sides of the House about the operational delivery of this benefit. Today we will act on those concerns.”
Though these changes will not fix Universal Credit, they are a welcome step in the right direction, and will make a real difference to people supported by this new benefit to make ends meet. And though many organisations were calling for reform, I think it’s fair to say that foodbanks played an important part in making that change happen.
This step forwards is testament to our volunteers – ordinary people who saw need in their community, and responded in a practical way. They are not simply doling out food to hungry people. They are recording rising national demand, they are helping with ground-breaking research into the root causes of modern UK poverty and they are holding politicians to account to help eliminate it.
And when a foodbank is part of the Trussell Trust network not only is their voice amplified by the tens of thousands of volunteers alongside them, but they are given support to ensure that everyone who needs their help gets the best service possible.
It is true that to join the network a foodbank must pay a one off £1,500, plus an ongoing fee of £360 per year. But that cost is more than offset by money we direct back into the network. Last year we provided foodbanks in The Trussell Trust network with £1.3 million of funding through our partnerships, such as with Tesco, who rather than profit from the sale of food bought in their stores that is donated to foodbanks, instead donate that money back to us. We distribute 100% of that cash back to foodbanks to support their work.
The fees cover the cost of, amongst other things, training, access to our data system, web support and annual audits and quality assurance processes. Members of our network can also benefit from best practice from other foodbanks, such as our More Than Food programme which offers services like debt advice or healthy cooking classes, or signposting to other organisations that can help with debt and benefit problems.
The Trussell Trust is a charity. We do not profit from these fees and we never, ever sell on food – the vast majority of which is generously donated by members of the public.
Indeed, some Trussell Trust foodbanks even transport and give food for free to nearby independent foodbanks when there is surplus and shelves are in danger of going empty elsewhere. We see the work of foodbanks outside of our network as massively important. We recently worked alongside the Independent Food Action Network to calculate that foodbank volunteers across the UK are now providing at least £30 million a year in unpaid work to support foodbanks, both Trussell Trust and independent.
It is our goal to end the poverty that leads to such widespread hunger and destitution in 21st century Britain, but we cannot do that alone. We will work with members of our foodbank network, politicians, other charities, business, society at large not just to ensure that people are fed and supported, but also to tackle the structural causes that currently drive hundreds of thousands of men, women and children through our doors every year. Only together will we succeed.
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