The Bishop of Croydon, Jonathan Clark (with whom I serve on the Court of Governors of the Whitgift Foundation), has weighed in to the debate about the Government’s welfare reforms and the growing number of people using foodbanks to help feed their families. He told the Inside Croydon website:
“In Croydon, as in many other places, we are seeing the catastrophic effect that benefit changes are having on ordinary people’s lives. It’s very encouraging to see the generosity and hard work of those who are helping to meet immediate need, especially through the growth of food banks, but we also need to challenge the policies which lead to the need for food banks in the first place.”
Amen to that. But what are the policies which lead to the need for food banks in the first place? Bishop Jonathan clearly feels it’s all the fault of the Government’s welfare reforms. It's absolutely right that he and other faith leaders should address such issues, but I would respectfully suggest that the evidence shows it’s a lot more complicated than that.
The use of foodbanks in this country has been growing for over ten years. It grew during the mid 2000s when the economy was doing well, it grew during the great recession at the end of the last Government and it has continued to grow under this Government as the economy has emerged from recession. There doesn’t therefore seem to be any correlation between foodbank use and the wealth of the country as a whole.
The Labour Party would have you believe that the increase is down to this Government “attacking” the poor and presiding over greater inequality. The evidence doesn’t support that either. Inequality is at its lowest level since 1986. Compared with 2009, the last year of the last Labour Government, there are 1 million fewer people in relative poverty (source: Office for National Statistics Households Below National Income data); 1.3 million more people in work and 150,000 fewer people unemployed (source: Office for National Statistics Labour Market statistics); and 275,000 fewer households where no-one works (source: Office for National Statistics Workless households).
One reason for the increased use of foodbanks is their increased availability. In the late 1990s, there were very few foodbanks in this country. As the Trussell Trust have opened more and more, people who were already in need have made use of them.
But there are undoubtedly more people who are struggling to make ends meet too. This isn’t however solely, or even mainly, due to the Government’s welfare reforms. The Trussell Trust itself estimates that 19% of those who use their foodbanks do so because of changes to their benefits (and in many of those cases the change is that their benefit has been withdrawn eg because they have been judged not to be actively searching for work rather than a result of changes in Government policy). As Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury has said, Bishop Jonathan (and many of his fellow bishops who have made similar comments):
“...are right in describing a serious problem but only partially correct in their analysis. It is much too simplistic to blame these problems on cutbacks to welfare”.
Even if the Government’s efforts to reduce our huge welfare budget are a factor, they are not the underlying cause which is that many people in this country either can’t find work at all or can’t find work that pays sufficiently well to support them and their families. Other contributing factors are family breakdown (it’s much harder to support a family on one salary than two) and drug or alcohol addiction. The policies that will reduce the need for foodbanks are therefore:
- policies that promote economic growth and hence job creation (as noted above, there are 1.3 million more jobs today than there were at the end of the last Government and more than at any time in our history);
- improvements to our education system so that people leave school, college or university with better skills and can therefore command higher wages (under the last Government, this country slid down international league tables in maths, literacy and science; this Government is radically reforming our school system, curriculum and exam system to try to reverse that decline);
- a higher minimum wage provided employers can afford the increase without having to shed jobs (the exact rate is legally a decision for the Low Pay Commission, not the Government, but the Chancellor has said he believes the economy can now afford above-inflation increases and this week the Commission announced the first above-inflation increase for years and said more will follow);
- the Government taking less money away from the low paid in income tax (this Government has significantly increased the personal allowance [the amount of money we are allowed to earn before we have to start paying income tax], which benefits everyone with the lowest paid seeing the biggest percentage increase in their tax home pay - someone working full-time for the minimum wage will shortly be paying half the income tax they paid under Labour);
- policies to support families staying together (family breakdown is a wider societal issue, but there are things Government can do, and is doing, to help eg parenting advice, help with the costs of childcare);
- more effective help for those struggling with drug or alcohol addiction; and
- help for families struggling with the cost of living (not easy when money is tight but among other things this Government has found the money to cancel Labour’s planned increases in petrol duty, help councils freeze Council Tax, reduce the scale of rail fare increases and take about £50 off the average household energy bill).
Finally, there is a moral case for the Government’s welfare reforms. It’s not right to pay some people more in benefits than most people earn in work. It’s not right that people who have never paid into the system should get money without having to give something back. It’s not right to put hundreds of thousands of people on Incapacity Benefit, do nothing to help them get back into work and just forget about them. And it’s not right to turn a blind eye to those who are fraudulently claiming help they are not entitled to.
As a Conservative I passionately believe in our welfare state. I want to live in a country where if you lose your job, get sick, are injured or are born with a condition which means you will never be able to work, there is a safety net to protect you. But as a Conservative I also believe the welfare state must be affordable and it must be fair to those who are paying for it as well as those who depend on it. And like Bishop Jonathan I believe that our obligation to those less well-off than ourselves is not just discharged by paying taxes - that we all have a duty to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves.