Debate about the increased use of foodbanks over the past few years with explanations ranging from increased supply, welfare reform to rising food prices. One of the reasons End Hunger UK argue for government to measure hunger is to help us better understand those causes. Increasingly there is a strong evidence base collected by many leading food bank providers and poverty charities. Here, Child Poverty Action Group’s Moussa Haddad looks at how evidence in one particular area – the link between benefit sanctions, and food bank use – has developed over the past few years.

Under the coalition government (2010-15), there were significant changes in sanctions policy. On the one hand, the conditions claimants were asked to meet became tougher. November’s National Audit Office report indicates that, in January 2012, the DWP increased expectations for ‘actively seeking work’. Statistics for numbers of sanctions issued as a proportion of JSA and ESA claimants show a substantial increase during those years, the proportion subsequently falling back to its pre-2010 levels under the current government.

Severity of benefit sanctions

More enduring has been the step-change increase in the severity of benefits sanctions, since October 2012. JSA sanctions start at four weeks’ loss of benefit, rising to a maximum of three years. Meanwhile, figures from the Trussell Trust show that the number of emergency food parcels they gave out nearly trebled between 2011/12 and 2012/13, and again between 2012/13 and 2013/14. Of course, correlation does not imply causation. But, unsurprisingly, suspicions arose of a link between government policy that leaves tens of thousands of people every month without any money to live on, and tens of thousands of people every month relying upon food banks to feed themselves.

Today, we have more than suspicion to go on. In 2014, CPAG was one of a group of organisations (the others were the Trussell Trust, the Church of England, and Oxfam) who investigated drivers of food bank use. This research, Emergency Use Only, found that between 19 and 29 per cent of visits to the food banks we studied were caused by sanctions. And the hardship endured is a deliberate policy intention: the DWP’s own guidance to decision makers acknowledges that ‘it would be usual for a normal healthy adult to suffer some deterioration in their health’ if left without income for two weeks (JSA sanctions start at twice this duration). Decision makers assessing potential hardship payments should be looking only at those who would ‘suffer a greater decline in health than a normal healthy adult’ [original emphasis].

Hardship payments

We know, too, that the system of hardship payments referred to in the guidance is not doing its job properly. Emergency Use Only found that, among food bank clients who had been sanctioned, awareness of hardship payments ran at 18, 57 and 68 per cent in the three food banks studied. Actual receipt of hardship payments was far lower, at 4, 7 and 18 per cent. This was consistent with the 2014 report of the All-Party Parliamentary Into Hunger in the United Kingdom, which found ‘evidence suggesting that Jobcentre Plus staff are failing to inform claimants experiencing delays of their right to apply for a short-term benefit advance or hardship payment to fill the gap in their income’.

This is important because research by CPAG and others shows that, in a majority of cases, people going to food banks do so following an acute income shock, often leaving them with little or no income. Hardship payments are the mechanism in place to prevent people who are sanctioned from having no money at all to live on. That so many are ending up in food banks without knowing that such a system even exists is a clear failure.

Management culture

Last year, research conducted by Oxford University took a systematic approach to analysing the relationship between sanctioning and food bank use. Looking at Trussell Trust foodbank data from across 259 local authorities between 2012 and 2015, the report found a ‘strong, dynamic relationship’, such that, for every ten additional sanctions applied in each quarter of the year, on average five more adults would be referred to Trussell Trust foodbanks in the area. Where sanctioning decreased, food bank use also decreased. Crucially, this research controlled both for variation between local authorities and for the opening of new food banks, ruling out other explanations, and particularly the ‘if you build it, they will come’ explanation once favoured by parts of government.

Most recently, in November, we saw the publication of the National Audit Office report into the use of sanctions. This exposed a gaping hole at the heart of sanctions policy: the government instigated its changes with no evidence as to what impacts they might have, and has since done nothing to track their costs and benefits. The NAO’s finding that sanctions are driven by management culture rather than claimant behaviour – that they are more or less arbitrary – is consistent with the plethora of cases seen by CPAG and others of sanctions being administered for the most trivial or erroneous reasons.

What can be done?

What is to be done? In March 2015, the cross-party Work and Pensions Committee recommended that the DWP commission ‘a broad independent review of benefit conditionality and sanctions, to investigate whether sanctions are being applied appropriately, fairly and proportionately’. Conducting such an independent review seems a good way to address questions as to the appropriate severity of sanctions policy and whether they are truly being used as a last resort that are by their nature political. The government could perhaps reconsider its refusal to do so.

Operationally, there are things that the government could do far more quickly to weaken the link between sanctions and food bank use. Better advertising of hardship payments could help ensure that they are available – and awarded – where appropriate. A true ‘yellow card’ system could ensure that a first mistake doesn’t lead to extreme financial hardship. And modifying fixed term sanctions so that improved claimant behaviour can be rewarded seems fairer, and more conducive to encouraging engagement with job seeking.

Ultimately, the belief that sanctions can and do lead to food bank use has moved from intuition towards a strong and robust evidence base. We must continue to encourage the government to act on that evidence, and make the small but important changes that could prevent tens of thousands of people in Britain being forced to rely upon food banks.