To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are the criteria for the issuing of food vouchers by Jobcentre Plus branches for use at food banks.
My Lords, Jobcentre Plus offices do not issue food vouchers. Some Jobcentre Plus offices have an agreement with their local food bank for referrals, but some simply signpost claimants to a variety of available local provision, including by local authorities, depending on their immediate needs. We gave Jobcentre Plus district managers the freedom to make local links with food banks.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply, but does he agree that because the provision of food banks by major retailers is driven down by the Courtauld agreement, whereby retailers have very few food surpluses, the signposting by job centres to food banks will not be a way of providing food to those in emergency need? Will he ensure that his department monitors the referral and re-referral of signposting, so that by the time universal credit, which I support, is introduced, his department will have a full picture of those in food need and proper account will be taken of it?
My Lords, I must emphasise to my noble friend that food banks are absolutely not part of our welfare system, in which we have other means of supporting people. There is local provision, and following the devolution of part of the Social Fund to local authorities, local authorities are now responsible for setting up local welfare provision. To the extent that they are interested in using third-sector groups, including food banks, that is entirely up to them.
My Lords, April this year saw the demise of the discretionary Social Fund and the passing of responsibilities to local authorities. We know that funding for local authorities was not ring-fenced and we learnt last week of a further 10% cut in their budgets. Does the Minister not accept that this, taken together with harsher benefit sanctions regimes and a longer wait for benefits, will mean that the use of food banks will only increase? Despite what he said, is it not a fact that under this Government food banks are looking to be a permanent part of the welfare provision of this country?
My Lords, there is actually no evidence as to whether the use of food banks is supply led or demand led. The provision of food-bank support has grown from provision to 70,000 individuals two years ago to 347,000. All that predates the reforms. As I say, there is no evidence of a causal link.
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there is a lot of mythology about food banks? This movement was started by the Christian churches—people reaching out to people who are not necessarily long-term unemployed but who have found themselves in a position through no fault of their own. There are abused women who have been given local flats by housing associations but who still do not have money until their benefits come through, and this is where groups of people, operating through the churches —it started in Salisbury—can do so much good. One of the benefits of them for people like me is to make sure that we do something for our fellow men. Can my noble friend confirm that this is nothing at all to do with the welfare system and is pure charity?
My Lords, yes, local provision that reflects the requirements of local areas is absolutely right. Charitable provision is to be admired and supported.
Are the Government prepared to concede that there may be a link between benefit delays, errors and sanctions and the growing number of people using food banks? If so, what action is planned to address this?
My Lord, as I said, it is difficult to make causal connections. The Trussell Trust has said that one reason why people have come to it is benefit delays. I checked through the figures and in the period of that increase the number of delays that we had had reduced. It went up by four percentage points over the past three years, and our delays now stand at 90%. It is difficult to know which came first, the supply or the demand.
If that sounded like jargon, I apologise. I meant that food from a food bank—the supply—is a free good, and by definition there is an almost infinite demand for a free good.
Given that there is so much uncertainty about the figures, the noble Baroness asked whether the Government were going to monitor this. What kind of research or monitoring can the Government undertake to be sure of the figures and the impact of the various factors?
My Lords, the refusal of crisis loans is one of the reasons why people are turning to food banks. Do this Government intend to scrutinise the provision of crisis loans, given that the funding for them has recently transferred to local authorities and devolved Administrations?
My Lords, I can assure my noble friend that the DWP is retaining advances of benefit within the core benefit system. The crisis elements of the Social Fund—the community grants—are going towards local welfare provision by local authorities. This happened in April. My information is that that transfer has landed well.
My Lords, does the Minister really think that people want to go to food banks or that those who are providing them really want to do so? I visited the food bank in Consett recently, and the person running it said to me, “Please, please, tell the Government that this is because the benefits system is now inadequate and people are desperate. That’s why they’re coming”.
My Lords, as noble Lords know, we are very concerned about the existing benefits system, which is very complex. We are introducing the universal credit, which is designed to make work pay but also to direct more funds to the poorest people. That is exactly why we have introduced that initiative.