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Benefit advisers in foodbanks: a backwards step



Many people involved in the world of foodbanks will know the baby-saving parable used by American sociologist Janet Poppendieck in her 1998 book ‘Sweet charity: emergency food and the end of entitlement’: a village becomes so preoccupied with the short-term emergency of rescuing drowning babies from a river that it neglects to look upstream at finding solutions as to why they are being thrown into the river in the first place.

Using the same analogy, Iain Duncan-Smith came up with a novel solution to the problem of escalating foodbank use this week.  He thinks that having been the architect of the UK foodbank industry by metaphorically throwing over a million people into the river last year, he can now be their saviour too by rescuing them downstream (by placing DWP benefit advisers into foodbanks).

During the session, Duncan-Smith had the chutzpah to cast doubt on Trussell Trust statistics. The irony of emphasising the importance of reliable evidence is not lost after the fabrication of DWP case studies or that his planned nationwide rollout of benefit advisers is premised on a three-week trial at one independent foodbank in Manchester.

But that misses the wider point. His tacit acceptance of the institutionalisation of food banks is a symbolic moment in the on-going implementation of Thatcher’s ideological project of welfare without the state.

Whilst that may sound fatalistic, resistance will largely now depend on how the UK foodbank industry responds. The statement from Trussell Trust (the UK's largest foodbank franchise) was ambivalent at best: welcoming Government interest in the idea of installing benefit advisers but urgently asking for dialogue (there is some history of bad blood).  I find that response puzzling. Duncan-Smith’s proposal would represent a dangerous case of mission creep for Trussell Trust in a dog-eat-dog voluntary sector in which it would be treading on the toes of many of its partner referral agencies.

Moreover, my own small-scale research found users appreciated foodbanks as a welcoming and trusting sanctuary. It is not difficult to see how that trust would be rapidly eroded – in today’s surveillance state, would carrying out a bag of tinned food demonstrate evidence that could be used against you in next week’s Work Capability Assessment? More than 1 in 5 foodbank users are sanctioned – as Chi Onwurah commented, how will they feel when they see a representative from the very organisation that has placed them in that predicament? Of course, foodbanks may be useful outreach venues for independent advice agencies such as Citizens Advice but that is a world away from a DWP adviser!

In any case, the idea that a benefits adviser is a solution is often based on a false premise.  Whilst delays, sanctions and benefit changes are symptoms of precarity, the reason they have such pronounced effect is simply low income. Many welfare rights advisers will nod in dispirited acknowledgment when I quote Jane (an Advice Manager) on the increasing prevalence of destitution:

‘for the first time in my work … which runs for over 20 years now … I am feeling on occasions there is nothing we can do for people and I know that people are literally destitute, they don’t have food provision and what’s particularly concerning is this effective self-disconnection that’s happening with people’s utilities’.

Of course, as a welfare rights adviser myself, I know the value of advice. The project I worked on last year has identified over £1.2m of unclaimed benefits in the last year – over £20bn is unclaimed in the UK each year. But advice costs and is not immune to cuts. Perhaps the old advice model is not the best way – community-based welfare clinics could provide an answer through collective self-help, knowledge-sharing, benefit take-up sessions as well as a re-politicisation that affirms a user’s dignity and integrity as well as their right to food. Unite Community already does some of these things – if the Labour Party is to maintain its momentum and reach out to a disenfranchised and depoliticised group, this is a prime opportunity to show we are a party that wants to represent people who are out of work, whatever Rachel Reeves may think. 

Trussell Trust as the leading foodbank franchise is at a crossroads. My local foodbank in York has a manager whose commendable aim is to work herself out of a job. She sees the bigger picture. Whether Trussell Trust or the wider foodbank industry does is a moot point. It is possible they can utilise the trust they have garnered in their users to provide a politics of representation and recognition –even if creates some unease and turbulence with some of its volunteers. But the alternative is surely, as Mhairi Black said this week, to be considered an ‘outpost’ of Jobcentre Plus or a symbolic representation of Cameron’s ‘shadow state’.