8 December 2014
Last updated at 00:01
The number of food banks has grown in the past 10 years
An income squeeze, benefit delays and excessive utility bills are blamed by a cross-party group of MPs for a huge rise in the use of food banks.
The inquiry, by Conservative and Labour MPs and church leaders, says many families are one unexpected bill away from financial crisis.
They urge quicker benefit payments, the extension of free school meals and a living wage to reduce hunger.
Ministers called the report a serious contribution to an important debate.
The all-party parliamentary inquiry into hunger in the UK was set up to understand the extent and spread of hunger, food poverty and to investigate its underlying causes.
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Too many people… face the choice of putting money in the gas meter or food on the table”
Hunger and Food Poverty report
The inquiry found it difficult to calculate the exact number of food banks in the UK as so many are independent and run by individual groups.
But it did ascertain the number of Trussell Trust food banks has grown from a handful to 420 in the past 10 years. And it heard suggestions there may be at least as many food banks operating independently.
The growth in food bank use is mirrored across Europe and the US, the report said.
It acknowledged UK families on low incomes “have been hit disproportionately hard” by rising living costs and this has eroded the value of their income.
“Too many people living in low-income households often face the choice of putting money in the gas meter or food on the table,” it said.
“In addition, they face in many cases a premium on the basic goods and services they buy.”
The report stressed “benefit delays have been a key reason” for people turning to food banks.
It heard much evidence that lengthy delays in the administration and receipt of benefit payments have caused severe hardship for new claimants.
It concluded: “Benefit-related problems were the single biggest reason given for food bank referrals by almost every food bank that presented evidence to us.
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Hunger in the UK
people at risk of going hungry
food banks across big cities and towns
500,000 children live in families that can’t afford to feed them
3.5 million adults cannot afford to eat properly
“The inquiry is concerned that there are avoidable problems occurring in the administration of social security benefits, which have a particularly detrimental impact on poor and vulnerable claimants.”
It heard the Department for Work and Pensions does not currently collect information on the time taken for benefit payments to be made and said some people were waiting up to 16 weeks for a claim.
‘Too long to survive’
The department measures the average number of days taken between an application and a decision being made on a claim.
“Whilst the department aims for this process to be concluded within 16 days, we heard that for some claimants even this length of time is too long to survive without money,” it said.
The authors want benefits to be delivered within five days of a legitimate claim and for more discretionary payments to be made when delays occur.
They also highlight the impact of high utility bills and say the poorest often pay for gas and electricity through prepayment meters, face higher energy costs and are unable to get the best deals.
They also looked at hunger in schools, with some schools estimating up to a quarter of pupils arrive hungry each morning.
While low parental income is an important factor, children often go hungry because of lack of organisation at home, they added.
They want free school meals to be extended to more children of low-income parents and for a campaign to decrease the number of children arriving at school hungry.
The MPs also recommend a national organisation be set up to end the destruction of edible food and ensure more of this goes to those who need it.
On Sunday, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, backed the report, saying more help was needed to prevent families in the UK going hungry.
He said food was being wasted in “astonishing” amounts while hunger “stalks large parts” of the country.
The archbishop said he was left more shocked by the plight of the UK’s hunger-stricken poor than those suffering in African refugee camps, because it was so unexpected.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said benefits sanctions – for infractions such as missing interviews or failing to take part in a work-related activity – were partly to blame and should not always be imposed “overnight”.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “Whilst it is of course necessary to have sanctions in the benefit system, I think we should introduce a sort of traffic light system so that some of the sanctions are not imposed quite as ‘overnight’ as they sometimes are.
“That might help alleviate some of the problem.”
A government spokesman welcomed the report’s recognition that the reasons behind demands for emergency food assistance were “complex”.
“As a country we have enough food to go around, and we agree that it is wrong that anyone should go hungry at the same time as surplus food is going to waste.
“There is a moral argument as well as a sustainability one to ensure we make the best use of resources.
The spokesman said it was important to remember “this country has been through the deepest recession in living memory, and sticking to this government’s long-term economic plan is the best way to improve living standards”.
He said the plan was working and the economy growing while the welfare system provided a vital safety net.
“In addition, the UK has a proud tradition of civil society and faith groups providing support for people in need, and it is right that their impressive work is recognised in the report.
“Under tough circumstances, communities have shown that by pulling together to help each other, we can build a bigger, stronger society.”