It’s absolute poverty, not “market competition” that has led to a drop in food sales.

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Public spending in food stores fell for the first time on record in July this year, putting the UK recovery in doubt. Such a worrying, unprecedented record fall in food sales indicates that many consumers evidently have yet to feel the benefit of the so-called recovery.

The price of food was 0.2% higher than a year ago. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) started collecting the data for food sales in 1989The volume of food sales was also down last month, by 1.5% on an annualised basis.

There was also a marked fall in petrol consumption, and the only prominent area of growth was in spending that entailed use of mail order catalogues, and at market stalls, as people use credit to buy essential items and shop around for cheap alternatives and bargains.

Food manufacturing is the UK’s single largest manufacturing sector. The food and drink supply chain is a major part of the UK economy, accounting for 7% of GDP, employing over 3.7 million people, and generating at least £80 billion per year,  according to data from the Cabinet Office. There was an increase in the food sector (excluding agriculture) from 2000-2009 in Britain; the whole UK economy increased by 47% during the same period.

The Office for National Statistics has put the recent decline down to “prolonged discounting and price wars”.

However, crucially, the quantity of food bought in food stores also decreased by 1.5 per cent year-on-year in July.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that repressed, stagnant wages and RISING living costs are going to result in reduced sale volumes. Survation’s research in March this year indicates that only four out of every ten of UK workers believe that the country’s economy is recovering. But we know that the bulk of the Tory austerity cuts were aimed at those least able to afford any cut to their income.

What we need to ask is why none of the mainstream media articles, or the ONS account, duly reporting the drop in food sales, have bothered to link this with the substantial increase in reported cases of malnutrition and related illnesses across the UK. It’s not as if this correlation is a particularly large inferential leap, after all.

It stands to reason that if people cannot afford food, they won’t be able to buy it. Furthermore, that consumers were not actually considered as a part of the ONS and media assessment is frankly strange, to say the least, with emphasis being placed solely on deterministic market competition criteria, and hardly a skim over any analysis of the social-political conditions that have undoubtedly contributed to the significant drop in food sales.

Food banks provide food aid to people in acute need, usually following referral by health or social care professionals, such as social workers, doctors, health visitors, and organisations such as the Citizens Advice Bureau and Jobcentre Plus. The Department for Work and Pensions has acknowledged that there is internal guidance to staff on signposting to food banks and a recent Freedom of Information request reported in The Guardian, revealed a “high level process” to be observed by jobcentre staff for referring claimants who say that they are suffering hardship and need food.

The role of Jobcentre Plus in referring people to food banks was described by Mark Hoban, Minister of State for Employment at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) as follows in December 2012: “The DWP, through Jobcentre Plus, operates a foodbank referral service. This is a simple signposting process which builds on the Jobcentre Plus standard practice of holding, locally, the details of organisations to which we signpost claimants who tell us they are in financial difficulty. Jobcentre Plus will only signpost claimants when they can offer no more help.”

Jobcentre Plus have been “signposting” people to food banks nationally since September 2011. Circumstances where a Jobcentre might make a referral to a food bank include:

  •  where a Crisis Loan or Short Term Benefit Advance had been refused;
  •  where a change in circumstances had affected a person’s entitlement to benefit, or reduced the amount they receive;
  •  where payment of benefit had been delayed (e.g. because a claim was still being
    assessed, or DWP was awaiting information to enable a decision on a claim).

The original version of the Jobcentre Plus referral form included boxes to tick to indicate the reason for the referral. However, the report in the Guardian on 6 September 2013 highlighted that the DWP had suddenly “unilaterally redesigned the food bank vouchers it issues to clients” – the three boxes on the previous form which had enabled JobCentre Plus “to indicate why they referred the person: because of benefit delay, benefit change, or refusal of crisis loan … have been removed from the new version of the form. The vouchers no longer tell the [Trussell] trust why the person has been referred”.

As Patrick Butler astutely observed, this has the effect of removing data that helps highlight why impoverishment caused by welfare “reform” has become one of the biggest single drivers of people turning to food banks. The Government needs political cover for lying ministers such as Freud and McVey, who like to pretend food banks have nothing to do with austerity and welfare reform; but the DWP sends its impoverished customers in droves to them anyway.

Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and others indicates quite clearly that:

  • Some of the increase in the number of people using food banks is
    caused by unemployment, increasing levels of underemployment,
    low and falling income, and rising food and fuel prices. The
    National Minimum Wage and benefits levels need to rise in line
    with inflation, in order to ensure that families retain the ability to
    live with dignity and can afford to feed and clothe themselves and
    stay warm.
  • More alarmingly, up to half of all people turning to food banks
    are doing so as a direct result of having benefit payments delayed,
    reduced, or withdrawn altogether. Figures gathered by the Trussell
    Trust show that changes to the benefit system are the most common reasons for people using food banks;these include changes to crisis loan eligibility rules, delays in payments, Jobseeker’s Allowance ,sanctions and sickness benefit
    reassessments.
  • There is very clear evidence that the benefit sanctions regime is leading to destitution, hardship and hunger on a large scale.

Furthermore, in November last year, in a letter to the British Medical Journal, a group of doctors and senior academics from the Medical Research Council and two leading universities said that the effect of Government austerity policies on vulnerable people’s ability to afford food needed to be “urgently” monitored.

There was a significant surge in the number of people requiring emergency food aid, a decrease in the amount of calories consumed by British families, and a doubling of the number of malnutrition cases seen at English hospitals, which represents “all the signs of a public health emergency that could go unrecognised until it is too late to take preventative action,” they wrote.

Despite mounting evidence for a growing food poverty crisis in the UK, Tory ministers continue to maintain the lie that there is “no robust evidence” of a link between their sweeping welfare “reforms” and a rise in the use of food banks. However, publication of research into the phenomenon, commissioned by the Government itself, was delayed, amid speculation that the findings may prove embarrassing for the Government.

“Because the Government delayed the publication of research it commissioned into the rise of emergency food aid in the UK, we can only speculate that the cause is related to the rising cost of living and increasingly austere welfare reforms,” the public health experts wrote. It is very evident that the welfare state is “failing to provide a robust last line of defence against hunger.”

The authors of the letter, who include Dr David Taylor-Robinson and Professor Margaret Whitehead of Liverpool University’s Department of Public Health, say that malnutrition can have a devastating, long-lasting impact on health, particularly amongst children.

Chris Mould, chief executive of the Trussell Trust, the largest national food bank provider, said that one in three of the 350,000 people who required food bank  support at the Trussell Trust centres alone this year were children. It is estimated that by 2013, at least 500,000 people were reliant on food aid.

Access to adequate food is the most basic of human needs and rights. The right to food is protected under international human rights and humanitarian law and the correlative state obligations are equally well-established under international law. This right is recognised in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 25) as part of the right to an adequate standard of living, and is enshrined in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 11).

Olivier De Schutter (a United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food) recently pointed to increases in the number of food banks in developed countries  such as the UK as an indicator that Governments are “in danger of failing in their duty to protect citizens under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights” (IESCR), which states that all citizens should have access to adequate diet without having to compromise other basic needs.

Whilst the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) claims that the benefits system provides a “safety net for essentials such as food”, the evidence increasingly does not support this claim. In fact, there is substantial and ever-mounting evidence that the inadequacies of the welfare safety net are now directly driving the growth of hunger and reliance on charitable food handouts.

The BBC reported the “‘Shocking increase’ in Employment Support Allowance (ESA) sickness benefit sanctions” on August 13th, within the first three months of 2014, there were 15,955 sanctions on ESA claimants, compared with 3,574 in the same period last year. I reported about the impact of sanctions in February, 2014, and I reported the substantial increase in ESA sanctions May 2014, along with the Benefits and Work site, amongst other “non-mainstream” writers. It’s incredible that the BBC, with relatively vast resources to hand hasn’t bothered researching and reporting this issue until now.

Perhaps this explains the BBC’s endorsement of the Government welfare “reforms” and their complicity with the persecution of sick and disabled people: James Purnell – one  of the chief architects of the current government’s “reforms”  (Gordon Brown had previously rebuffed Purnell’s proposals, and Purnell resigned as a consequence), is the BBC’s Director of Strategy & Digital which “brings together Communications, Future Media, Marketing, Policy, Research and Development and Strategy”. So, Mr Purnell is on the Executive Board, which, I am sure, contributes to the BBC’s current degree of “impartiality”, especially evident in attempts to defer delivery of politically damning news, or in their other quest to purposefully deliver politically motivated factual detours.

There is currently no established government measure of food poverty. A recent report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research defined households who have to spend more than 10% of their annual income on food as being in food poverty.

The Food Ethics Council states that food poverty means that an individual or household isn’t able to obtain healthy, nutritious food – they have to eat what they can afford or find, not what they choose to.

If people can’t meet basic survival needs, then that is defined as absolute poverty. We haven’t seen absolute poverty in the UK since before the inception of the welfare state. Until  now.

“Food banks open across the country, teachers report children coming to school hungry; advice services and local authorities prepare for the risks attached to welfare reform. There is evidence of a rising number of people sleeping rough, and destitution is reported with increasing frequency.” Julia Unwin, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2013.

“In households which cannot afford an adequate diet for their children, 93% have at least one adult who “skimps” on their own food to try to protect the children. Half a million children are not adequately fed in the UK today, not as a result of negligence but due to a lack of money.” Poverty and Social Exclusion UK. 2013.

We know that the imposed limitations on welfare processes and procedures have been found to be impacting on the growing demand for food banks. Decision-making around sanctions has been found to be particularly problematic from the perspective of food banks, where decisions were seen as unfair and/or arbitrary. Similarly, errors made in declaring people on Employment Support Allowance fit for work were also highlighted, by research undertaken by the Sheffield University Political Economy Research Institute.

More generally, “ineffective administration” of lifeline welfare payments is also seen to be an important driver of need, where people’s payments are delayed or stopped and they are left with no or heavily reduced income. Tory policy changes to the length of time sanctions run for (from 2 weeks to 3 years) is “significantly problematic”, given the  enormous implications for financial insecurity. And resultant absolute poverty.

Basic incomes are being reduced, making it much more difficult for people to make ends meet. In addition, “reforms” – which is the Orwellian Tory word for severe cuts – impacting on food poverty include the cap to benefit payments, the Bedroom Tax, and the loss of full Council Tax exemption for many benefit claimants.

No-one should be hungry, without food in this Country. That there are people living in a politically imposed state of absolute poverty is unacceptable in the UK, the world’s sixth largest economy (and the third largest in Europe). This was once a civilised first-world country that cared for and supported vulnerable citizens. After all, we have paid for our own welfare provision, and we did so in the recognition that absolutely anyone can lose their job, become ill or have an accident that results in disability. This is a Government that very clearly does not reflect the needs of the majority of citizens.

It is also unacceptable in a so-called liberal democracy that we have a Government that has persistently denied the terrible consequences of their own policies, despite  overwhelming evidence that the welfare “reforms” are causing people, harm, distress and sometimes, death. Furthermore, this is a Government that has systematically employed methods to effectively hide the evidence of the harm caused to others as a consequence of their devastating, draconian “reforms” from the public. This clearly demonstrates an intention to deceive, and an intention to continue causing people harm.

In English criminal law, intention is one of the types of mens rea (Latin for “guilty mind”) that, when accompanied by an actus reus (“guilty act”), constitutes a crime. It’s difficult to envisage that anyone in the UK would fail to understand that any act that prevents people from accessing food, and the means of meeting other basic survival needs, such as shelter, will cause them harm.

This is a Government that knows exactly what it is doing.

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Many thanks to Robert Livingstone for his excellent artwork

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43 thoughts on “It’s absolute poverty, not “market competition” that has led to a drop in food sales.

  1. the only thing i disagree with is i think it’s rising rents first and foremost that squeeze food spending. I lived in Germany for a few months. Food cost far more and was far worse. Rents were a third of what they are in Britain. Food prices were no problem.

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  2. Another great piece of analysis and succinct writing. For as long as I can recall, the Food sector was always considered a “safe investment” as “people will always have to eat”. This is reflected in the statistics about food sector vs others in 2008- 9, when all other spending went down, but food went up. How strange that the Global Economic crisis looks in retrospect to be the “good old days”.

    We are now in uncharted territory, with a 1.5% drop in retail sales hiding millions of empty plates and empty stomachs. I do not recognise the legitimacy of any government – unelected – for whom the hunger and malnutrition of millions is an avoidable state, and is a political act. It goes beyond spite and class war here. When we can all trot out the mantra about the 99% / 1%, do any of us really know what the purpose of the starvation of millions serves?

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    1. ‘How strange that the Global Economic crisis looks in retrospect to be the “good old days”.’ Oh yes, that’s so very true. We were very well shielded from the worst effects of a global crash, and were out of recession by 2010…until the tories took office. Thatcher, Major, and now, Cameron, have all engineered painful recessions that have been a front for the redistribution of public wealth to private hands, and for the asset stripping of our public services.

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      1. So true, and yet the Tories have made the biggest lie of all stick – that it was the pre-2010 government that “caused” the economic problems! Sometimes I feel like the propaganda campaign has been so successful that many people are suffering from false memory syndrome. The outcome has been horrific for many working / unwaged, becoming “the hunger years”.

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  3. At home we are not starving,but Toast has become a meal,a lot more rice,oats,cereal..Meat? What ever is on special. Holidays? What is that? Boiler on 1 hour in the morning. I have still to meet anybody living a life of luxury on benefits,have I not filled out the proper forms or am I in the wrong line!

    A bit off subject,I recently posted on a W2W site about the lack of Training on the WP/DWP/JCP a W2W expert replied that “Training/Qualifications have not proven to help gain employment” that is why they will not fund it,very well if that is the case what does work? No reply,which can only lead to the conclusion that nobody has a Bloody clue and the £5 Billion spent is a waste of money..Monday rant over!

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    1. If training or qualifications does not improve employment prospects, then obviously there is no need for schooling, higher eduction, oxbridge, driving licenses, gas/electric licences, etc. after all training and qualifications don’t improve employment prospects… seriously WTAF…. also if that was true then there is no point to seetek/igneous/G$A et. al as these are alledgly “training and support providers” allthough we all know that “training” usualy involves re-writing a CV multiple times and “pep-talks” while they, the providers, coin it in for doing absolute bollocks.

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  4. As if to back up your remarks a major ‘food processor’ has announced the loss of over 800 jobs at two of its bakeries
    http://www.foodmanufacture.co.uk/Manufacturing/More-than-800-bakery-job-cuts-planned/?utm_source=newsletter_daily&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=26-Aug-2014&c=DtjzYgstj1%2Fq35X6QgnokzTECQtPFRdF
    That’s more than 800 more people in the dole queue and facing the sanctions regime.
    These are people who work on ‘own brand’ products for supermarkets, a core area of the bakery business

    Something is very definitely wrong with a ‘recovery’ that sees jobs like these being lost

    Liked by 1 person

  5. And all this BEFORE we ever see a hike in interest rates, what will happen when people have to pay more for their morgages? .. it can only get worse, yet the tories blunder on regardless with their “massaged” figures and data. They can make the figures look whatever they want them to and no one can argue, but of course those of us living on the edge know all to well how the bedroom tax/benefit cuts/lack of benefit increase/high rents can take your every penny, or at best leave you with little for food.. it’s not rocket science, if a simpleton like me can work it out.. well what does that say for our verminous government who are in total denial that their policies are causing all this

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