Iain Duncan Smith gave his first oral evidence to the Work and Penions Commitee today, during an investigation about benefit delivery. The Commitee are concerned that long waits for benefit payments are the single biggest cause of food bank use and are forcing claimants into debt and “survival crime” such as shoplifting.
A Trussell Trust survey of 51 of its food banks revealed that people typically experienced benefit delays of five weeks, although waits of up to 20 weeks were also common.
The Trussell Trust said more than one in four of its clients receive food parcels as a result of benefits delays.
This morning, Duncan Smith dismissed the findings from the Resolution Foundation that the Tory tax credit cuts will undermine universal credit because they will reduce work incentives, despite much evidence to the contrary, including from the respected Institute for Financial Study (IFS), he continued to claim that under universal credit, people would still be “better off in work.”
The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions again dismissed evidence that benefit sanctions have pushed some claimants to suicide. He said:
“I don’t accept your assertion somehow that these things are directly linked. These are tragedies in their own right and they are often very complex as individual cases. Sanctions have been part of the benefit system for some time. Under the last Labour government they were accepted as part of the benefit system. I always accepted them. I always recognised there were issues occasionally and problems but I didn’t go round accusing the then Labour government of running a system that somehow ended up in the way that you are making this allegation.”
The persistent denial from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that there is a correlation between the government’s welfare cuts and an increase in mortality, including suicide, flies in the face of evidence presented by the Work and Pensions Committee earlier this year, when the cross-party Committee of MPs said that since 2012 there have been at least 40 cases of people taking their own lives because of problems with welfare payments
The MPs called for an independent review into benefit sanctions, and said that they were “causing severe financial hardship” and are behind the rise in food banks. It was reported that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has investigated 49 cases where a claimant has died.
Of these, 40 involved a suicide, the Work and Pensions Select Committee said. But the DWP was unwilling to say how many of the deaths were a result of benefit sanctions or say if it had changed its policies as a result.
Iain Duncan Smith also said today that he is planning to put benefit advisers in food banks, and that this has already been piloted at one food bank in Manchester, and it was a success, he claimed, because the advisers could help resolve problems with people’s benefit claims. He told the Committee:
“I am trialling at the moment a job adviser situating themselves in the food bank for the time that the food bank is open and we are already getting very strong feedback about that. If this works and if the other food banks are willing to encompass this and we think it works we think we would like to roll this out across the whole of the UK.”
Duncan Smith also said:
“They are to provide support to people who come in and that can include people saying, ‘I haven’t had my payment’”, giving the example of a claimant whose money was delayed because officials had not seen the right documents.”
He added weakly:
“I asked how often is this happening, and they said: ‘Well, a bit.’ But what’s happening much more now is not people coming in with questions about their benefits, but they are actually interested in where [they] can find work.”
The comments from Duncan Smith come as the Fabian Society publish a report today of a year long study that found that the Government lacks any credible strategy for addressing hunger in the UK, making a mockery of the prime minster’s party conference pledge to lead “an all-out assault on poverty” earlier this month.
In a statement after the Select Committee meeting, the Trussell Trust said:
“We welcome the government’s interest in exploring new ways that the DWP might help people at food banks who have hit crisis as a result of problems with welfare delivery, but we would also suggest that there first needs to be a dialogue between the DWP and the Trussell Trust network about the possible challenges and opportunities that hosting DWP advisers in food banks could afford. We need to look at the most helpful ways for local jobcentres and food banks to work together.”
The Trust runs 400 food banks in the UK, said it has had positive discussions with some MPs about piloting DWP advisers in their food banks, but had not talked to Duncan Smith or his advisers about the feasibility of the scheme.
The Trust statement said:
“Whilst we are not aware of any pilots taking place in Trussell Trust food banks, we are very keen to see the results of any pilots currently being undertaken by the DWP in other food banks, and we would like to contribute to future discussions on the potential effectiveness of the proposed scheme.”
But this morning, Duncan Smith questioned Trussell Trust figures that showed a 398% increase in the number of people using its food banks between 2012 and 2014 in Scotland. Whilst the figures were “genuinely put together” he claimed that they were “not absolutely clear”, he said to the Committee.
Owen Smith, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said:
“The revelation that the government is considering placing DWP staff in food banks across the country, highlights the grim reality that people depending on emergency food aid is increasingly a central part of Iain Duncan Smith’s vision for our social security system.
Under the Tories food bank use has risen exponentially, leaving more than a million people depending on emergency food. This is in no small part due to the secretary of state’s incompetent and callous running of the DWP.
It is of course important that people are able to better access advice and support from DWP staff. However, the fact that Iain Duncan Smith is so relaxed about extreme food poverty that he has allowed it to become an accepted element of the national planning for the DWP is deeply worrying.”
Iain Duncan Smith’s comments imply the government considers that charitable food banks are now a compensatory and integral part of welfare provision to indemnify against the inefficiencies and inadequacies of the DWP, and to plug the gaps in woefully inadequate provision due to the punitive Tory cuts to benefits and harsh “reforms” of the welfare state .
Iain Duncan Smith also presents a late recognition and tacit admission of a clear link between Conservative welfare policy, benefit sanctions, benefit delays, and the rise in food bank use, which was previously denied by the government.