A senior Conservative has prompted accusations of insensitivity by saying people who use food banks typically to do so not because of poverty but because they have an occasional “cashflow problem”.
Dominic Raab, the former justice minister, said the claim came from the Trussell Trust, Britain’s largest provider of food banks.
However, the trust said that while delays to benefit payments were one of the main reasons people turned to food banks, such crises tended to be exacerbated by poverty and low pay, which were also direct causes for many to seek assistance.
Research based partly on Trussell Trust data shows there are at least 2,000 food banks operating in the UK, giving out emergency food parcels on a weekly basis to people in hardship.
Raab, MP for Esher and Walton in Surrey in the last parliament, was asked about the issue while appearing on BBC2’s Victoria Derbyshire show on Monday.
During a section on the economy, an audience member asked him: “If things are improving so much under the Tories, why are so many people using food banks?”
Raab responded: “Look, in terms of the food bank issue, I’ve studied the Trussell Trust data. What they tend to find is the typical user of a food bank is not someone who’s languishing in poverty, it’s someone who has a cashflow problem episodically.”
That prompted some jeers and shouts from the audience, to which Raab responded: “It’s true. That is what the Trussell Trust data says.”
John Nicholson of the SNP, also appearing on the show, disputed Raab’s explanation. “Just to clarify, Dominic. You’re telling the country, here on this programme, that the Trussell Trust, who deal with poverty, told you personally that the problem with food banks wasn’t people who were on the breadline but people who are having cashflow problems?” he asked. “I’m dying to hear from them when they hear that you’ve said that.”
Raab said: “What they do is that they keep data that they update quarterly, and then annually, on the reason people are coming to their food banks, and that is what I’m citing.”
The latest such quarterly data from the trust, covering April to September last year, showed that the most common reason people were referred to a food bank was delays to benefits, a factor in just over 27% of cases.
However, this was only marginally above the 25% of people referred because of a low income, with another 16% going to a food bank because of changes to benefits.
Adrian Curtis, a food bank network director for the trust, said the two issues were interlinked. “Trussell Trust data shows that the main reasons for a food bank referral are delays and changes to benefit payments and low income issues that include people who are struggling with low pay or insecure forms of employment,” he said.
“It is our experience that people living in poverty are more likely to experience a sudden short-term crisis where they are referred for emergency food, whilst the underlying causes are addressed.
“For these people, food banks are a lifeline and the Trussell Trust is extremely grateful to the public for the generous donations of food, toiletries and finance that help food banks keep their doors open.”
Last month, the trust said it had given out 1,182,954 three-day emergency food parcels to people in crisis in 2016-17, up 6.4% on the previous year’s total of 1,109,000. It said delays caused by the introduction of universal credit, the government’s flagship welfare overhaul, had affected many people.
The Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, said Raab’s comments were “stupid and deeply offensive”.
He said: “Dominic Raab is woefully out of touch and has no idea how much real people are struggling. We are seeing nurses, police officers and the just about managing having to go to food banks as their paychecks won’t stretch any further. People are hurting and the Tories, with comments like this, show they just don’t care.”