Toby Young

Was food poverty actually higher under the last Labour government?

Was food poverty actually higher under the last Labour government?
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I’m looking forward to tonight’s Spectator debate in which Fraser Nelson, William Cash and I will be taking on Owen Jones, Jack Monroe and Molly Scott Cato MEP over the issue of whether the rich should pay more in tax.

One thing I’m sure Owen and his colleagues will do is point to figures released today from Trussell Trust food banks that seem to show that over a million people are now using their facilities. In fact, this figure is misleading, as Full Fact has pointed out:

'The claim that over a million people are using Trussell Trust food banks is inaccurate. It comes from confusing the number of different people using Trussell Trust food banks in a year with the number of times they use the food banks.

The Trussell Trust collect their data from the vouchers used by people referred to their food banks. If one voucher feeds a family of 4 people, that’s 4 instances. If the same family visit again next week, that’s another 4 instances. The Trussell Trust say that on average people needed two food bank vouchers annually, so the number of people using food banks is likely to be around half of the 1.1 million figure.'

Nevertheless, it’s undoubtedly true that the use of food banks is rising. The difficulty for Owen and co is that this doesn’t prove that food poverty is rising. Put simply, an increase in supply does not necessarily mean an increase in demand.

The use of food banks increased 20 fold between 05/06 and 10/11, but that doesn’t mean poverty increased 20 fold in Labour’s last five years in office.

Twice as many people use food banks in France as they do in the UK, but Owen will be pleased to learn that this doesn’t mean there are twice as many people living below the poverty line in Francoise Hollande’s socialist paradise than in the UK – although, give it time.

One reason food bank use was lower under the last Labour government was because Labour refused to allow Job Centres to refer benefit claimants to food banks.

The main cause of people using food banks is a delay in processing benefit claims. Under the last Labour government, 86 per cent of payments were processed on time; under the coalition government, 92 per cent were processed on time.

So the increasing use of food banks doesn’t prove the need for food banks has increased in the past five years. But is there any evidence that food poverty has fallen? Yes, actually, there is.

The OECD’s social indicators survey in 2012 included the question: 'Have there been times in the past 12 months when you did not have enough money to buy food that you or your family needed?'

8.1 per cent of UK respondents said yes, compared to 9.8 per cent when the same question was asked by the OECD in 2007. So notwithstanding today’s misleading figures, there are good reasons to believe that food poverty was higher under the last Labour government than it is today.

Written byToby Young

Toby Young is the co-author of What Every Parent Needs to Know and the co-founder of several free schools. In addition to being an associate editor of The Spectator, he is an associate editor of Quillette. Follow him on Twitter @toadmeister

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