From Class: Benefit advisers in foodbanks: a backwards step

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Class: Centre for Labour and Social Studies

Benefit advisers in foodbanks: a backwards step


Many people involved in the world of foodbanks will know the baby-saving parable used by American sociologist Janet Poppendieck in her 1998 book ‘Sweet charity: emergency food and the end of entitlement’: a village becomes so preoccupied with the short-term emergency of rescuing drowning babies from a river that it neglects to look upstream at finding solutions as to why they are being thrown into the river in the first place.

Using the same analogy, Iain Duncan-Smith came up with a novel solution to the problem of escalating foodbank use this week.  He thinks that having been the architect of the UK foodbank industry by metaphorically throwing over a million people into the river last year, he can now be their saviour too by rescuing them downstream (by placing DWP benefit advisers into foodbanks).

During the session, Duncan-Smith had the chutzpah to cast doubt on Trussell Trust statistics. The irony of emphasising the importance of reliable evidence is not lost after the fabrication of DWP case studies or that his planned nationwide rollout of benefit advisers is premised on a three-week trial at one independent foodbank in Manchester.

But that misses the wider point. His tacit acceptance of the institutionalisation of food banks is a symbolic moment in the on-going implementation of Thatcher’s ideological project of welfare without the state.

Whilst that may sound fatalistic, resistance will largely now depend on how the UK foodbank industry responds. The statement from Trussell Trust (the UK’s largest foodbank franchise) was ambivalent at best: welcoming Government interest in the idea of installing benefit advisers but urgently asking for dialogue (there is some history of bad blood).  I find that response puzzling. Duncan-Smith’s proposal would represent a dangerous case of mission creep for Trussell Trust in a dog-eat-dog voluntary sector in which it would be treading on the toes of many of its partner referral agencies.

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