Make this £63 million the lifeline it needs to be

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Garry Lemon, Director of Policy:

Last week food banks in the Trussell Trust network provided shocking evidence of the impact of the economic storm whipped up by the Coronavirus pandemic. Over the course of April there was a huge surge in people needing support, with double the number of families needing help compared to same time last year. It was the busiest month ever at food banks.

It is clear from this immediate and ongoing surge in need for charity food parcels that though we all face the same storm, we are not all in the same boat. Despite welcome measures to boost Universal Credit and Housing Benefit, a huge number of people are still unable to stay afloat.

This simply isn’t right, and must be addressed immediately by government. To that end, the Trussell Trust is working with a coalition of anti-poverty charities to call for a Coronavirus Emergency Income Support Scheme to  ensure we all have enough money to weather the storm.

An important element of this proposed emergency response is a boost to the local welfare assistance schemes local councils run in England to keep households afloat in times of financial crisis with cash grants. We’ve outlined best practice for running these schemes because they can make such a difference to people’s lives. When properly run, they  get money to people quickly and can reduce the likelihood that people will become homeless or need to turn to a food bank.

It was heartening then, to hear in PMQs the Prime Minister announce a new £63 million fund for these schemes “to be distributed to local authorities in England to help those who are struggling to afford food and other essentials due to coronavirus”. The government has listened to and acted on this call.

But now this money has been announced, it is absolutely crucial that it is administered properly if these council schemes are to be the lifeline we so desperately need at this time. We will be working with government officials and will be clear the money should:

  • be spent as intended on these schemes, not swallowed up by the growing holes in local authority budgets
  • take the form of cash, rather than food vouchers, so people can buy food and other essentials like gas and electricity like anyone else
  • go to areas in England where there is most need, and ensure  people are able to get support in the one in seven areas which don’t have an existing scheme
  • be accompanied by clear guidance for councils to ensure newly boosted schemes offer a proper joined-up service that tackles the reasons why people don’t have enough money in the long term

Then there is the obvious question about how far £63 million will stretch. We suggested that to bring England in line with other UK nations, which already have comparable schemes in operation, annual cost would be about £250m. This money will be used up quickly, then, and must be topped up after a period of three months just to keep English councils in line with others across the UK.

These are difficult questions in difficult times. Next week the publication of unemployment figures will likely present further evidence of the terrible impact Coronavirus is having on our lives. Much more must be done to ensure support is there to properly anchor us all from poverty and destitution – these schemes are just one part of the temporary response we and our partners will continue to call for.

But it’s also important for us to step back and recognise that getting this funding allocated is a significant step that could make the difference between destitution and staying afloat for thousands of families across England.

Thank you to all our campaigners, food banks, and partners such as the Children’s Society, who made this happen.

No one should be forced to a food bank. When we stand together we can make a real impact – we hope this new money is an important first step in doing just that.