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Who do you bank with? This piece of public opinion was picked up from Twitter [Author: Unknown].

Who do you bank with? This piece of public opinion was picked up from Twitter [Author: Unknown].

Isn’t it a shame that on of our national Sunday newspapers has chosen to disrupt everybody’s enjoyment of our Easter eggs with a specious attempt to expose abuses of food banks and make operator the Trussell Trust look hypocritical?

Isn’t it also a shame that the Mail on Sunday didn’t make a few inquiries into the procedure for dealing with people who turn up at food banks without having been referred?

The paper’s reporters and editor could have, at least, opened a dictionary and looked up the meaning of the word “charity”.

Under the headline, ‘No ID, no checks… and vouchers for sob stories: The truth behind those shock food bank claims’, the paper today (April 20) published a story claiming that Trussell Trust food banks are breaking their own rules by allowing people to take food bank parcels without presenting a voucher from an approved referrer, and that they are allowing many times more than the maximum permissible number of repeat visits.

Unfortunately for reporters Simon Murphy and Sanchez Manning, both situations are – in fact – allowed, because food banks must be flexible in the way they deal with individual cases. They would have known that if they had done their homework – as yr obdt srvt (who’s writing this) did at several meetings on the organisation of food banks here in Powys.

The paper’s investigation claims that there were “inadequate checks on who claims the vouchers, after a reporter obtained three days’ worth of food simply by telling staff at a Citizens Advice Bureau – without any proof – that he was unemployed”.

It turned out that this person had to fill out a form providing his name, address, date of birth, phone number and the reason for his visit before an assessor asked him why he needed food bank vouchers. In contradiction of the introduction to the story, he explained – not simply that he was unemployed, but that he had been out of work for several months and the harsh winter had left him strapped for cash and food. He said his wife had left her job and was not earning and that they had two children. These lies were sufficient to win food bank vouchers.

What the report didn’t say was how the details given by reporter Ross Slater would have been used afterwards. The CAB would have booked him in for a further interview with a debt advisor, to which he would have had to bring documentary evidence of his situation. When he didn’t turn up, he would have been identified as a fraud. The food bank would also have taken his details, to be fed back into the referral system. Job Centre Plus would have picked up on the fact that he isn’t unemployed. From this point on, he would have been identified as a fraud and refused further service.

You see, it is true that food banks run on a voucher system, but that is only a part of the scheme. The questions asked of people who need vouchers are used to ensure that they get the help they need to avoid having to come back – that’s why they’re asked. They also weed out abusers like Mr Slater.

If the paper’s editor had looked in a dictionary, he might have seen charity defined as “voluntary provision of help to people in need, or the help provided” in the first instance. However, reading further, he would have seen “sympathy or tolerance in judging” listed as well. It seems the Mail on Sunday would have no such sympathy and would have deserving cases turned away to starve.

It is telling, also, that the paper had to go to Citizens Advice to get its evidence. Far more food bank vouchers are handed out in the Job Centre Plus, where all a citizen’s circumstances are available to advisors. But not one word is said about the fact that the vast majority of food bank referrals are for people in real need and not newspaper reporters.

The paper also stated: “Staff at one centre gave food parcels to a woman who had visited nine times in just four months, despite that particular centre’s own rules stipulating that individuals should claim no more than three parcels a year.”

It continued: “Individuals experiencing severe financial hardship are able to claim food vouchers but there are no clear criteria on who should be eligible. Once received, the vouchers can be exchanged for three days’ worth of food at an allotted centre.

“The Trussell Trust has a policy that an individual can claim no more than nine handouts in a year, but undercover reporters found this limit varied in different branches.”

No – it is far more likely that it varied according to the circumstances of the person who needed the help. Rigid rules, such as one that limits people to only three visits, mean those who need the most help would be cut off while they still needed assistance. People working in food banks would be aware of who these were, and would be more likely to be tolerant towards them.

Meanwhile, the other support services – Job Centre Plus, Citizens Advice, Social Services and so on – would be working to help them. With some people, it simply takes longer. It should be easy for anyone to think of reasons why this may be the case.

This may also explain the situation in which a worker at a Trussell Trust food bank said people “bounce around” locations to receive more vouchers. The assessment system is a way of monitoring these people and determining whether they need extra help.

It is not true that the criteria are not clear – the paper is misleading with this claim. Food banks, the charities running them, and referring organisations all have to agree on the circumstances in which they permit people to receive parcels. You really can’t just walk in the door and expect to get a free handout. That’s why the questions are asked and forms filled out – they will check up on everybody.

Another claim – that “volunteers revealed that increased awareness of food banks is driving a rise in their use” is unsubstantiated, and is clearly an attempt to support the government’s claim that this is the case. But it is silly. Of course starving people will go to a food bank after they have been told it exists; that doesn’t mean they aren’t starving.

And the paper wrongly said the Trussell Trust had claimed that more than 913,000 people received three days’ emergency food from its banks in 2013-14, compared with 347,000 in the previous financial year. This is a misreading of the way the charity records its work, as the Trussell Trust records visits, not visitors. It would be hard to work out exactly how many people attended because some will have visited just once, others twice, a few for the full three times, and some would have required extra help.

The claim that many visitors were asylum-seekers is silly because food banks were originally set up for foreign people who were seeking asylum in the UK and had no money or means of support.

Of course it would be wrong to say that nobody is trying to abuse the system. There are good people and bad people all over the country, and bad people will try to cheat. Look at Maria Miller, Iain Duncan Smith (Betsygate), George Osborne (and his former paddock), Andrea Leadsom’s tax avoidance, Philip Hammond’s tax avoidance, Charlotte Leslie who took cash to ask Parliamentary questions – to name but a few.

The Trussell Trust has agreed to investigate the newspaper’s allegations – but it is important to remember that these were just a few instances of abuse, and only claimed – by a newspaper that is infamous for the poor quality of its reporting.

Nothing said in the article should be used to undermine the vital work of food banks in helping people to survive, after the Conservative-led Coalition government stole the safety net of social security away from them.

UPDATE: Already the Mail on Sunday is facing a public backlash against its ill-advised piece. A petition on the Change.org website is calling for the reporter who claimed food bank vouchers under false pretences in order to make a political point to be sacked. Vox Political has mixed feelings about this – it targets a person who was sent out to do a job by others who are more directly to blame for the piece, but then he did it of his own free will and this action brings all newspaper reporters into disrepute. Consider carefully.

Follow me on Twitter: @MidWalesMike

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