From Patrick Butler, social policy editor, The Guardian.
The YMCA says government benefits policy has increased vulnerable young people’s reliance on food bank handouts. Photograph: Sean Smith for the Guardian
The YMCA, the UK’s oldest youth charity, has warned the government that its changes to welfare policy are driving vulnerable young people to become reliant on food bank handouts rather than preparing them for jobs.
About 5,000 young people were referred by YMCAs to food banks last year, it said in a report, with benefit sanctions cited as the main reason for what it called a “significant increase” in the number of clients falling into food poverty.
The YMCA accused ministers of having their “heads in the sand” over welfare changes and they must urgently fix flaws in the benefits system that leave an increasing number of young people penniless.
The charity, which has 114 branches in England, works with care leavers and youngsters who have left home to escape abuse or family breakdown. The majority of those referred to food banks were people living in special supported accommodation.
Denise Hatton, YMCA England chief executive, told the Guardian: “For me, the benefit system is there to support the most vulnerable people. We are in touch with young people and we know the system which is there to protect them is failing them, and the government must want to do something about that.”
She said the government could no longer ignore the way jobcentres were treating vulnerable young people. “The welfare system was set up to protect and provide a safety net for those individuals in their time of need and so that no one would be left without money to be able to afford food. However, our evidence shows it is failing in this role.
“It is unacceptable in this day and age that anyone should have to rely on the kindness of strangers in order to eat.”
The YMCA’s criticisms of a rigid “tick box” approach to benefits that imposes strict punishments for infringements but fails to meet the needs of individuals with complex needs echoes the findings of the government-commissioned Oakley review of sanctions, published in July, which said the system placed disproportionate burdens on the most vulnerable.
Ministers have persistently rejected claims that the rise in referrals to food banks has been driven by sanctions and delays in benefit payments, but Hatton said the link was incontrovertible. “I have been in this kind of work for 30 years, working with young people on the ground, and I have never known it like this.”
The charity said a lack of flexibility in jobcentre culture and practice meant the benefits system was unable to respond to the challenges faced by youngsters who had chaotic lifestyles or learning difficulties.
Jobcentre staff focused on pushing claimants into intensive work-search activity such applying for jobs and completing CVs, even when young people were emotionally unprepared for work. When they failed to meet these tough conditions they were punished by having their benefits stopped, with the effect that they were left further from the job market.
The YMCA cites the case of Joshua, 21, from Nelson, Lancashire, who was sanctioned after attending one of its residential courses designed to prepare him for volunteering. Although he told the jobcentre about the course and provided evidence it would help him find a job, he was sanctioned for having missed an appointment and had his jobseeker’s allowance stopped for three months.
Joshua said: “I went three months living on food parcels from the local mosques and the church, which was really degrading because you lose all your dignity. The assistance I got was purely from the YMCA and Stepping Stones [a housing charity], other than that I think I would have starved.”
The YMCA said: “We are fortunate to live in a country where people and communities give so charitably. However, relying upon this goodwill and other organisations to pick up the pieces should not be seen by the government as a substitute to fixing a welfare system that is driving many young people into hardship rather than employment.”
Although jobcentres are able in theory to offer hardship payments to vulnerable and penniless claimants who have been sanctioned, the YMCA says one in four of its clients said they were not told of this potential source of support, while even fewer knew they could apply to their local councils’ welfare assistance scheme for crisis help.
Even where they did know this help was available, however, many youngsters were deemed ineligible, with nearly a third of YMCAs referring clients to food banks because they had been turned down for hardship payments or crisis loans.
Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures show that the proportion of young people having their payments stopped for alleged infringements has doubled since tighter conditions were applied to unemployment benefit claims in October 2012.
The YMCA says in its report: “While there is recognition among YMCAs and young people that conditionality is an important element of any benefit system, the way it is being administered and the focus on punishing perceived ‘bad behaviour’ over rewarding those doing the right thing is having a detrimental effect on the wellbeing of young people.”
A DWP spokesman said: “There is no robust evidence that our reforms are linked to increased use of food banks and these claims are based on anecdotal evidence. “The reality is benefit processing times are improving and we continue to spend £94bn a year on working age benefits to ensure there is a strong safety net in place.”
It is inconceivable that the Government need any further evidence in order to understand that sanctioning – no matter how much pseudo-psychological behaviourism or “nudging”is used to attempt to justify it – means depriving people of lifeline benefits which were calculated to meet basic and essential living needs – food, fuel and shelter – and this will inevitably lead to hardship, suffering and a struggle to survive. That isn’t “anecdotal”: it’s a biological fact.
Thanks to Robert Livingstone for his excellent memes