Are charities being used to withhold welfare?

If this is true, then it is outrageous

Food banks

A food bank in Nottingham has announced it will close at the end of the year, accusing the local city council of using it to avoid making hardship payments to vulnerable people.

I've written in the past about the problem of food banks, expressing my concern that they may encourage officials to sanction benefits.

And now Nottingham City Council stands accused by a food bank of withholding hardship support in the "expectation that they [applicants] seek help from friends or family and the food banks".

NG7 Food Bank has therefore decided to close at the end of the year, accusing senior officials of advocating "the co-opting of food banks, as part of their strategies in avoidance of using their own funds".

"Replacement for statutory services"

In a statement issued on Tuesday, it said: "We have recognised that we are not being used as a temporary service of last resort, but rather being seen as a part of the long term strategy of replacement for statutory services, who have a duty and the resources to address a large part of the need."

The food bank has fed more than 5,200 people in its 30 months, a sizeable chunk of the 913,138 people supported by food banks in 2013-14.

According to the Trussell Trust, a charity that oversees 420 such banks, more than 330,000 of the people fed were children. If that proportion was replicated at the NG7 Food Bank then around 1,800 recipients of food would have been Nottingham children.

That would be a shocking figure even without the charity's suggestion that the council are relying on food banks to provide for its most vulnerable, in preference to funding official support.

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Nearly a Million Britons Use Food Banks

Official position?

Food banks present a tricky challenge for our leaders. On the one hand, they are Big Society in action – many MPs have been pictured visiting their local food banks to support them. However, on the other hand, the rising use of such banks suggests that the coalition's welfare reform and deficit reduction is hurting the most vulnerable in our society.

That's probably why ministers have been keen to dismiss claims that their policies are responsible for rising numbers of people needing food aid.

Lord Freud, a work and pensions minister with a special interest in welfare reform, told the House of Lords earlier this year that "food from a food bank - the supply - is a free good, and by definition there is an almost infinite demand for a free good".

And last year Michael Gove suggested that people turn to food banks because "they are not best able to manage their finances".

Fanning the flames

However, Labour MP Steve McCabe argued that Gove was "out of touch", adding: "Families forced to go to food banks should not be stigmatised by secretaries of state. The spiralling number of food banks across Britain should be a mark of shame for this government."

It's worth mentioning, of course, that Nottingham City Council has a Labour majority.

With debate about the cause of rising food bank reliance already so heated, the suggestion that officials are using them as an alternative to providing support is likely to fan the flames further.

If the charity is right and it's being exploited by the local council then that means donations to the food bank are helping to support clampdowns on benefits.

That would be a dreadful situation, which could threaten the credibility of food banks, meaning our leaders risk destroying a service that so many rely on.

I rang Nottingham City Council to get comment on NG7's accusations, but had no reply. However, Councillor Graham Chapman, deputy leader of the City Council, told The Independent: "Food banks are never the first point of call for people who require help but we are recognised across the city, together with a number of faith and community groups, as being an accepted point of referral.

"We have good relationships with a number of food banks, but have made no direct referrals to NG7 since July 2013 at the specific request of volunteers behind the scheme.

"Unlike a number of councils, we have ring-fenced all available funding to help with financial hardship. This will be cut by the Government next year but we will continue to make that support available to families in the city."

If you'd like to offer support to NG7 Food Bank in its final month, you can get in touch via Twitter: @NG7Foodbank. To learn more about supporting The Trussell Trust, visit its website.

What do you think? Is it possible that officials are relying on food banks to avoid providing support? Why are more people using the banks? Have your say using the comments below.

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