Food banks are stepping in where governments have created a mess


Mention the growth of food banks, with nearly a million users this year, and you conjure up a Dickensian image of a country on the breadline, chronically unable to feed its children, and a heartless government that is cutting benefits and quite willing to let them starve. The reality is very different. First, food banks are a great achievement of private charity. They flourish in the world's wealthiest countries – like the US, UK, Canada, and New Zealand – precisely because people in rich countries can afford to be charitable.

Second, around 60% of those using food banks in the UK are once-only users. In around 30% of cases, that is because of a hiccup in their social benefits – a sanction imposed because they haven't turned up to an interview, perhaps, or a delay in benefits starting after someone loses their job. This is not chronic 'food poverty' – it is people facing temporary crises, much of it due to the welfare bureaucracy.

Third, the rise in food banks started long before the government started reforming benefits. Nearly all food banks in the UK are run by a single Christian charity, the Trussell Trust. As it gets more experienced and slicker, more care workers have been referring people to them, and more people know about them. So the numbers of users have risen.

Fourth, remember that the UK spends nearly £100bn a year on welfare, around one-seventh of all government spending. Working age welfare costs each family in Britain about £3,000 a year. And since the best form of welfare is actually a paying job, it is good news that unemployment has fallen so quickly in the UK.

Some Church leaders want the government to get involved in the food bank movement. That is a grave mistake. Government money will come with delays and with strings. It will discourage private giving – why should individuals contribute if the government is doing it? And government interventions are most of the problem in the first place. World food prices have risen 25% since 2007, due in part to biuofuel subsidies that have taken land out of food production, and the EU Common Agriculture Policy, which adds 13% to Britain's household food bills. And family budgets are further squeezed by the 11% surcharge on electricity bills, destined for uneconomic wind turbines.

No, government would do better to get out of the way of private charity. It is only in the last few years that food banks could even advertise their existence. The benefits bureaucracy is notorious – which is why Iain Duncan Smith's efforts to simplify the system are so important. And we need more realistic food regulation so that shops have a better option than simply throwing out food that is unsold, and so that consumers do not think food is unusable just because it is past its sell-by date.

Once again, private charity is stepping in where governments – of all colours – have created a mess. All strength to them.