Jobcentre staff are told not to keep a record of the number of people they direct to foodbanks, despite appearing to send thousands of people to charities providing food parcels to hard-pressed families.
A directive, issued by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), tells staff they must not use the term “referral” or “voucher”, and should not keep any record of the number of people they “signpost” to foodbanks.
Critics have urged the Government to halt the practice as ministers have used the lack of records to dodge questions about the impact of welfare reforms.
The revelation also indicates how charities are being relied upon to support the benefits system, but not to what extent. One major food bank charity says it hands out nearly 60,000 food parcels every year as a result of “signposting”.
The Whitehall department’s so-called ‘Operational Instructions’ were obtained following a Freedom of Information request in February which asked for details on what staff are told to do if people ask for food aid. The FOI was first flagged by Alex Tiffin on his blog, Life Of A Universal Credit Sufferer.
The instructions state that instead of offering referrals or vouchers to claimants, Jobcentre staff must only offer “signposting slips”.
In bold letters, the instructions say: “The signposting slip must not be referred to as a Foodbank Voucher.”
The only time Jobcentre staff are allowed to keep track is if the foodbank makes a request, the instructions reveal.
“This record should only be used to authenticate the issue of signposting slips at the request of the foodbank,” the directive reads.
“It is not to be used for any other purpose, including to count/monitor the number of signposting slips issued.”
Many foodbanks only serve clients who have been issued a voucher from an associated partner – usually a charity, or a branch of Citizens’ Advice.
Two foodbank chief executives told the HuffPost UK that they’ve started to treat signpost slips as if they were vouchers, and they know other foodbanks do the same.
Michael Beckett, CEO of Colchester Foodbank, said a signposting slip is essentially a foodbank voucher issued by a Jobcentre rather than another agent.
“If it quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, I’m pretty sure you could say it’s a duck,” Beckett said.
He said 16% of its clients were directed to them by Jobcentres, which he described as “our top partner referral agent”.
Daphine Aikens, the CEO of Hammersmith and Fulham Foodbank, said: “To me, it doesn’t make sense why they wouldn’t keep track of the data. I can’t think of any practical reason why.”
Hammersmith and Fulham said 8.5% of its referrals were from Jobcentres.
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The Trussell Trust, the largest foodbank provider in the country, keeps data on all the people it helps.
The charity told HuffPost UK that nearly 60,000 food parcels – around 5% of its output – were given out in 2016 as a direct result of Jobcentre signposting.
A spokesman said: “There is still a very mixed picture reported by foodbanks about their relationships with Jobcentres.”
By not officially keeping track of the data, the Government has been able to avoid answering awkward questions from MPs.
When Justin Tomlinson, a junior minister at the DWP, was asked about how many people who use Jobcentres need the help of foodbanks last month, he said: “We do not record the number of people using foodbanks or other types of food aid.”
Last month, Baroness Buscombe, the DWP’s spokesperson in the House of Lords, was asked how many families affected by a Government crackdown on benefits for households with two children or more were using foodbanks.
“We do not record the number of people using foodbanks or other types of food aid,” she said, adding charities do keep records.
The DWP Secretary, Esther McVey, previously refused to reveal the ‘Operational Instructions’ when she was a junior minister in 2013.
Labour MP Frank Field, chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee of MPs, who campaigns against hunger in the UK, told the HuffPost UK: “Does the DWP not want to know how many times Jobcentre staff are having to refer people to foodbanks?
“Any instruction that forbids staff from monitoring such trends should immediately be reversed.”
A spokesperson for the DWP said: “We are constantly reviewing research carried out by organisations to add to our understanding of foodbanks and will consider further research to add to our evidence base, to ensure we’re providing the best possible support for vulnerable groups.”
The revelations come as a leak to The Guardian showed the DWP is about to conduct a study on the impact of its policies on the increased use of foodbanks, which are about to enter one of their busiest periods of the year.
Access to adequate food becomes a problem for many of the poorest people in Britain, particularly during the summer holidays, as children are unable to benefit from free school meals.
Some foodbanks, such as Hammersmith and Fulham, are running summer clubs in order to feed children that are missing out from free school meals.
A government spokesperson said a £2m fund has been set up to help feed hungry youngsters.
“We are committed to supporting families to improve their lives, and employment remains the best route to achieve that,” he added.