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During PMQs last week, Jeremy Corbyn briefly returned to an old, if lately somewhat neglected Labour theme: food banks. It was the first time for some months that the subject has been prominently raised in the House of Commons. The relative absence of the issue from recent debates is striking, and the reasons for this change worth exploring.

A year ago, the issue of food banks possessed considerable political prominence. In the run-up to the 2015 general election Labour frequently raised food bank use in the Commons and in the media, culminating in Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Rachel Reeves MP warning five days before the election that the number of food bank users would double under a Conservative government. Rachel Reeves argued that Labour had a simple solution to food bank use – ‘‘axing the bedroom tax, getting rid of benefit sanctions targets and introducing protections for people with mental health problems’’. For Miliband-era Labour it was all very simple; reductions in benefit income were driving people to food banks.

Of course Ed Miliband didn’t win the subsequent election and the benefits polices his party blamed for food bank use remain in place. And yet over the past year food bank use hasn’t doubled; it has plateaued.

Figures from the Trusell Trust, the largest food bank network in the UK, suggests that whilst the number of trips to food banks increased by 163% between 2013 and 2014, this increase fell to 19% between 2014 and 2015 and to 2% between 2015 and 2016. Food bank use remained broadly stable over the last year, compared to the sharp increases in trip numbers seen a few years ago.

In considering what might be behind this stalling in the number of food bank trips it is important to highlight a recent change in how food banks operate – an increase over the past 18 months in the number of welfare, debt and employment advisers working from food banks.

A number of Conservative MPs can claim some credit for this increase in support workers at the food bank frontline. Salisbury MP John Glen, Truro and Falmouth MP Sarah Newton and former MP for Thanet South Laura Sandys took the lead in the last Parliament on food poverty, with Mr Glen and Mrs Newton serving on the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom. The Inquiry’s report, published in December 2014, endorsed the co-location of welfare benefits, debt advice and other services in food banks, with John Glen observing how:

‘‘Food banks are beginning to respond to the wider needs of the most vulnerable: we have heard about debt advice, cooking classes and welfare support services alongside food parcels…By taking active steps to improve co-operation between business, civil society and the state the fullest range of help will be made available to those who are in greatest need.’’

18 months on, the Inquiry’s report has helped deliver a sea-change in food bank operations. The Trussell Trust, one of the first organisations to pilot independent debt and welfare support in food banks is now unrolling its ‘More than Food’ programme across the country, aiming to turn food banks into community hubs offering debt, financial and lifestyle advice to clients. The Department for Work and Pensions is running a pilot in Manchester whereby a Jobcentre work coach attends food bank sessions to offer advice and investigate benefit delays, a policy that may be extended to other food banks over the next year. Other food banks are teaming up with independent welfare and debt advisors to ensure that their clients have access to a range of help, offering a comprehensive support package of which food parcels are only a part.

Initial evidence suggests that this new approach is making a real difference. Labour MP Frank Field, founder of the Inquiry into Hunger, has been running the ‘Feeding Birkenhead’ project to put the Inquiry’s recommendations into practice. The Project has reported that the presence of a benefits adviser in a food bank has seen the number of people coming back for a second bag of food dropping by 65%.

A steadily introduced change to administrative procedure, designed to bring third sector advice and government assistance together with charitable giving, seems to be reducing return trips to food banks. Other long-term factors are likely to also be contributing to the slowdown in food bank use, including sustained increases in employment and progress in reducing benefit processing delays.

Technical administrative changes and good employment figures have resulted in progress in addressing increased food bank use over the past year, discrediting the simple theory that it is impossible to tackle food bank use without increasing benefit income. No wonder Labour don’t talk about food banks as much as they used do.

Unglamorous but pragmatic policy solutions, pioneered by civil society, are slowly helping some of the most vulnerable people in our society. There is a lot more work to be done to reduce foodbank use, including more detailed analysis of the reasons behind food bank trips and further technical policy changes. But progress is being made.

Matt Browne is an Associate at Bright Blue