A day after the BBC admitted to misquoting David Cameron on foxhunting, the broadcaster made another admission of error last night over the numbers of people using food banks. A Newsnight package on welfare initially declared that ‘numbers using food banks will hit a million this week’, but this figure was clarified with a short correction at the end of the programme:
‘In our welfare discussion we said there were a million people estimated to use food banks. There were actually a million uses by a smaller number of people than that.’
The flagship current affairs show wasn’t the only operation to make the mistake, which is based on a Trussell Trust press release titled ‘Foodbank use tops one million for the first time’. The Guardian headline today reads ‘Low pay and benefit sanctions push food bank users beyond a million’, and the Daily Mail says: ‘Storm as food banks claim they are feeding 1m people.’
But as the Trussell Trust admits in the small print, the claim that over one million unique people used food banks in the past year is inaccurate. ‘These are not all unique users,’ it says. ‘This is a measure of volume.’ Indeed, the one million figure has been calculated by tallying the number of vouchers handed out, and taking into account how many people each voucher can feed. However, the Trust says that ‘on average, people needed two foodbank vouchers in a year’. As the independent Full Fact points out, this means the actual number of people using food banks is likely to be around half the headline one million figure.
The report on the BBC News website this morning is more careful with the numbers. It reads:
‘The Trussell Trust said three days’ food was given out 1,084,604 times in the 2014-15 financial year, though it is not clear how many people got help because some visited more than once.’
However, the Trussell Trust itself continues to play fast and loose between the numbers of people using food banks, and the numbers of vouchers being handed out. In a tweet posted last night, the charity said: ‘It’s always sad adding up the totals for number of people fed by our food banks’. And yet, by its own admission, the trust cannot accurately calculate the numbers of individual people using food banks.
One family not being able to lay food on the table in a country like ours is one family too many, but misleading people as to the numbers of people using food banks is no solution. Journalists ought to question the reliability of statistics, but there should also be a responsibility on the behalf of respected charities not to deliberately mislead.