This weekend the sun is shining, we’ve got a chance of a British tennis champion and even more surprisingly, Tesco are doing their bit for the nation. They are hosting a food drive to raise donations for the Trussell Trust and Fareshare who are Britain’s largest foodbank and food aid provider. How heartwarming. One can pop a tin of tuna and some sweetcorn in the trolley and go back to planning your barbecue. Food banks are just part of life aren’t they?
No. Food banks are not part of life and their movement from the very very fringes of society to a full fledged part of the welfare state in less than three years is a scandal that should shock you and the country to its very core. This isn’t coincidence and it isn’t because people are such bargain hunters they’ll queue for days for a can of Spam instead of Shake Shack as Lord Freud would have you think.
Food banks are a way for the politicians to push people further into poverty and then blame them for being poor. They are the very embodiment of bread and circuses. Hearing Michael Gove say that children go to school hungry because their parents are feckless is deliberately designed to muddy the waters so that people don’t notice the ripples the coalition is creating as it attempts of dismantle the welfare state and start charging for the NHS. It’s Daily Mail fodder and many people lap it up and ask for seconds while their neighbours go to a food bank because the system is failing them.
Food banks are mainly run by churches and community groups, offering a food parcel of three days worth of food, mainly tinned or packaged as it may have been stored for quite a while by them before being offered out. Each family or individual can access a food bank three times in one year. This rule is enforced by the fact you cannot self refer to a food bank. You must be referred and given a ticket by someone like a police officer, Job Centre Plus staff, health visitor, GP or social worker. Much more exclusive than the swankiest restaurant Lord Freud eats at.
To get that referral you will already have had to apply for benefits (a labyrinthine procedure involving making appointments to make appointments), been arrested, have a small baby, waited months to see a social worker or have a fixed abode to receive GP care. That means that by the time you get there you’ve already been going hungry and you know that you only have 9 days worth of food maximum to solve the issue that brought you there.
But don’t people spend it all on fags and booze and Sky TV anyway? Only in tabloid land. The most common reason to attend a food bank is because of a delay or error in benefits payments. It takes on average 25 days to get a benefit claim in payment from when you apply and that’s without any issues such as lack of ID or providing P45s or sick notes. It’s a situation only likely to intensify if George Osborne brings in his plan to delay the claim for income based Job Seekers’ Allowance to 7 days. Right now if you are on a temp contract, you can leave work at 5pm and on your first day of unemployment, open a claim that day 9appointment gods willing). In future, you’ll wait a week no matter how worthy you are.
You can join the line in the meantime with the hundreds of thousands of sick and disabled people found ‘fit for work’ after an Atos assessment who from October 2013 won’t get any money while the Department of Work and Pensions reconsider their claim. Instead they must turn themselves into Schrodinger’s Scrounger by simultaneously being fit to work 40 hours a week to claim JSA while appealing to be found to have limited capability for work to reinstate Employment Support Allowance. These people are too sick and disabled and traumatised by the system to offer you a seat, but maybe the people queuing because the Social Fund has been abolished will let you sit down?
These people used to be able to access interest free loans for food and emergencies called Crisis Loans, but multi millionaires Lord Freud and Iain Duncan Smith objected, so they were abolished. Budgeting Loans of a maximum of several hundred punds per family that helped poor people raise money for deposits, news shoes for their kids and unexpected events were also scrapped even though both types of loan were paid back by being taken off your benefits at source. For good measure the Community Care Grant which helped the newly rehoused to buy basics like a bed or crockery (as I myself did) or people pay for travel to events like a funeral also went. Funeral Payments for parents and spouses were slashed by around 45% as well. A nationally based good system was replaced by a piecemeal one where every single council got to decide its own system from a non ringfenced budget.
So now if your boiler blows up and you live in Birmingham, you get a voucher to Asda. If your child is sick and you need to travel to a specialist hospital, you get a voucher to a food bank instead of cash to pay the fares. The fact you are no longer deemed capable of applying for and then spending money allocated to you traps you into poverty. You might get three tins of beans but the bill still needs paid so you enter the world of payday loans (many of which come up first when you Google the social fund) which tend to snowball faster a crazed avalanche. And if you’ve been hit by the Bedroom Tax as a disabled person, carer or non resident parent in social housing, your arrears are going to keep growing. It’s actually amazing only half a million people used a food bank last year when you see the way things are.
The welfare state is, despite all the claims to the contrary, is a safety net. It’s a brilliant brave thing that gives more back to the nation that it takes. But it’s a precarious thing. You can’t stride across a safety net: you have to shuffle and strategise and take the help given to get to the other side. It can be slow going and it needs trust and courage. It doesn’t need a pit of crocodiles underneath and high winds. But that’s what the Welfare Reform Bill has brought. It’s going to push more people to food banks and it’s going to affect you even if you don’t think it will.
Contribution based Employment Support Allowance is now time limited to 365 days. So if you work all your life and get sick under the age of 65 and your partner earns more than £7,500 per year, you get nothing after a year despite all that National Insurance. 500,000 people will lose Disability Living Allowance when it is replaced by Personal Independence Payment from 2015. Their carers will lose their less than £60 per week payment in the process. Universal Credit will strip tax credits from anyone self employed who earns less than minimum wage while establishing their buisness. You can be mandated on to the Work Programme with compulsory placements or Workfare and sanctioned for up to three years if you object. People on zero hours contracts must work 35 hours per week to claim Universal Credit while spending the same amount of time again seeking new work.
All this has been brought in while we were debating why even poor people have flatscreen TVs these days and they’ve been made possible because food banks have been brought centre stage instead of being a very niche thing. Don’t get me wrong, I have no quibble with the people who run food banks or those who use them. My beef is with the government using those people to shoehorn in massive changes which have already made 900,000 people poorer in the last year.
They’ve dressed food banks up as the Big Society, hiding that they wish to return to the idea of the deserving and undeserving poor. The idea of paying benefits on card was mooted by MP Alec Shelbrooke, ignoring (possibly wilfully) that supermarket payment cards would damage small high street businesses. It would also further entrench food poverty by preventing people from shopping around and having choice just to stop anyone buying cigarettes or alcohol. Food banks are being used to hide behind while showing them off in a sleight of hand as an answer.
No voter in the country is gaining from this. It’s divide and rule, perpetuating the scrounger rhetoric and suggesting that benefit claimants don’t pay tax. In fact everyone pays VAT in the UK and some benefits are taxable. Many claimants are in work but the benefits bill continues to rise because many employers don’t pay proper wages necessitating Tax Credit top ups. These low wages and lack of social housing mean the Housing Benefit bill is rising but 9 of 10 new claimants in some areas are working. the government is relying on a lot of cans of spaghetti hoops to fix some fundamental issues.
I will continue to give to food banks. I have been poor enough to need one, but instead I skipped meals so I only ate every couple of days because I felt too ashamed. I have also been in a position where I have handed out the vouchers for food banks. Seeing the palpable shame and fear of the people I handed the ticket to both humbled and hardened me. Not against those ordinary people but against the truly extraordinary ones who are bringing in the rules that send them there.
I see no contradiction in helping those in need and asking our politicians and society why they are in need. Not once in two years did I meet someone using a food bank who had blown their cash on drugs or booze or frivolities. Instead my boss always kept an a packet of biscuits in his bag to offer to them. Once they’d eaten one or two in the course of conversation made it easier to offer the voucher because not once did anyone ask to be referred there. The remainder of the biscuits went with them and often provided the energy to walk the five miles there.
I don’t believe anyone wants to be in this situation so I will be reserving my empathy for those who are and my ire for those who blame them. If everyone offered a donation and asked questions of the way the situation is developing, it would help more than simple charity. You can find your local food bank here or contribute to Save the Children’s UK appeal. You may think this isn’t for people like you, but that’s exactly what the government is relying on. By all means ask questions about welfare reform and poverty, but ask them of the press and politicians, not the claimants…