Benefit delays leave ‘Michael’ starving – while DWP hides the statistics

I met “Michael” (not his real name) last weekend at a different food bank in a much more visibly run-down area of our London borough. It’s a massive area of mainly social housing, straddling two boroughs. Although it’s in a corner location among endless blocks of council flats, it’s hard to find.  I was driving – and arrived late after getting lost. There are no signposts or posters indicating its existence.

The volunteers here are amazingly kind and highly committed – as they are in the other food bank I’ve been going to in the last few weeks. But the tiny size of the public room here doesn’t make it easy for them to sit people down in a comfortable way and offer them a cup of tea and a biscuit. The volunteers do try to offer this when they’re able – depending on how busy they are. But usually clients must take their place on a sad row of chairs at the side, then wait while their emergency groceries are put together in the storeroom next door.

Michael sat there quietly in this gloomy room  – imagine something worse than the most depressing GP surgery you might ever have been to – and told me why he’d ended up there.  As is the case for many of the people I’ve come across in the last few weeks, he’s run out of food because of delays to his benefits.

Life has not treated him well. He used to work for a charity before becoming unemployed. The Jobcentre has now stopped his money because he missed an appointment.  He says the reason he didn’t make the appointment was because he had been attacked and assaulted and was making a statement to the Police at the time of his Jobcentre appointment. He claims he was attacked by three men – two of whom he says are now back in prison, and the third is ‘on the run’.

The case, says Michael has still to come to court. He adds: “They were drunk and they put me in hospital. They haven’t been sentenced for this, but they (the Police) put them straight back into prison. I had a statement from the Police to say they were with me. I sent the form to the Department of Work and Pensions  (DWP), but they weren’t happy with that. I’ve had four to five weeks without any money. It’s very difficult to survive.”

This is an understatement. Michael is 39, and he’s fading away. His spirit and his body have been damaged by this attack. I wonder whether the assault has destroyed him, and whether he will be able to overcome such a setback. Has he reached the stage of thinking that this is what must be accepted from life?  Because he can’t afford to eat, his weight is down to nine and a half stones. He says that previously he was about 11 stones. This is the first time he’s had to use a food bank.  His private landlord understands his situation, he says – so at least he has a roof over his head.

This food bank and the others in the borough, were set up by the Trussell Trust, in partnership with churches and communities. It’s one of almost 400 currently launched by the charity nationwide.  Alan, the food bank manager for all the borough’s food banks, says the DWP produces its own voucher that it can give to those claimants it chooses to refer to a food bank. But the DWP opted to introduce its own voucher in April that no longer records the reasons why a claimant has been referred. Before then a tick box had been included that allowed them to record the reasons for referral, including delays to paying benefit. “The DWP is trying to camouflage the numbers by taking the tick boxes off these vouchers,” says Alan.

According to an article by Patrick Butler in the Guardian, this move by the DWP was “a petty, cynical obfuscation”.  That sounds about right to me.  As he puts it, the move “smudges and distorts reality”. But the Trussell Trust  – which is still using the original DWP forms as a data source,  said in April that 30 per cent of claimants were referred because of benefit delays.  That  figure feels much higher here – and we’ll return to this crucial issue very soon.

‘Elizabeth’, her sick husband, and the knife

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt is appointing a new NHS director of costs. His job, says Mr Hunt, will be  to help the health service ‘get better’ at charging immigrants who are already in Britain, but not eligible for free treatment on the NHS. The coalition’s position is that short term immigrant and foreign visitors should pay more than £500m a year towards the cost of their NHS care.

Let’s look at the account of one woman who came to our London food bank a few days ago, and who happens to be making an immigration application.  ‘Elizabeth’ (not her real name)  came to the UK from Nigeria with her husband in 2010, and she is the quietest, saddest-looking woman I’ve seen for a long time. She brought her baby boy of seven months, who was fast asleep.

In a voice that’s no more than a whisper, she slowly, painfully, tells me her story.  I desperately hope that this is the worst account from a food bank client that I ever have to pass on.

Both Elizabeth and her husband have been renewing their visas while they try to negotiate the immigration application process. They also have two older children  – a girl of eight and a son of five. Elizabeth says: ‘My husband is in hospital. He has depression and he’s had it since 2010. He was working for 20 hours a week, and was also a student. But the rules changed and he wasn’t allowed to work. He was studying to be an ACCA (chartered accountant), and he has passed the first stage. But he has been in hospital now for over a month.’

How do they all survive, now that he is unable to work? ‘My maternity pay is the only money coming in. I get £278 every fortnight, from my job as a support worker for the elderly. A social worker is getting involved now, and is looking at whether there will be any financial help with regard to the rent.’

Why has a social worker suddenly intervened? Elizabeth tells me of the terrible circumstances which led to her husband being taken into a mental health unit as an in-patient recently: ‘He tried to commit suicide. I called the ambulance. My eight year old daughter got me a knife and I cut the rope.’ This poor woman’s daughter saw everything. By the time she’d reached the end of the account she had broken down and was in tears.

The stress this woman is going through, along with three small children, is horrific. Elizabeth’s GP was able to ease things a little by giving her a voucher for the food bank. We were then able to give her an emergency supply of food, including some nappies. She stayed with us for quite a while that afternoon, and I hope that talking to us about this almost unimaginable trauma, helped her – even a little. At least  – small comfort – she was able to feed herself and her two older children that weekend. She is still breast-feeding her baby.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Elizabeth and her family this week. Let’s hope that he responds well to the treatment he’s receiving. I’m not completely sure whether she and her husband have ‘temporary migrant’ status – It looks as if they do. What is a ‘health tourist’? Is Elizabeth’s husband one of those? If these new proposals supported by Jeremy Hunt do make their way into law – the Immigration Bill was passed yesterday by 303 votes to 18 – at what point during his recovery would some NHS doctor have to present Elizabeth’s husband with the bill for his treatment?

Fingers crossed for ‘Niall’ today

What are the hot trends in this major world financial centre? Bankers’ bonuses are back on the table, and bidding wars for property in central London are pushing prices higher than before the 2008 crash. In the Guardian on Saturday Ian Jack called London the ‘world HQ of speculative house-buying’.

If you were a qualified chartered accountant from the south of Ireland and  your job disappeared a while back – you might consider it a good idea to  head to this glorious metropolis. Niall (not his real name) must have read the headlines when he did just that and hit the streets of London on September 25.  Irish governments have passed seven austerity budgets since 2008, and according to think tank Civitas, if Ireland exits the bailout programme successfully it will be hailed as ‘a poster child for austerity’. That’s all great, unless  like Niall you find yourself unemployed at the age of 32 after 13 years of work.

Arriving here, Niall has ended up not far from this suburb a few train stops from the City. But now the perspective has shifted. Our pawnbrokers and pound shops suggest an alternative vision of London, although Walthamstow High Street to the north of here still beats us in terms of sheer quantity of payday loan shops.

Niall, who came into our London food bank  – set up by local churches in this borough in partnership with the Trussell Trust  – has been surviving on a £79 emergency loan since he arrived. He moved in with a friend in London, but the young friend he came over with fell out with Niall’s London mate, and the two of them had to leave. They ended up sleeping in a local park the night they were kicked out. Next, they moved in with Niall’s uncle.

Niall said: ‘Things have been rough to say the least. I’ve gone through £500 in the last three weeks, and that’s without socialising. But I’m optimistic. I’ve come with aspirations to do well, not to be a benefit seeker. I have literally got £5 left. I’m applying for any job I can get. If they want me to sweep shit off the street I’ll do it. I don’t think I’m too good to do anything. I’ve applied for 40 jobs in one day, and I’ve applied for 100 jobs since I got here.’

Things may indeed look up very soon for Niall, who is articulate, charismatic and funny. He sent his CV off to a major accountancy firm and they interviewed him today. He showed me a very positive email from the director of human resources, who tells him he’s very much looking forward to meeting him. ‘He’s very impressed by my skills and my knowledge.’

He thanks the volunteers at the food bank for the bags of groceries he and his friend are given, saying: ‘This is going to be a huge benefit.’  He brushes off our concern about the  five mile trip they have to tackle on foot carrying the six heavy bags, saying: ‘Who needs a bus when we’ve got fine legs on us…. I could sit here all day and moan to you, but we just have to get on with it.’ He’s determined to turn his life around.