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.