Alan the food bank manager passes on some heartening news. “Elizabeth”, the Nigerian lady who came in two weeks ago with her baby, returned to our London food bank on Friday with her children. The older two were off school because of half term. At first the volunteers weren’t sure it was her. Alan says she was much brighter, and “standing taller”.
When I interviewed her a fortnight ago, she was very low and so overcome by trauma that she spoke in a whisper. Her husband tried to commit suicide by hanging some weeks earlier. Her eight year old daughter had to fetch a knife to cut the rope.
Alan tells me: “We had a good chat and it seems that social services are now fully involved and are helping her. The kids were sweet and very engaging. It was so good to see her looking so much better, even though hubby is still in hospital and not making much progress. Still we pray….”
This food bank is one of almost 400 set up by the Trussell Trust – which partners with churches and communities to provide a supply of at least three days emergency food to those in a crisis. Alan is the kindest of people and devotes his life to providing practical help to his food bank clients. He also believes in the power of divine intervention and prayer, as do many of the volunteers who help here in this borough.
I respect Alan’s strong Christian beliefs, which motivate him to do this work. But I’m much more of a believer in the power of citizens to protest at this government’s targeting of the poorest and most vulnerable. The current direction of welfare and immigration policies is disturbing – and is turning people like Elizabeth and her family into England’s scapegoats. A perceptive article in the New Statesman describes the Immigration Bill as an “explicit response” to public perceptions that the benefit system is a “magnet for migrants coming to access more generous benefits that they would receive at home, even though there is very little hard evidence of this…” This Bill, says the article’s author Alex Glennie, is “essentially a statement of intent and a triumph of symbolism over substance, designed to send a message that the government is serious about creating a hostile environment for those whose legal right to live and work in the UK is in question”.
I would guess that Elizabeth has contributed much to the UK. She rents privately and is receiving maternity pay of £278 a fortnight from her job as a support worker for the elderly. Elizabeth has been looking after London’s elderly parents and grandparents. Her maternity pay doesn’t cover her rent to the private landlord, food and bills. Her husband had to leave his accountancy training course because of his depression and is still very ill following his suicide bid. Elizabeth says he had to stop working while on the course because of changes in the visa rules (the couple are applying to stay permanently in the UK).
As well as myths about immigration, there are also an increasing number of fables in circulation about why food banks are growing in “popularity” – for want of a better word. One of the 10 most common myths about food banks is that they create dependency and don’t address the causes of poverty. If people come to a food bank more than three times in six months the system flags this so that the food bank manager can contact the service or person that referred them. They can then make sure a plan is in place to help the client overcome poverty. Elizabeth was referred by her GP, who would seem to be very much on the ball and has made the referral to social services. Of course it won’t be easy for Elizabeth to improve her family’s circumstances quickly. But there are some optimistic signs now that she’s on the radar of an alert GP and social services.