Will Peter and Sue get added to this year’s malnutrition statistics?

Is the government rushing to close down the few remaining sources of help for people like Peter and Sue (not their real names), a couple who came into the London food bank last week? Both of them have serious health issues and their sickness benefits have been delayed.

Yesterday, the story broke that the £347m hardship fund, a potential safety net for the couple, is being scrapped. The Local Government Association (LGA) is calling for ministers to review the decision. The LGA says its abolition could leave councils unable to support families who face a crisis. The loss of the Local Welfare Assistance Fund would leave councils having to find money for this from their overall budgets. The government is reported as saying that councils will continue to give support to those in financial difficulties, but the LGA has highlighted that overall funding for local government has been cut by more than 40 per cent over the course of this parliament. Doing away with this fund could leave some areas unable to afford to help out people in crisis.

This development is not going to make life any easier for Peter and Sue, who usually get employment and support allowance (ESA), but had no way of feeding themselves last week. Peter, who is bipolar, had sent the sick note that he hopes would have triggered a renewal of ESA to an office in Ireland, but believes it’s been lost in the post. Before he can start receiving ESA again, he has to repeat the process of getting his key mental health worker to arrange an appointment with his psychiatrist. It’s easy to see that this is all going to take a while to sort. Sue, who is epileptic, had been friends with Peter for many years before they became a couple. They got together after she broke up with her ex-husband, who had been violent towards her. She doesn’t seem to know why her ESA has been delayed.

Both of them have older children from their previous relationships, and now Sue, 36, thinks she may be pregnant. The couple, who are clearly devoted to each other, are living together. Sue receives housing benefit and disability living allowance (DLA) in addition to ESA. With both sets of ESA now on hold, they are trying and failing to survive on Sue’s DLA of £41 a week. That sum has to cover rent, gas, electricity, council tax and food for two. Except of course, it isn’t covering food, which is why they’re here at the food bank.

They’re worried their gas and electricity are about to run out. That would leave them in a cold house, unable to heat up some of the tins of food we’re giving them. Our food bank manager Alan rang their energy supplier Utilita, which calls itself “the UK’s leading prepayment gas and electricity supplier”. He said they weren’t very interested in helping. “The couple had recently switched suppliers and this supplier (Utilita) did not seem to understand its responsibility to help vulnerable people and in any case could not act until their smart meter was installed.”

He added that in stark contrast, he contacted energy provider EDF the same day on behalf of another client, and they quickly agreed to provide an emergency supply of gas and electricity – £20 in each case. A bit of welcome good news. Well done EDF.

Getting help from the state seems to be getting harder and harder. Sue says that when they went to the job centre to use the phones, only one phone was left for clients to use. There used to be six lines available. The pair walked miles from their home to the job centre only to find they were unable to get help.

For Peter and Sue, life is very tough at the moment. Peter says they have both been “hungry the last week or two”. This is a particularly worrying development for someone who may be in the first three months of pregnancy. Life is a daily battle for survival. Peter says the key person who helps them is a local vicar. He’s the one who gave them a voucher for the food bank. “He’s understanding and he looks after us. He hates the government like I do. We are just oiks to them. If we get one less payment then the government saves a bit of money.”

The anger expressed by Peter’s vicar is being writ large across the nation. The open letter published in the Daily Mirror last week signed by 27 Anglican bishops is scathing about the Coalition’s “cutbacks to and failures in the benefit system” that have left half a million people visiting food banks since last Easter. It also says that 5,500 people were admitted to hospital in the UK with malnutrition last year. Peter and Sue are in danger of being included in this year’s malnutrition statistics.

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Quotas for food bank vouchers at job centres?

Is an unofficial quota system for food bank vouchers operating at job centres? One man who called into a food bank in this London borough recently said he was told by his job centre that they’d given out 15 vouchers already that week. Persuading the staff there that he was in need was hard work. He said he did get a voucher eventually, but his experience begs a question. How many people in genuine need of an emergency supply of food are now being refused a food voucher by job centres?

There’s already a substantial level of need in this borough – a fairly typical one for London, with its pockets of deprivation. Between April 1 2013 and the end of January this year, Trussell Trust food banks in the borough fed 3,225 people (1937 adults and 1288 children). There was a month on month increase in clients from the middle of last year leading up to Christmas.

Everyone who received emergency help will have needed to present a voucher. But it’s vital to get a clearer idea of how many are trying to access help through job centres and are being refused that essential piece of paper.

With the number of people having their benefits sanctioned, or experiencing other delays (for example while their employment and support allowance entitlement is reassessed) on the increase, are job centres under orders to limit vouchers?

Accessing help to eat at short notice is becoming a fact of life for a growing number of people in this very average area of London. One experienced food bank helper here, whose day job is as an outreach worker in children’s services, says that half of the people coming to his food bank are there because of benefit sanctions. He adds: ‘A lot of them are on housing benefit. They have a roof over their heads, but they still have to eat.’ The most worrying thing is that they may be the ‘lucky’ ones, who managed to get their hands on that all-important voucher.

The food bank helps depressed Femi as he recovers from a suicide bid

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As soon as I met Femi (not his real name) at this London food bank, I felt I knew him already. It turned out that as soon as he started talking I realised that I’d met his wife some months ago. Her story is here. Elizabeth (not her real name) came into the food bank for support after her husband had tried to hang himself and had become an inpatient at the local mental health trust.

As soon as he began to tell me that he was from Nigeria, had three young children (aged 8, 6 and 11 months) and started studying accountancy in London before he ran into difficulties, I’d a strong feeling I’d been talking to his wife. The lovely Elizabeth had made a deep impression on me as she described how her family’s life had got so hard. She said she’d just about managed to stop her husband as he had tried to hang himself at home in September, and of how her young daughter (of 8) had to run and get a knife to help cut her husband down in time.

What drove Femi, 34, who came here in 2008 to study, to the brink of suicide? He told me he had been working in banking back in Nigeria and came to England in search of a better life for himself and his family. Initially he arrived on his own to start studying for his ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) exams. “The UK was like a dreamland to me. My dad came here in 1975 and he told me many things about it. I lost my mum (in Nigeria) 30 years ago, so I had to grow up very quickly. I left home when I was 12.” When he was growing up in Nigeria he had to spend a lot of time fending for himself. He put much of his own savings into paying for his studies in London, with some support from his father in Nigeria. I also remembered that Elizabeth said her husband had worked when he could while he was studying.

But by 2010, things were getting tough. His wife joined him, but noticed that he was struggling with things like brushing his teeth and keeping clean. “I went to the GP and was diagnosed with depression. I was so ashamed.” He says that there’s a massive stigma in Nigeria about having depression, so he didn’t think he could share his feelings with what remains of his family back in Africa. Despite all, he still managed to pass the exams before he had to leave his course without completing it. “I keep my results on a piece of paper in my pocket, just to remind me of what I’ve done.”

The biggest blow of all came on September 17 last year, when the outcome of his immigration appeal came through. He had spent all his money – and received some financial help from friends – to fund an appeal on health grounds against the decision by the Home Office to refuse his immigration application. The process cost £3,000, to include the costs of the tribunal, £1,400 to the Home Office and £1,340 to the solicitor who took on his case. The news was the trigger for the already depressed Femi to carry out his suicide attempt. “I tried to commit suicide in the middle of the night. My daughter saw me.”

Femi sees the judge’s appeal decision as deeply unfair: “The judge said I should not be treated here. I said that I did not come here with depression. I worked in banking before I came to England. I took the UK as my home.” He even managed to donate £15 to charity every month for a while when he was working. He now has no money to fall back on, and he and his family are facing eviction from his privately-rented house.

He has nothing but praise for the social worker involved with the family, and he’s also receiving intensive treatment three days a week from the local mental health trust. The family has had some emergency payments from the council (which I’ve noticed tries so much harder than the other council on our doorstep to help the vulnerable when it can), but the money has to cover everything and there’s not often enough to buy adequate food. There have been times when the children didn’t have anything to eat. So the social worker has given the family the occasional voucher for the food bank. The family really needs this extra support, but the food bank can’t ever be more than a stop gap to cover an immediate crisis.

The couple only realised recently that Elizabeth is pregnant again – she had been taking contraceptives so this came as a great shock – with the new baby due in May. Femi is once again appealing the decision to refuse his immigration application on health grounds, and the hearing is due at the end of this month. The council is looking at how the family might be rehoused, but of course there are no guarantees of anything. He’s still crying every day, he tells me…

He went home last night with some food for his children, and that, at least is a small comfort.

Wish him well.