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.