A study presented earlier this week to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty says the rise in food banks and charity food is a clear sign of the inadequate nature of social security provision and the way it is delivered. As reported in the Guardian, the report by Sheffield University researcher Hannah Lambie-Mumford warns of the danger of charity food becoming a fundamental part of, or even replacement for, formerly state-funded welfare.
As shown by Eoin Clarke here, by January this year the number of food banks in the UK had grown to more than 1,080. Give that number a bit more consideration. There are more food banks now in the UK than there are branches of Sainsbury’s. The experience of Mark Bothwell (pictured above), here at the London food bank, serves to illustrate the effect of our inadequate welfare system on real lives. Individuals with multiple, deep-set problems are being let down, and food banks can do nothing more for them than provide short-term food. Crisis packs of long life food are not, and can’t be, a solution for people who are being left month upon month with inadequate, delayed, or downright non-existent welfare payments.
Mark, who injured his right shoulder back in October, is on jobseeker’s allowance (JSA), but is still waiting to hear the outcome of his application for employment and support allowance (ESA). He tells me: ‘They say it will take a while’. He won’t be able to work for the foreseeable future, while he waits for his shoulder to heal. In the meantime, he’s trying to pay off some old debts ( a doorstep loan and a payment to Brighthouse) at the usual extortionate rates, in addition to the repayments on a crisis loan. That doesn’t leave any sensible amount of money left for food out of the current JSA rate of between £125 and £145 a fortnight (depending on whether the crisis loan repayment amount has been deducted).
He’s in a terrible way – in constant pain every day. His GP has put him back on the drug tramadol, and he says that some days ‘it literally feels like my flesh is on fire’. He’s struggling to keep his spirits up: ‘If I allowed myself to feel all the bad feelings I wouldn’t be able to function. There are people who are worse off.’ There are days when he goes without food, but he adds: ‘I heard a family in Afganistan talk on the news. The man had lost his younger son in a bombing, and the elder son was injured. A couple of days without food seems like nothing. My situation pales to nothing in comparison.’
Earlier in the year, Benefit Tales highlighted that the European Committee of Social Rights declared in a report that minimum levels of benefits – short-term and long-term incapacity benefit, state pension and jobseeker’s allowance – in Great Britain were ‘manifestly inadequate’.
The Coalition government should be deeply shamed by these comments from international observers. Maybe here at home we’ve got so used to the inequities that the burden on individuals and families isn’t registering any more. John Glen, parliamentary aide to Eric Pickles, said recently that partisan politics needs to be taken out of the food bank debate. He also said he hoped the all-party parliamentary inquiry would examine the underlying causes of the use of food banks. This is the same man who suggested in 2011 that everyone in work should have enough money for food.
Would he like food banks to quietly yet relentlessly continue transforming into an industrially-scaled charitably-funded rescuer of failing state provision? It’s easier to hand out food bank vouchers that you’re not paying for than to make sure your citizens get decent and humane levels of social security, paid on time.
While this shameful situation gets worse by the week it seems Mr Glen would prefer us not to get political about it.