Mark: State welfare is failing our citizens and food banks aren’t the answer

Mark: State welfare is failing our citizens and food banks aren’t the answer
Mark Bothwell. Still in pain and waiting for the outcome of his employment and support allowance application.
Mark Bothwell. Still in pain and waiting for the outcome of his employment and support allowance application.

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.

Sweeter tales from the food bank

Sweeter tales from the food bank
Generous brownie pack gives 35 Easter eggs to the food bank
Generous brownie pack gives 35 Easter eggs to the food bank

Often the accounts of the people who use this food bank in the London suburbs are harrowing. No-one comes here unless they’ve exhausted other options. There’s been a crisis – often it’s because benefits have been delayed. One young woman who came in last week – Sarah – had her employment and support allowance (ESA) held up before Christmas because she’d received some expenses for volunteering work done in the autumn. Often, food bank users are struggling with the repayments on doorstep loans and can’t afford to buy food. Often they’re on jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) but are endlessly waiting for decisions on their claim for ESA. This is the case for Mark, whom I’ve written about recently.

So when good and life-enhancing things happened today, I felt the need to share. Femi, who was so distressed when I last saw him. came in with a food bank voucher, and told us the news that his family has been rehoused. Femi (not his real name), who tried to take his own life last September when he heard that his immigration appeal had been rejected, has been found a home by the Royal Borough of Greenwich. He’s moved in, along with his wife and three young children. A new baby is due next month. Femi, from Nigeria, had been studying for an accountancy degree here – he has only got two modules left to finish – but had got increasingly depressed towards the time he received the immigration decision last autumn. Their private landlord was also threatening them with eviction. Now they’ve been housed, things have eased. ‘It’s a big help for us, and it has helped me to concentrate on my recovery. The only thing left to sort out now is the immigration issue.’

When I last saw him back in February, he told me that he was still crying every day. Today, helped by months of intensive therapy, he was smiling and held his head high. He says that now, whenever he wants to ‘be harsh to himself’, he takes a step back and says ‘be kind’. He’s also speaking positively about the future. He has a solicitor, who is helping him apply for leave to remain in the UK. If that works out, he wants to get a job so that he can support his family. In the meantime, as a part-qualified accountant, he is very keen to volunteer and get work experience, particularly in the field of accountancy. He’s prepared to do an internship, so if your firm is interested in speaking to Femi, please get in touch.

Finally, another story from the food bank today: A local Brownie pack were given an Easter egg each by their leaders a few days ago and told they could either take them home or leave them to the borough’s food banks. The generous girls left 35 Easter eggs for the needy families who come for help. Surrounded as we often are by evidence of a less caring, more judgemental society, it’s heartening to see that some councils – despite their slashed budgets – are still doing what they can to protect the poor and vulnerable. It’s also good to see how many London children have that instinct to reach out to poorer families this Easter.

Sarah’s story: The housing trust and council response

This week I wrote about Sarah. She told me that she was forced to flee her home some distance away in another borough because of her relative’s violent behaviour. A housing trust which runs a hostel for the homeless in Greenwich took her in after she was registered homeless, but it has handed her an eviction letter, telling her that she must vacate by April 11.

It says that if she fails to hand in her keys by 11am that day, it will be ‘forced to carry out an eviction with the Metropolitan Police present’. It adds that following a review, ‘it has been decided that the services and facilities that the accommodation provides are no longer suitable for your needs’. It does not say why that is the case. Sarah says she’s been told it’s because she’s made a number of complaints to the hostel.

Sarah (not her real name), a law graduate aged 28, moved back home after her studies and struggled to find a job. She says that because she couldn’t find work she was ‘scapegoated’ by the relative. Eventually, she left home in January for her own safety. Sarah has also been dealing with a serious mental health issue – borderline personality disorder (BPD) for many years. After pleading with them to help her, she says The Royal Borough of Greenwich registered her homeless and placed her with the housing trust.

She says the council is paying the housing trust her housing benefit, council tax and for her heating. Her main complaints about the housing trust focus on ‘intrusive’ room inspections at odd times of the day, a card meter regularly not being topped up by the staff – leaving residents without heating and hot water about one day a week – and a service charge made by the staff of £15 a week per resident. She says she was forced to the food bank because of the service charge and because she lost food when a fridge broke down for a few days.

The housing trust (not named to preserve Sarah’s anonymity) has now responded. It says it that Sarah was one of the first clients to move into the new accommodation, and that when she arrived she was given a ‘small loan and a large bag of food’.

The statement says there ‘was an issue with the heating system where the whole system had to be shut down for repairs’. It says the ‘leak in the pipe work was fixed’ On another occasion ‘the gas meter was faulty and we had to report it and accordingly waited for an engineer from the gas company to exchange the meter’. It was ‘due to those problems that there was no hot water or heating for a period of time’. The fridge wasn’t working ‘because someone from the property switched off the fridge function’.

The statement adds: ‘The service charge is for the TV licence and broadband. Gas and electric are only covered partially.’

I asked the housing trust if they were going to use a court order to evict her, but didn’t receive a reply to this. Sarah’s understanding is that they won’t do this because she has a licence agreement rather than a tenancy agreement.

According to the housing trust, there were issues that led to Sarah being given a notice to quit, but that it can only say more if she offers consent in writing. I’ve passed this information onto her. The housing trust also strongly rejects Sarah’s comment that it does not deal with drinking and drug taking at other accommodation it runs. The trust adds: ‘We are working actively and strenuously with the council to reduce homelessness within the borough and to help vulnerable adults.’

Responding to Sarah’s concern that her council case worker was not dealing sensitively with her homelessness issues, the Royal Borough of Greenwich said it had ‘not received a complaint from the resident against the actions or behaviour of any member of Royal Borough staff’. It added: ‘We are committed to ensuring that we support people who access our services in a professional manner, and in a way which is sensitive to any additional needs they may have. If the resident has concerns about her tenancy and the actions of her landlord, we would encourage her to contact the Royal Borough for advice and assistance by calling 020 8921 2618 or email housingaidcentre@royalgreenwich.gov.uk’