Hayley called into the Greenwich foodbank just before Christmas. She was still in the very last stages of pregnancy, but wanted to bring me up to date on how things were going for her family. A week earlier, I’d met her for the first time when she called in with a voucher for three days of emergency food. She, her partner and their two children of 13 and nine were in dire straits. She’s a home care worker who stopped work early because she had a history of giving birth prematurely and wasn’t able to do the lifting and hoisting of clients that her job requires. Her employers owe her statutory maternity pay which should have been given to her well before Christmas, but which they have told her will not now arrive until mid-January.
Her partner is a self-employed driving instructor. Business has been very bad recently, with no clients booked in. But he still has to find the money to pay franchise fees. Hayley had applied to the council for housing benefit, but this had been refused.
By the time she came back in to see me, things had already progressed in a very positive way. She told me that her housing association London and Quadrant had arranged to post her another food bank voucher. It had also arranged for her to access the Government’s warm homes discount scheme via her energy supplier British Gas. This offers eligible customers on lower incomes rebates on their electricity bill. This is a one-off payment of £140. L&Q have also sent Hayley an application form for water rates discount, and the housing association is also writing to The Royal Borough of Greenwich on Hayley’s behalf to apply for her to receive council tax discount.
This wasn’t the only good news. Alan Robinson, the manager of Greenwich Foodbank arranged for the family to have a Christmas hamper – with fresh food and a turkey – delivered just before Christmas Eve. The family has also received some extra short-term support with food and essentials from a small charity.
The best delivery of all happened on Christmas Eve. I got the message that in the early hours Hayley and her partner’s baby girl arrived safely.
I apologise in advance for the length of this post. There’s a lot to say. Hayley is a 31-year-old mother of two and is heavily pregnant. She came to the food bank at the weekend with her partner and her youngest child of nine. Her baby is due next week, but her family is not in a celebratory mood. This young family’s cupboards are empty. It’s the first time in their lives they’ve ever had to ask for a food bank voucher.
They’ve hit a full-blown crisis. Hayley is a domiciliary care worker. Because she normally gives birth prematurely at 27 weeks, she went onto statutory sick pay three months ago. She was naturally wary given her earlier pregnancies, and by that stage she also couldn’t do the hoisting and lifting that her job requires. Moving onto sick pay reduced her income from £1,000 a month to £300. She then went onto maternity benefit in November, and has recently applied through the council for housing benefit. This application has been turned down. She recently applied to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) for child tax credit, and a payment of £30 a week was awarded two weeks ago.
Her anxious-looking partner took their child off for a while so that I could talk to Hayley. Her partner works as as driving instructor. He’s self-employed, and business has been very slow lately. He has no clients booked in over the Christmas holidays, but he’s still expected to make payments to the franchise he belongs to. The most daunting problem they face as they wait for the new baby to arrive is their housing situation.’We’ve got to pay £140 a week rent to London and Quadrant Housing Association. My partner is self-employed, but he has no clients and no work over the Christmas period. But we still have to pay his franchise fees for the business. The tax credit people have told me to ring them when I’ve had the baby. After the baby’s born they’ve said they’ll get me to fill in another form. London and Quadrant have given me the food bank voucher, but they still ring me every week for the rent.’ How do those calls make her feel? ‘It makes me feel embarrassed and upset.’
She contacted her children’s schools – her eldest is 13 and at secondary school – to see if they were entitled to free school meals. ‘I put in for free school dinners and they said I wasn’t entitled. That was two weeks ago. At my daughter’s (secondary) school the head then said they would give her school dinners free for a little while.’ Her nine year old’s primary school told her that her son wouldn’t be able to get free meals.
Hayley believes that what’s making their situation so difficult is an assumption by HMRC that their income in this financial year is going to be much higher that the reality that is unfolding. Hayley is going to spend at least half of this financial year on sick pay or maternity pay, and her partner’s income as a self-employed person has plummeted recently. ‘HMRC is making assumptions about our yearly income that are not accurate.’
The couple haven’t been able to buy any Christmas presents this year, and the outlook for this lovely family as the holidays approach and the new baby is born is grim indeed. The food bank was able to help with the standard package of three days’ supply of non-perishable food including canned staples. But there were no nappies, wipes or baby-related material in stock that day. We were not able to provide any fresh food either, as the Trussell Trust food bank network is not set up to do this.
The day before I interviewed Hayley, I talked to the manager of the Trussell Trust foodbanks in Greenwich Alan Robinson. Earlier this year, Alan was called to give evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Group Inquiry on Hunger and Food Poverty in Britain. The inquiry report Feeding Britain was published last week with quite a fanfare, and the report was featured widely in the mainstream media, including The Guardian. Alan thought the report provided a ‘reasonable assessment’ of food poverty in Britain and its causes. He said: ‘It sets the scene and talks about food costs and how prices have increased since 2003 compared with other countries such as France, Germany and the US. It also shows how housing inflation and fuel costs are more here than in any of those other countries, and that income is less.’ The inquiry report pointed out how the effects are cumulative, ‘and the gap between managing and not managing gets worse every year and has proliferated since 2003. Post-2003, the effect has impacted on lower income people much more.’
Alan and his dedicated teams of volunteers at these food banks in Greenwich are doing their utmost to ease the plight of people caught without food and without enough income in this part of South-East London. After speaking to him and meeting Hayley and her family, I turned to the inquiry report in search of hope for the future for people like them – proud people who are dedicated, hard-working parents and find it humiliating to end up in a food bank a week before their baby is due.
I’m sad to say that I finished this report with little reassurance that things are going to improve. I really don’t doubt that the church leaders and other individuals behind it – including MP Frank Field and even Conservative peer Baroness Jenkin who apologised following the report’s launch after saying that ‘poor people don’t know how to cook’ – are well-intentioned and genuinely want to help tackle and even solve this very British problem.
But despite wanting to be optimistic, I was left feeling very disappointed. It heavily promotes ideas that are worthy enough in themselves such as redistibuting fresh surplus food (even though I have my doubts about there being substantial quantities of local and usable food available to redistribute week after week), and points to the success of a ‘social supermarket’ model currently up and running in one town in South Yorkshire. It wants other areas identified where the model can be rolled out.
But the report’s central recommendation is for the creation of a new national network called Feeding Britain, composed of the food bank movement and other providers of food assistance, the voluntary organisations redistributing fresh surplus food, the food industry and representatives from ‘each of the eight government departments whose policy affects the numbers of people at risk of hunger’.
It recommends that the Government initially provides support to facilitate the setting up of 12 pilot projects – one in each UK region – to draw together ‘private, voluntary and public expertise to eliminate hunger’. Central to the overall success of this, it says, ‘is the local point of contact, perhaps called “Food Bank Plus”‘. It focuses on ‘fostering the co-location of services in a ‘reformed One Stop Shop/Food Bank Plus model, in which food assistance providers become an integral part of local hubs that help people out of hunger by addressing some of its root causes such as problem debt, addictions, access to benefits and difficulty coping on a low income’.
But the report seems to have little if anything to say about levels of UK benefits that the Council of Europe has slammed as ‘inadequate’. Deep in the separately published review evidence, there is a mention that the real value of child benefit across the decade to 2013 fell by £1.80 a week, and the real value of jobseeker’s allowance fell by £3.55 a week. The real value of the National Minimum Wage fell from £6.46 in 2008 to £6.19 in 2103.
While the report does say that a national strategy to tackle low pay is ‘essential’, it then strangely seems to pull its punches by saying that it merely ‘aspires to see household incomes at the bottom that are more able to absorb shocks without even greater support from taxpayers’. There is a fudge recommendation that the Low Pay Commission should be empowered to ‘set reference minimum wage rates in each sector of the economy… and for these powers to be used immediately to encourage higher minimum wages in sectors of the economy that can most easily afford them such as finance and banking’.
I did not see much evidence of the report attempting to address through the recommendations the real, cumulative impact of low benefits and other factors on UK disposable incomes, resilience when faced with a crisis, and on weekly food budgets. The other factors include – but are not limited to – zero hours contracts, high public transport costs, low levels of social housing and vast increases in self-employment. The inflexibility of the HMRC when it comes to adjusting work and child tax credits quickly when people’s life circumstances change did not seem to get a mention either. Neither did the main report really touch on the impact trends such as zero hours contracts and casual work in areas including retail and social care have on family life and routines and the time available to shop for and prepare food.
My conclusions about the report firmly echo some of those expressed neatly by Richard Bridge in this letter to the Guardian (it’s the second letter in the series). In it he says there’s a ‘real danger that the proposed solutions in the Feeding Britain report deflect from the political urgency of addressing the structural underlying issues of poverty’. He adds that ‘if the justiciability of the right to food is to be regarded as anything more than illusory, it is critical that we look upstream at addressing the adequacy of wages and social security’.
On free school meals, the report does recommend that the Department for Education prioritises poor children from working families in any future expansion of the free school meals programme. That’s a worthwhile recommendation. But will autonomous academies and free schools be equally interested in ensuring this happens? What will really happen on the ground to help poor children in both working and non-working families once the Conservatives slash school spending by a quarter (as the Liberal Democrats claimed yesterday).
I was also quite taken aback by the main report’s tone when talking about the victims of Britain’s culture of low pay, low benefits by international standards, and its increasingly low levels of social support as the public sector shrinks daily. Some of its references to food bank clients and what it sometimes refers to as their ‘lifestyles’ are at best paternalistic and at worst judgemental. Some of its comments seem to lack balance and empathy. Some examples:
‘…Evidence presented to the inquiry confronted us with the unpleasant truth that some children, we do not know how many, are hungry when they reach school because of the chaotic conditions in their homes. A large percentage of the primary schools that submitted evidence to the inquiry said they had witnessed children arriving at school hungry because their parents could not, or would not, wake up to make them breakfast, or bring them to the school breakfast club.’
The report continues:
‘But we should not leave the duty resting with schools. Parents have duties, and these duties are not abated by the chaos resulting from their lifestyle.’
‘We recommend that schools should wherever possible refer such chaotic families to their local Troubled Families project, whose success can be measured in the number of families they have “turned around” to being functioning in the normal way.’
When talking about benefit sanctions, the report includes the comment:
“Some sanctioned claimants do not kick up a fuss because they may, for example, have been working on the side whilst claiming and see the sanction as part of the business plan of fraudulently claiming benefit.”
There is a certain narrative that is implied in this report of a benign state trying its best to rescue vulnerable families from the consequences of their own chaotic ‘lifestyle’ choices. A picture seemed to emerge of unfortunates with a hapless tendency to budget badly and get into debt. This bears little or no resemblance to the lives of the vast majority of the people I’ve interviewed in food banks here in London – including Hayley and her family. I would describe them as dignified, resourceful and resilient in the face of circumstances that are adverse in the extreme. Many have severe and long-standing physical or mental health (often a combination) issues for which the state is offering no support. Many are parked on below subsistence level benefits while they wait for work capability assessments that are often of highly dubious quality. It is hard to see how their health can do other than get worse in this situation.
The evidence review does helpfully feature a number of case studies and personal testimonies, including oral evidence from anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe and other submissions from food bank clients. I was also pleased to see that it included two accounts of client experiences from a number that I submitted to the inquiry myself . But I would have welcomed much more of an attempt to give a clear voice in the body of the report to more of the individuals forced through no choice of their own to turn to food banks. After all, they are there because, as Richard Bridge says in his Guardian letter, their right to adequate food, as rooted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is being disregarded.
If the severe economic crisis that the Bank of England has stress tested for does materialise in 2015, is the roll-out of a regionally-focused ‘Food Bank Plus’ network being quickly designed as a first-line defence against widespread hunger and food poverty?
There are many individual laudable ideas here. But this report does not pretend to be a serious attempt to fix the deep structural causes of growing inequality in Britain and to be fair to the inquiry team it wasn’t set up to do this.
To help the core group of people who seem most in need of the food banks in this part of London, what we require are benefits for those who really need them that are set at a level that might meet people’s most basic of needs – ie for food and shelter. We also need a reversal of the current rapid disinvestment in the public realm. We need the sort of high-quality truly joined-up public services – including health and well-being services – that could really revolutionalise lives across the generations. Cooking classes, help with making depleted budgets ‘stretch further’ and debt counselling – however well-intentioned – just will not provide a long-term and sustainable solution.
Tragically, the most vulnerable people continue to be increasingly marginalised and scapegoated by the Government. Its judgements and attitudes towards those least able to defend themselves are being mirrored by another group of citizens who know that they and their children are also being left behind economically and by society. We live in dangerous times.
‘We are all in this together’, said the chancellor George Osborne yesterday as he laid out his Autumn Statement plans to put Britain back into the black by cutting public spending as a percentage of GDP to the kind of low levels not seen since the 1930s.
According to the Treasury spending watchdog the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR), the plans also presume that a further one million jobs in the public sector will be lost by 2020, a further squeeze on public sector pay and a further freeze on tax credits. The chief of the Institute of Fiscal Studies said that Britain faced five years of ‘gruesome’ spending cuts as the government attempts to balance the books, with some departments facing cuts of 50 per cent. Guardian commentator Aditya Chakrabortty said ‘the austerity plans look like they’ve dropped out of la-la land’. He says that by the end of the next parliament, according to the OBR, the British state will be smaller than it was before the introduction of the welfare state.
I headed to the food bank last night to meet some of those who are all in this together with the chancellor. I spoke to a young couple I recognised from more than a year ago, who came in with their two very young children. My previous interview with John and Marie (not their real names) is here. Back then, they told me that they were arguing with each other so much that their child – a little girl who was then 15 months old and small for her age – had come to the attention of local authority child protection staff. They were worried that she was becoming emotionally damaged by her parents’ angry exchanges.
Marie, 31, is from the Philippines and a year ago she had already incurred hundreds of pounds in fees in trying to become a UK citizen. She’s not allowed to work because of her immigration status. John was trying to pay the fees out of his employment and support allowance (ESA). By autumn 2013 he had started to receive ESA following a 16 month delay. He says he thinks the delay was due to ‘ a complete mix-up, lost documents and misinformation’. While his ESA was delayed he said he had received no benefits at all. Fast forward to last night, and their situation has not improved, to the extent that they are now once again having to get vouchers for this Trussell Trust food bank from their social worker. It was their second visit within a few weeks.
Their problems are compounding. They were pushing two prams – one of them broken – tonight, as Marie gave birth to a baby boy six months ago. Their daughter – still small for her age – is now two and a half. Last year they had to use the food bank on four occasions. John, 23, was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in December 2013 and is now on income-related ESA of £144 a a fortnight. They said they had been receiving child benefit and child tax credits intermittently during the past year, and have just sent off a fresh claim for child benefit. They’ve also called Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) regarding the CTC. In the meantime, they’ve just received a letter from HMRC telling them they owe more than £1,000 in overpayments on CTC and child benefit. They’ve been told that the overpayments relate to two tax years. They have no idea how they would repay this money, if it is indeed owed. John says they are ‘blaming us for their mistakes’. The social worker, he says, is ‘telling us to sort it out’. More than six months ago he applied for Personal Independence Payment – a benefit which helps with some of the extra costs caused by long-term ill-health or disability – but like thousands of others he is still waiting for a work capability assessment and has heard nothing. ‘I’ve been told there is a backlog.’ Marie is still not a UK citizen.
The couple have been housed in Greenwich by Lambeth Council, and they seem to be falling between the cracks in services to vulnerable people who are being moved out of their ‘home’ boroughs to be re-housed. ‘The complicating thing is who do we speak to?’ says John. ‘Every time we ask Lambeth Council if they can re-house us permanently they say we’ll be lucky if we get permanent housing within seven years.’ Their priority payments from the little money they have coming in are heating, food and nappies and travelling to appointments. They cannot make ends meet, and they are additionally stressed and worried by the HMRC development.
I’m very concerned about the long-term situation for both the adults and children in this family. They are facing a perfect storm of issues, including Marie’s immigration status. The children could potentially gain a lot from some early support. But the Autumn Statement does not offer any prospect of a lifeline for this family. How can an imploding public sector, with its demoralised workforce, offer them hope or targeted help? Their financial outlook, particularly in the light of the HMRC demand, is dire. John’s ASD diagnosis adds to the difficulties this family face trying to unravel a complex web of problems. I ask them to ensure they talk to their social worker again for help with benefits and the HMRC issue, but I also provide them with details of Greenwich Council’s Welfare Rights Service, the local Citizens Advice helpline, and the National Autistic Society Helpline.