Christmas, a Birth, and a Problematic Foodbank Report

Hayley, whose baby is due next week, came to this Greenwich foodbank for help.
Hayley, whose baby is due next week, came to this Greenwich foodbank for help.

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.’

It adds:

‘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.

 

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Council leader Denise Hyland: Getting to grips with deprivation in Greenwich

In this part of London, food banks have steadily become part of the social landscape. This will be surprising to some of the millions of  visitors from all over the world who flock  to Greenwich each year to enjoy the historic town centre.

But the reality is that many local residents in this borough are so short of food that they have to return to Jobcentre Plus or to a frontline public sector professional for a food bank voucher on more than just the odd occasion. These are not people who are managing to recover quickly from a short-term crisis. Last autumn I talked to a young couple at the food bank who were there with their baby. Yesterday, more than a year on, they were back with that child. She’s now a toddler, and her baby brother is six months old.

What role does the local authority play in tackling deprivation and poverty here? Local politician Denise Hyland is the leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, and she took control of the Labour-run council this year. This week she visited the volunteers at Greenwich Food Bank, which runs a warehouse and eight donation points throughout the borough. Ahead of this visit, she talked to me about food banks, poverty, and the impact of the austerity agenda and welfare reforms on residents here. She outlined how her local authority works to support those most vulnerable to the impact of cuts to welfare.

‘We find it tragic that there’s a need for food banks, but we are deeply appreciative of all those who make the food bank possible,’ she said. As a measure of its commitment to the work done by the food banks in the borough – all of which are part of the Trussell Trust network of food banks – the borough provides some premises including the warehouse at a peppercorn rent, including the necessary work to make it fit for purpose. ‘We also have large (collection) bins in the Woolwich Centre and in other centres as well.’

The borough, which won the council of the year award last year for its work on regeneration, growth and investment, also has an emergency support scheme aimed at supporting some of the people who might, if not helped, be forced to use food banks. According to the council’s website, the scheme would meet ‘essential short term needs in an emergency or flood’ and it might ‘in very limited circumstances’ support those whose benefits have been stopped, reduced or those whose benefits have been sanctioned. When the council took over the scheme from Jobcentre Plus in April 2013, it ensured it developed ‘a very close relationship between the scheme and its Welfare Rights service’, said Cllr Hyland. She added: ‘It’s been a really useful scheme, and we’ve used it to triage people. We can for example refer them to the Families 1st service.’

The council is recognised nationally for its Families 1st programme and has one of the best figures in the country for offering targeted help to families with complex needs. Dedicated keyworkers give intensive support to families who have a range of issues, which may include an adult out of work, youth crime or anti-social behaviour. Launched in March 2013, the council says almost 450 families have engaged with the scheme. The council tries to target the people who are the most likely to be in a worse position if benefits are cut or capped.

Cllr Hyland added: ‘We try to be proactive and identify the people who might be most affected. When the welfare reforms started we contacted those who were likely to be impacted by the benefit cap. In Greenwich, 35 per cent of those affected were losing £50 or more a week. Most of the families affected by the benefit cap are in private accommodation. We also have people hit by the bedroom tax and we have families affected by the reduction in help with council tax benefits.’ She emphasized the importance of thorough assessments that take into account all the circumstances faced by an individual or family. ‘We offer a holistic assessment, as people can fall through the cracks – for example when they are helped with housing but not necessarily with employment.’ She pointed to the drive underway in other councils to rehouse people outside London. Her council’s aim is to build on the considerable regeneration and investment in education and skills going on in the borough. These programmes include improved transport links (including two Crossrail development sites in Woolwich and Abbey Wood) offering more access to the employment market, house-building and redevelopment on a major scale, and four new skills centres.

The council’s job agency is Greenwich Local Labour and Business (GLLaB). It’s described by the council as a brokerage scheme between local employers and local people looking for work  – and the council says it has helped more than 16,000 people find jobs or access training since its inception. Cllr Hyland said one scheme  – the Highways Improvement Scheme  – has involved putting £5million of reserves into highway repairs while training young people in road repairing skills. One skills centre – the Royal Borough of Greenwich Construction Skills Centre – opened in the summer when 20 trainees began learning a wide range of skills from laying paving to street repairs. Cllr Hyland said this mobile unit stays on the construction site for the length of a build.

She sees this general approach to developing skills and job creation as part of a ‘double-sided strategy’ to bring together physical regeneration with social and economic regeneration.’If you go to Woolwich Common, Abbey Wood, Middle Park or Greenwich Town Centre, there are micro pockets of deprivation. But we have to share the prosperity around everyone.’ But some families are harder to help than others, she said – and there is a particular problem when people are housed  in Greenwich by other London councils. ‘Someone came into my surgery complaining of damp. The family lives in a private house and their home borough (in Central London) sent in an environmental health officer. This council then gave the family a notice to quit and offered them a place in Essex. This is too far from their cultural centre (they are from Eritrea) and too far from the father’s job in West London. This council has now washed its hands of that family. When that notice to quit is followed through, the family will probably turn up on our doorstep as homeless. Their child is due to start nursery in January. The family’s being shoved from pillar to post.’

She added: ‘With the policies that are being pursued, these people are at more of a disadvantage, and communities are being fractured because of the whole debate about immigrant’s rights and benefits. These are people with no recourse to public funds, and we’re spending about £4million on them. This new burden is not being recognised (by central Government). If they turn up and it’s a couple without children, we would declare there is no duty to help them and refer them to a homeless charity. If they have children who are dependents we have a duty of care to those children and we’ll give them temporary accommodation in a property that’s due for demolition. But those people need a school and those people need food. They let people through the border and keep them waiting to hear of their status. In the meantime they can’t work and are left in destitution. We are having to deal with the human tragedy.’

 

Not laughing on the way to the #foodbank: ‘Marie’ the carer and her sons

Marie (not her real name) is 53 and is separated from her husband,  although they are still legally married.  Despite her many health issues, she has been his full-time carer for four years.  He has dementia, while she lives with chronic arthritis, anxiety and panic attacks, depression and anger management issues. They have four sons in their 20s – three of whom still live with Marie. All four of her sons have mild to moderate learning difficulties.

Left with no benefits, she came into the London food bank last week with three of her sons for some help. Her employment and support allowance (ESA) – a benefit paid to the sick and disabled if they are unable to work – had been withdrawn.  It was stopped following a Work Capability Assessment (WCA) carried out by Atos (whose controversial contract with the government to undertake the tests is ending early). She was declared fit for work and her ESA payments officially stopped on October 16th – a day before her 53rd birthday.

In reality, she says her household hasn’t received any money  – other than one  son’s jobseeker’s allowance (JSA)  – since October 7th. When she began signing last week for JSA, she was not informed by staff at Jobcentre Plus when she would receive a payment. ‘I was due a payment on my birthday week, and that’s when I was told I wouldn’t get anything. I was beside myself  – I was crying a lot. I didn’t know how I was going to pay my bills.’ Another son who lives with her has been told he has to go back on ESA, and her third son who lives at home is in the process of applying for ESA.

She’s very concerned about the impact of her dire financial situation on her housing. ‘Before the ESA was stopped they (the housing association) said that if I did not pay a certain amount of money I would be kicked out. They know my situation and I’ve got a month to let them know what payment I’m going to get.’

Marie broke down in tears as she explained her situation. One of the food bank volunteers brought her a cup of tea. She said that she’s the only person in her house who can read and write, and that she’s been trying to explain to Jobcentre Plus about her sons’ learning disabilities. She described a disconnect between what staff there are asking the young men to do and what their mother believes they can realistically manage. She’s also worried about the impact of the staffs’ approach on one son’s state of mind. ‘They had been telling my sons to do certain things – to meet certain criteria. They are trying – but they don’t meet the criteria required by work plans. They’ve got to look on the computer for jobs (on Universal Jobmatch).’

‘What upset me the most was that my youngest son, who’s 23, saw a disability officer at Jobcentre Plus – and she told him that he didn’t know anything. She was implying that my son was thick and that upset him and he was crying.’

Marie has applied for a mandatory reconsideration of the decision to turn down her ESA application. She is most concerned about having to stop caring for her husband, if she has to now actively search for work. ‘I can’t leave my husband, as my sons wouldn’t know what to do then things get tricky. I’m very loyal to him. I get upset because he’s got dementia and his memory is getting quite bad now. The life expectancy for what he’s got is about eight years. Because he’s been my rock, it’s been hard for me. In the past I could go and ask his advice.’

She adds: ‘My husband is on a low budget  – yet he’s been giving us a little money and food. It makes me feel awkward, because he’s on a tight budget himself.’ Her house is cold, she has to use key cards for her gas and electricity and put a little money at a time on them.  To wash, they have to fill up the kettle and use the sink. Her sons and herself suffer from chest problems. Places like the food bank (this is the fourth time she’s had to use it) have ‘ taken the pressure off, but it’s hit my self-esteem and dignity.’ But she says that if it hadn’t been for the food bank she doesn’t know what she would have done – as she has no support network.

A month ago she says she was recovering from a nervous breakdown, ‘because stuff was getting too much and I felt like ending my life – but I’ve got responsibilities to my husband and kids’. She says the stress she’s under is causing her to lose weight and ‘my hair is falling out’. She talks to mental health charity Mind and to her GP. She says her GP, who has known her for 30 years,  is ‘disgusted’ about the way the welfare system has handled her case.

She says she expects a decision on the mandatory reconsideration this week, and that if the answer is another refusal, she will immediately make an appointment with Citizens Advice to discuss next steps.

Marie left the food bank, with her sons helping her carry the bags of food.

This is how what some policy gurus  might call ‘radical changes to  the welfare system in the UK’  are converging to impact one family in London – the capital city of the world’s sixth richest economy by GDP.