Will Peter and Sue get added to this year’s malnutrition statistics?

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.

Quotas for food bank vouchers at job centres?

Is an unofficial quota system for food bank vouchers operating at job centres? One man who called into a food bank in this London borough recently said he was told by his job centre that they’d given out 15 vouchers already that week. Persuading the staff there that he was in need was hard work. He said he did get a voucher eventually, but his experience begs a question. How many people in genuine need of an emergency supply of food are now being refused a food voucher by job centres?

There’s already a substantial level of need in this borough – a fairly typical one for London, with its pockets of deprivation. Between April 1 2013 and the end of January this year, Trussell Trust food banks in the borough fed 3,225 people (1937 adults and 1288 children). There was a month on month increase in clients from the middle of last year leading up to Christmas.

Everyone who received emergency help will have needed to present a voucher. But it’s vital to get a clearer idea of how many are trying to access help through job centres and are being refused that essential piece of paper.

With the number of people having their benefits sanctioned, or experiencing other delays (for example while their employment and support allowance entitlement is reassessed) on the increase, are job centres under orders to limit vouchers?

Accessing help to eat at short notice is becoming a fact of life for a growing number of people in this very average area of London. One experienced food bank helper here, whose day job is as an outreach worker in children’s services, says that half of the people coming to his food bank are there because of benefit sanctions. He adds: ‘A lot of them are on housing benefit. They have a roof over their heads, but they still have to eat.’ The most worrying thing is that they may be the ‘lucky’ ones, who managed to get their hands on that all-important voucher.

January Blues: Extra bank and loan charges spark crisis for disabled food bank client

Clients at this London Trussell Trust food bank have few material resources to draw on, but if at all possible they still want to buy a few presents for their loved ones and grandchildren at Christmas.

But receiving her employment and support allowance (ESA)  a week earlier than usual before Christmas left grandmother Debbie without enough money to buy food this month. There wasn’t enough cash for that in her account when the standing orders came out. This included her regular standing order for a loan repayment to payday loan company Oakam. She had taken out a loan of £200 for Christmas presents at a mind-blowing APR of 676.6% to pay for Christmas presents. Oakam billed for one month’s repayment (£64, including £4 of extra charges) instead of two weeks (£30), with no warning, says Debbie, of the extra payment. How can Oakam seriously advertise on its website that it offers “affordable loans”?

She also incurred bank charges of £40 to Barclays for being overdrawn, which she says Barclays won’t reimburse.

Debbie is 49, and receives ESA because she has multiple, chronic health issues that leave her unable to work. Five years ago she was the victim of a hit and run accident, when she broke her ankle. This led to osteoarthritis in her knees and ankles which is spreading to her hips. She also has a personality disorder.

Debbie is also paying back money to Provident for another loan. She thinks she borrowed £150, but says that she believes she still owes £300 or so to them.

As well as providing her with three day’s supply of emergency food, we were able to offer her contact details for two debt advice charities in our patch -one of which is the fantastic Christians Against Poverty. They will be able to offer Debbie some practical support with consolidating her debts. Hopefully they’ll also consider contacting Barclays on her behalf to ask them how fair it is to pile bank charges onto someone who is in receipt of ESA and who says her problems were triggered by an early payment and a payday loan standing order that was for more than twice the amount that was expected.

Unsurprisingly, Debbie is also depressed. She has two bedrooms, the second of which is used by her grandchildren when they come to stay at weekends. Having them around means a lot to her, but her housing association (she’s in receipt of housing benefit) is putting pressure on her to move to a smaller property. Her house has been one of the few constants in her life, as she’s been living there for 12 years. It’s obvious to anyone with eyes that even the thought of moving is causing her stress and potentially worsening her health issues. So why inflict that on her?

Why do we as a society stand by while the most vulnerable get treated in this appalling way? The truth is that many of us are only a car accident away from ending up where Debbie is today…..