Greenwich food bank manager tells APPG: No-one at job centre understands the system

Greenwich food bank manager tells APPG: No-one at job centre understands the system
Manager of Greenwich food bank Alan Robinson, who gave evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Hunger and Food Poverty
Manager of Greenwich food bank Alan Robinson, who gave evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Committee on Hunger and Food Poverty

The manager of  the Greenwich food bank Alan Robinson has been particularly busy recently. Not only is food bank use up by a very worrying 500% in Lewisham and Greenwich, but last week he was called to  a Westminster evidence session of  the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty. This APPG  is proactively investigating the underlying causes of hunger, food poverty and the huge increase in demand for food banks across Britain. The group was established by MP for Birkenhead Frank Field, and he is co-chair, alongside the Bishop of Truro Frank Thornton.

The inquiry was launched in April this year at Lambeth Palace, with the aim of posing a series of key questions to each of the political parties in the lead up to the next general election about how they will respond to the rising demand for food aid in this country. Mr Field brought evidence to that first formal session about how some of the conventional trends in households’ ability to cover the cost of living had been “shattered over the past decade – with the proportion of household incomes needed to cover the combined costs of housing, fuel and food increasing since 2003”.

The terms of reference include understanding the extent and geographical spread of hunger and food poverty in this country, its causes, and investigating the source of emergency food assistance providers’  supplies. Some of the other terms of reference include the effectiveness of emergency food assistance in meeting immediate and long-term needs , and the possibility of these schemes becoming permanent features of the welfare state. The full terms of reference  list is here. The inquiry will also make recommendations, and a report is expected in the autumn. You can follow the work of  the inquiry by visiting www.foodpovertyinquiry.org

Alan was one of the people called to a closed hearing evidence session in Parliament last week. The inquiry has already held regional evidence sessions in Birkenhead, Salisbury, Cornwall and South Shields. Alan reported back to me on what he said at the session. He had written to the inquiry, telling Mr Field about the Trussell Trust food bank in Greenwich. He described the vast growth in numbers which he attributes to the welfare changes which began in April 2013, including the welfare cap and the bedroom tax .

He said: “The inquiry already had a good understanding of  some of the issues, and they asked me to clarify some of the issues I’d written about. There are problems at the job centre (one of the places that can refer people to the food bank for help). No-one understands how the system works – not even the people who work there. Then they don’t apply the system consistently. The job centre is a daunting place to visit. The government makes the rules and then doesn’t tell everyone what they are. The job centre loses documentation – but then that loss becomes your problem as a client. It’s the attitude of ‘none of these problems are our problems, even if we’ve caused it’  that comes with it. Lost documentation is a key example.”

The inquiry heard of the cafe-style approach at the Greenwich food bank, where people can be helped in a compassionate, caring way. This led to a discussion with the inquiry panel about whether state institutions can be compassionate. “It’s not a quality you would nowadays attach to state institutions – to be compassionate and show empathy. To do that you have to listen. People tell us ‘it’s no good telling them anything – they don’t listen’.”

Alan told the inquiry that a number of clients “don’t have the capacity to advocate their own position”. A representative of  the East London based Tower Hamlets food bank was also giving evidence at the session, and “what came out in both of our evidence is there’s a section of clients who need someone to provide advocacy”. Alan told how he hears people’s stories, “and contacts the agency or department concerned and often gets results – if Greenwich food bank is calling up the job centre then that has a greater impact”. The panel then went on to discuss whose role it is in society to provide that service.

Someone needs to be doing this vital advocacy work, says Alan. “If you took away the need for me to provide food, then I would be quite happy to do it.”

Advocacy seems to be the missing link in many lives. Vulnerable individuals who get the right timely support may be able to avoid hitting crisis and needing an emergency supply of food – in the same way that someone with a chronic illness may avoid a costly hospital intervention with the right specialist support in the community. A professional advocate  – a housing support worker, a community psychiatric nurse, a social worker or a Trussell Trust manager freed up from the need to source and provide emergency food could very often help to get someone’s benefits sorted at tribunal or get a sanction lifted. But how many professionals are left with the time to do this work?

There’s a growing group of vulnerable people in the UK who are losing their way in a fast-changing and complex welfare system that seems designed to confuse. Fewer and fewer people are being paid and trained to help them. The result? In Greenwich, visitors to Trussell Trust food banks increased from 776 to 5,025 in the past year, while the figure rose from 623 to 3,895 in Lewisham borough.

Having reported from the Greenwich food banks for nearly a year now, I’ll be submitting some evidence this week to the inquiry team – based on some of  the individual interviews I’ve carried out with clients. The deadline for submitting evidence has officially passed, , but you can still email submissions to Andrew Forsey, joint secretary to the inquiry team on andrew.forsey@parliament.uk

If you are able to structure your evidence according to the terms of reference, this will help the inquiry team to analyse the large amount of evidence it hopes to receive.

Alan has written to work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith on Twitter, inviting him to visit the food bank. He hasn’t received a reply yet. London Assembly member Len Duvall has also called on London Mayor Boris Johnson to pay the Greenwich food banks a visit.

 

 

 

 

Gary’s benefit scrapped while universal credit wastes millions

Today the public accounts committee published a highly critical “early progress” assessment of  welfare and pensions minister Iain Duncan Smith’s “flagship” benefit reform. The universal credit scheme to roll up six means-tested benefits into one, has, according to the report, been overseen by extraordinarily weak management. Systems were so lax that a secretary authorised purchase orders worth £23m, the MPs found. They also doubted whether the project could be fully delivered by its deadline of 2017 and described the pilot programme for the scheme as “not a proper pilot” – inadequate and open to fraud.

The devastating report says that £425m has been spent so far on the programme, adding: “It is likely that much of this, including at least £140m worth of IT assets, will have to be written off.” The scope of the pilot programme, says the report, “is limited to only the simplest new claim of people who are single, have no dependents and would otherwise be seeking Jobseeker’s Allowance.”

While Iain Duncan Smith points the finger at the civil servants, and they in turn say ministers now feel able to “shrug off their responsibilities and blame staff”, people continue to arrive at this London food bank hungry and in need of immediate help. Many  are victims of a benefits system that is inadequate and failing to protect the most vulnerable of our citizens.

On the face of it, 54-year-old Gary Watson might seem to fit the  category of someone whose benefit needs are relatively “straightforward”. He’s a single man, and came into the food bank – one of nearly 400 in England run by the Trussell Trust in partnership with churches and communities –  because his benefit has  been stopped. He hadn’t received any Jobseeker’s Allowance for six weeks by the time he got to us recently. He says his benefit ceased because he hadn’t applied for the right number of jobs within the specified time frame. “I only applied for 20 jobs  in two weeks, and it’s supposed to be 42 jobs. I’m sending letters out, but not getting any feedback from the employer.”

Gary, a qualified glass cutter,  is broke and I believe he’s in danger of getting depressed too. He has the air of someone who’s giving up. I ask him what he’s been eating in the last few weeks:” All I’ve been eating is fried dumplings and beans. This is all really difficult to talk about. I need to stay calm about it. Some people would have cracked up or done something stupid. Because I haven’t been eating regularly I’ve got a lot of wind in my stomach.”

In the past Gary has also done some retail work and has worked as a bricklayer. He’s been unemployed for a couple of years now, and “in and out of programmes”. He’s too proud to let his friends and family know how bad his situation has got. “I’m appalled. I’ve got to a certain age and now the employers are only taking on youngsters. They know that at the job centre, but they still want to push you. It’s made my life hell. I don’t know how they can cut you off without giving any consideration to the individual.”

His mother is 87, and a “wise woman”. He said he used to “run to my mum, but I stopped asking her for help”. He adds: “When I go round there she asks if I’m alright for money, and I say yes. I just don’t want to take from her. Sometimes she has £10 in her hand and she says ‘take this’.”  She’s a good-hearted woman, but Gary says he doesn’t want to “feed on that”.

He adds that when he was young, he could just “walk into different jobs”. Now his life is much harder. He lives in a council flat, but when I meet him his electricity meter is just about to run out and then he won’t be able to heat food up. He has problems with his gas central heating, which has packed up.

If the current benefits system is leaving single middle-aged men such as Gary high and dry, what will the eventual toll be on individuals, families and society once these reforms work their way through? When will we decide that enough is enough? Millions will be thrown down the drain. Millions more people left hungry and in despair….