Tag Archives: food banks

Food insecurity – Britain or Burkina Faso?

Screen Shot 2017-06-30 at 16.54.20It might disappear from the headlines, but the food bank story is not going away. A new report has come out about food banks – this one is a survey carried out by Oxford University to find out some of the circumstances of people who go to food banks.

Among other things, the research found that:

78% of households were classified as severely food insecure – that is to say they had missed meals, or not eaten at all (sometimes for days at a time) because they did not have enough money for food, and this was an experience repeated every month or nearly every month in the last year.

50% of households experienced other forms of destitution, such as not being able to afford essential toiletries or not having enough money to heat their homes for at least four days in one month.

These circumstances are shocking to read. But what really struck me was the language used to describe them. People are going to food banks because they are destitute. Just pause for a moment. What does that word conjure up for you? To me it feels like a word we should have left behind with Dickens, paupers in Victorian London about to be cast into the workhouse. But in Britain today, there are families who are that close to the edge that we describe them as destitute.

And then there’s the phrase food insecurity. Usually I encounter that phrase when I’m at work at Christian Aid, talking about farmers in Burkina Faso, or those caught up in the famine in East Africa right now. Communities who don’t have enough margin of resilience to be sure they will always have enough to eat. And yet households in the UK are food insecure. Because of chronically low incomes, or unpredictable incomes, they do not have the resources to ensure that they have enough food. A feature of the developing world can be found in the fifth richest country in the world.

The use of food banks continues to rise. In the last year, the Trussell Trust gave out 1.18 million food parcels, and they are just one of many providers. Meanwhile, calls to implement policies that might address the problem and reduce food bank use are ignored. The people I know running food banks all say they are a sticking plaster measure. They do not provide a long-term solution, just a stop gap in an emergency. But the longer they exist, they more they feel normal, and the more they unintentionally collude with government policies that have created the need in the first place.

So are food banks here to stay? Are we happy with that? Is food charity part of the welfare state now? What has happened to our social contract where we expect to be caught by the safety net in times of need because we have pooled our resources through our tax and national insurance? Churches and other groups have seen the need and responded with compassion, but you are out of luck if that compassion hasn’t extended to your town or local community. Is that fair or equitable?

Before we decide that charity and food hand-outs are a legitimate solution for the UK, it’s worth going back to places that have long-term experience of food insecurity. What are the solutions in Burkina Faso or to famine in East Africa? Food hand-outs are absolutely only an emergency response. In the long-term, sustainable solutions are needed so that those experiencing food insecurity become food secure. Solutions that include making sure people have an adequate income, and a reliable income. Income might be unpredictable because of climate change in Burkina Faso and because of benefit delays in the UK, but food hand-outs are not the adequate response to either.

Food banks are one big, obvious symptom of life in austerity Britain, where there are jobs, but they are low-paid and insecure, there are benefits, but they are deliberately delayed, where support for the disabled is rationed and where debt is on the rise. This is why people are destitute and food insecure, and a food parcel is not going to change that.

Rejoice in the Lord always!

rodah

This is the text of my sermon at St Nicholas, Bradfield, for Christian Aid at their Harvest Festival on 9 October 2016

Autumn is that time of year when we celebrate God’s abundance and rejoice in His blessing. I love the changing colours of this time of year, the rich reds and golds on the trees. We get to have real English plums, and the hedgerows are full of bounty too. One of our family Autumn rituals is blackberry picking. All those juicy berries in the hedge ready to pick without any of the hard work beforehand!

Mind you, I get to enjoy all the harvest without any worry or effort beforehand. I don’t have the stress of getting all my grain in before it rains, or worrying about whether my carrots and parsnips are too skinny or too knobbly for Tesco, though maybe Hugh Fearnley-Wittingstall’s efforts mean our parsnips can be a little more knobbly these days. The harvest is not a foregone conclusion, which is why we’re here today to give thanks for it. Some of us are more dependent on the land than others for our livelihoods, but in this country we can be fairly confident that it will rain, it will at some point be sunny, and we have resources to make up for it if something doesn’t grow.

But I want to tell you about a part of the world where Harvest is much more tricky. Christian Aid met a woman called Rodah and her neighbours in the countryside in Kenya, where the weather is very dry. Everything needs water to grow, so when the river dries up, Rodah has to go and fetch water. She uses a container a bit like the one we use when we go camping. I took it to church full of water and asked the children to try and lift it up – far too heavy, one of them nearly fell over! But everyone guessed correctly that Rodah has to carry two of these almost as far as from Bradfield church to Sheffield city centre and back. Her water supply is six miles away. When you have to carry water like this, you can’t carry enough to make everything grow. Sometimes Rodah couldn’t grow enough food to feed her children and they would be hungry. She would have to spend money to buy food instead. So that meant there wasn’t enough money to pay for school, so her children had to stop going. Who here would be sad if they couldn’t go to school?

In Kenya, they don’t have spring, summer, autumn and winter like in England. But they do have seasons – the rainy season and the dry season. So, in the rainy season, the rain waters the land, and the water comes back in the river so it is much nearer to collect. Then, in the dry season, the river dries up. But because of climate change, the weather in Kenya is changing. The rain doesn’t come when Rodah and her neighbours expect it, so they don’t know when to plant their crops. The dry season lasts longer, and sometimes the rain doesn’t come at all. So the people living there are no longer able to grow enough food, and the six mile trip for water happens all year round, not just for a short time. That’s why Christian Aid went to meet Rodah.

Christian Aid is supporting the Anglican Development Services to work with Rodah’s neighbours to see how they can help them make their lives better. ADS gave the farmers different seeds, ones that grow better in dry conditions, so they can grow more food. The farmers were given some training too, about new, better ways to farm their land so that things would grow bigger and better. And ADS also helped the community to build a sand dam, which would trap the water in the river so that it would last through the dry season.

Now Rodah grows enough food to feed all of her family, and she has enough left over to sell in the local market. Her children are back at school – hurray! She has enough money and enough work to employ other people to work on her land too, so now they have more money. This story is repeated throughout the area, so now quite a few people have more money to spend. This means that other people can set up small businesses. There is a tailor in town, making school uniforms for all the children who can now go to school, women selling hand-woven baskets and other businesses too.

This is just one of many stories of Christian Aid helping communities build a better future, one story that we wanted to tell you so that would know where your money goes. Christian Aid made some resources to tell this Harvest story and showed them to Rodah. She burst into tears, she was so overwhelmed by the idea that people like you cared so much about her and her neighbours. When asked what message we could pass on to churches in the UK, Rodah said ‘Go and thank them very much for the water source. Because if it was not for this water source, we would not have this crop.’

Now we’re going to turn to the Bible passages that were read out earlier (Philippians 4:4-9 and John 6:25-35). The story in John’s gospel takes place just after Jesus has fed 5,000 people. The well-fed crowd seems pretty impressed by this. So impressed that they go looking for Jesus, wanting more from this miracle worker.

But Jesus is very astute. He cuts through the veneer and challenges them – are they looking for more signs of God, or more food for their bellies? Jesus knows they’ve been drawn in by their physical desires, but he wants to take them beyond this to understand that their spiritual needs require more attention.

He tells them to focus on working for food that will sustain them for eternal life, which means believing that Jesus is the one sent by God, the son of God. But they are still asking for a sign, still asking for the bread of heaven, the food of eternal life. So Jesus has to spell it out for them. He is the sign. “I am the bread of life,” he says. “Whoever come to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

We need to recognise that we are one a spiritual journey, to give attention to our spiritual life. On our spiritual journey towards God, to eternal life, Jesus is all we need. He is our guide, our light in the darkness, our strength to carry on, our shelter in the storm. He is utterly dependable, with us every step of the way. Like bread, he will sustain us.

It’s interesting that this is the text for Harvest. Superficially it looks perfect – Bread of life and all that. But just under the surface it is a little at odds to focus on a time when Jesus was speaking about food for our soul when here today we are really celebrating our physical food. Harvest is just a real world, ‘flesh’ festival. Churches are full of real, physical offerings. We are thankful that the harvest has been gathered safely in and there will be food in our bellies for the next year.

And then Jesus tells us “do not work for food that perishes, but for food that endures for eternal life.” What are we to make of this? Do we say that all that we don’t need to do anything but pray and worship , and all these other things will miraculously fall in our laps?

This is plainly stupid. Unless we sow and reap, there will be no harvest. Unless we milk the cow, there will be no ice cream at Our Cow Molly. But perhaps Jesus means us to go about our daily lives, but to do it trusting, believing in him. We all have our part to play in making the world turn, in business or public service, on the land or in the office. Perhaps Jesus means that we play our part, but do it with prayer and trusting our lives to him, and then the Bread of Life will ensure that we won’t go hungry or thirsty.

This somehow seems to make more sense, and various versions of this can be heard between Christians everywhere.

But then why is the church collecting for the foodbank? Are we saying that people need food parcels because they didn’t have enough faith? Or that good Christians don’t need food parcels? Or consider Rodah and her neighbours in Kenya. If only they’d prayed harder, then the rain would have fallen. They just need to trust in God, then there will be enough to feed their families. I don’t think any of us can accept this analysis.

We know that Jesus is the path, the way to God. There are no hoops to jump through, no exams to pass, no 11+. To know Jesus is to be reconciled with God and to be fully resourced for our spiritual journey through life. We’ve created symbols and rituals which can help us on our way, but the bottom line is that all we need is Jesus.

But God remains concerned about our physical life too. He gave the Israelites manna every day when they were lost in the desert to meet their physical needs. The passage from Philippians also tells us to let our requests be known to God in prayer and supplication.

We have to deal with this mismatch. We have the gift of eternal life. But this earthly life is precarious, many are only just holding on by their fingertips, and some do not make it. What does it mean for the church to say ‘Jesus is the Bread of Life’ while people are going hungry?

I think we know what it means. We cannot stand by. We do not stand by. That is demonstrated here by your offering of food, and hopefully later by your offering of money for Christian Aid. I just want to take you to James, who expresses what we know is true, that our faith in Jesus is revealed when it turns to action, and that without action, our faith is exposed as being no faith at all. “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (James 2:15-16).

The church is called to be Good News. Christian Aid is the outworking of that. 70 years ago, people in churches in Britain and Ireland saw the plight of displaced people in Europe after the second world war and could not stand by. Christian Aid was formed as the way for these churches to live out their calling and help these refugees however they could. Today, Christian Aid is still the agent of the church, working round the world to bring an end to poverty. We are your organisation. So that’s why we come back to the churches regularly, to ask you to continue to give to support the work we are doing in your name.

I’ve shared one of Christian Aid’s stories, and there are many more to share. Our vision is an end to poverty. Wherever we are involved, we always work through local partners. We don’t parachute in with our solutions, but ask grassroots organisations to work with those in need to bring about their own solutions to their problems. Christian Aid and the partner organisations can add value in terms in terms of knowledge or finances, but poor communities are the experts in their own situation and they can be the agents of their own change. This empowerment is the key to unlocking long term change towards that vision to end poverty.

One part of the solution in Kenya that I didn’t mention earlier involves cameras. A few of Rodah’s neighbours were given cameras to take pictures of the dam, the thriving crops and the new businesses. They documented in detail the transformation of their community brought about by simple interventions. Now these photographs are being used to show what a difference can be made. They are being shown to the Kenyan equivalent to local councillors to advocate for the same transformation in other neighbourhoods and communities. With the right help, the people in Rodah’s community were able to build the dam and transform the way they look after their land to build sustainable farms and businesses, lifting them out of poverty for the long term. But they also have the power to support their neighbours, and help them to advocate for their own solutions to poverty. To call the local leadership to account, to ask for funding from the powers that be in Kenya, so that the balance of power is shifted in favour of the poor.

I wanted to tell you about this because it shows how the effects of one project can be amplified. Christian Aid’s partner can work with a small group, but once that group is empowered to advocate for their rights and the rights of their neighbours, then the same transformation can be wrought many times over. A neglected community now has influence to challenge that injustice and bring about change. Money brings power. Christian Aid works with the poorest communities in the world, those without power, those who have a voice that doesn’t get heard. Making sure that voice is heard is one of the most important things that Christian Aid can do.

So how do we respond? What does it mean for the Church to say Jesus is the Bread of Life while people are hungry? What does it take to be a church that cares for people’s physical as well as spiritual needs? I can make a few suggestions, and I’m sure you can think of more. Please give generously to the work of Christian Aid today. It takes around £500 to construct a sand dam like the one built in Rodah’s community. Training for 5 farmers costs around £160, and seeds for 28 farmers costs about £64. Christian Aid’s work is not just about Harvest, but goes on throughout the year. If you would like your support for Christian Aid to go on throughout the year, please make a regular gift. Regular gifts really help us to plan what we can achieve in the long term. We can also amplify the voices of the poor. Partly we do that when we give to Christian Aid, and we do it again when we join in Christian Aid’s campaigning. But we can also do it when we challenge injustice and make decisions which shift the balance of power in favour of the poor, for example when we buy Fairtrade tea, coffee, chocolate, sugar. There are voices in the UK that need amplifying too. Perhaps it is time to ask your MP why 1 million people needed food parcels last year in the UK – one of the richest countries in the world?

This harvest, we give thanks that Jesus, the bread of life, gives us food for eternal life. We also give thanks that God has provided us with this harvest and takes care of our physical needs too. And our response of love and worship is to give, act and pray so that we can be good news to those who are hungry.

On Aberdeen, oil and food banks

Pylon_dsUnusually, I made it all the way through Saturday’s Guardian, into the money section, where this headline caught my eye:

Aberdeen: once-rich oil city now relying on food banks

The story brings together two issues I’ve dealt with regularly on this blog, and seemed to illustrate the failure of government to make any attempt to address either.

I first wrote about the need to move money out of fossil fuels nearly two years ago. We invest in pensions to provide for a healthy and happy future. It is, therefore, pointless for pension funds to put money into businesses which are leading to detrimental and devastating climate change. Since then, investment in fossil fuels has come to be seen as more and more risky, as we have recognised that in order to secure our future, we need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. Not a strong foundation for ongoing long-term business success.

The collapse of the oil industry in Aberdeen has come sooner than any collapse due divestment and the risks of climate change. In this case, the falling price of oil simply makes North Sea Oil too expensive, although doubts about the wisdom of burning all this oil have had a small part to play in all this. But, whatever the reason, now is surely the time for Aberdeen to diversify and invest in technology and industry which is better for the future, in particular the renewable energy sector. Recent moves by the government, however, have all been about reducing support for the renewable industry, binding ourselves to the Chinese for nuclear power and putting faith in fracking.

Meanwhile, people are losing their jobs, or having their pay cut, or having to work longer hours to make up the money. And we have created a society where those who suddenly find themselves out of work or out of pocket no longer have the security of a social safety net. State provided social security has dwindled to the extent that people are having to rely on food banks. Whether you think this is a good thing or not, I don’t recall the social consensus shifting so far that we have consented to abandon anyone who falls on hard times or who cannot support themselves or their families for whatever reason.

The state is no longer providing for the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable. Nor, it seems, is it providing for “hard-working families” who are suddenly unable to work. And at the same time as it continues to make cuts to payments to those in need, the government fails to acknowledge that it is no longer meeting basic needs.

How did we let this happen? Why did we let this happen? Are we ready to abandon the post-war consensus that all should contribute according to their means to support all according to their need? That’s what our taxes are for. For the most part, we are all trying to contribute according to our means, while the support for those in need is steadily cut back. At the same time, those with the biggest means to contribute are also most able to find the best way to reduce their contribution – both individuals and corporations. Why aren’t we angrier?

One final thought. 13 people are facing jail for demonstrating against a third runway at Heathrow. Their defence was that their actions were necessary in order to prevent deaths caused by pollution and climate change. But their defence was rejected and it looks like their civil disobedience will see them get custodial sentences. Their actions should be a wake-up call to us all. For as the New Internationalist blog pages observe, It’s not civil disobedience we need to worry about though, but our civil obedience. I’ll leave you with more of that quote from Howard Zinn, which I found here.

Civil disobedience…that is not our problem…. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience… Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world, in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.

 

It’s not over yet

I don’t think it will surprise anyone that I’m gutted about Thursday’s election results. I don’t claim that this blog is unbiased, just that I write aware of my bias. I’m still coming to terms with the idea that we will have to live with the bedroom tax, the gag on charities, welfare sanctions and food banks for another five years.

The initial feelings of bleakness have passed. But I don’t want to let go of the feeling that something is profoundly amiss. That we cannot let this go. That we must do something. I had the same conversation with strangers in a café on Friday morning and with friends in church today.

I think it will take time to work out what that something is that we must do. But today I wanted to say something about democracy. Election day is the beginning, not the end of the democratic process. We don’t only hold our government to account once every five years. We call them to account every step of the way. A democracy means we have the freedom to speak out about the things that concern us, so we must use this freedom to champion the good and call out injustice.

We’re not all going to agree about what that might mean. But in a democracy, we have the space to debate what matters to us. There is a place for everyone to have their say. We may not like what people have chosen, but we damage democracy if we say that people cannot be trusted to choose well.

However, I do believe we can say that people have not necessarily had the best information. Facts and figures are lost in a swamp of spin and distortion. Who can untangle the truth about what really happens to people who are trying to claim disability benefits or look for work when your only information comes from hysterical newspaper headlines? The carefully collected and presented research from groups such as Oxfam and the Joint Public Issues Team barely get a mention in our media.

logo

So, this is a call to fight for democracy. For us to continue what our votes started and keep holding our MPs and our government to account. Get in touch with your MP. Let them know what matters to you. Speak up for truth and justice. Don’t let things go unchallenged. Tell the stories of people who don’t normally have their voice heard. The disenfranchised, the marginalised, those without power because in Britain today money is power. A good place to start would be to share Church Action on Poverty’s real stories of people on benefits, not the Channel 4 version.

We might have picked ourselves up from the devastation of Friday morning. But don’t forget how that exit poll made you feel. We’re going to need to remember, because we have a long journey ahead of us.

2 Corinthians 4:8-9 seemed appropriate: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

Why I can’t sanction sanctions

Emergency use onlyWhat happens to people who get their benefits stopped? Have you ever actually sat down and thought about what really happens? Or are the consequences unfortunate but unavoidable, so you don’t think about them? After all, sanctions are a justifiable way of making sure people aren’t defrauding the system, right?

Well, no. Benefit fraud is a different thing altogether and involves court cases, paying the money back and going to prison. Just over a year ago I was giving debt advice to a couple with young children who were sentenced to prison the week before Christmas.

Let’s look at what I’m really talking about. What bothers me is the growing gap in the numbers between people in work and people claiming unemployment benefit – known these days as job seekers allowance (JSA).

Not everyone who doesn’t work claims JSA. Some people are too unwell to work and they (should) receive a different allowance. Other people live in households which have other income and aren’t entitled to JSA. In theory, in an ideal world, this should cover everyone.

Recently, the number of people in work has been rising. We can have a debate about the quality of these jobs, and employment versus self-employment, but that’s for another day. However, government figures show the number of people receiving JSA has been falling faster than the number of people in work has been rising. It’s perfectly clear that they haven’t all started claiming the allowance for those too unwell for work as the furore over changes to this benefit shows. And neither you nor I believe they’ve all moved into households with other income.

No, people are no longer counted as claiming JSA because they have had their allowance stopped. And here is the key phrase I read on a discussion thread, and which continues to buzz round my head – “people are no longer counted”. These people don’t count any more – they’re off the JSA figures – who cares if they’re actually working or not.

So – what actually happens when your income disappears. It usually happens without notice. Most people will tell you they went to collect their money as usual to find it was not there, with no other warning. A sanction can last four weeks or eight weeks, but can be as long as 26 weeks or 104 weeks. Yes, that’s right – 104 weeks – that’s two years, a nice piece of government obfuscation there.

Now, let’s remember this is happening to people, not just numbers. What do you do when suddenly you have not money? You can’t put any more money on your gas or electricity meter – many people without a wage coming in have to use pre-pay meters. Let’s hope the weather is warm. You won’t be able to switch on the oven, but then again, chances are you don’t have any money to buy food. And if it goes on too long, you might not even have a cooker if you’d “bought” it from somewhere like Brighthouse and are paying back in instalments because you could never get that sort of money together up front. Keep the doors and windows locked so the bailiffs can’t get in.

You can’t top up your phone, so you can’t call anyone to see what’s gone wrong or how to put it right, and you don’t have the bus fare to go into town to sort it out. Your rent should still be paid by housing benefit, but this is often incorrectly stopped as well*. Then there’s water rates, TV licence, bedroom tax and council tax, all unpaid and stacking up arrears, penalties and further potential visits from bailiffs.

So what can you do? You could borrow from family and friends, if they’ve got anything they can lend you. But this can only be a temporary fix and will have to be paid back for the sake of family harmony. Likewise, you could go to a foodbank, but again, this is only a short-term solution if your sanction is a long one, and you’ll have to say no to the fresh veg they sometimes offer because you’ve nothing spare to put on the meter for the hob. You could try a payday lender (if you aren’t already struggling with previous loans). You’ll probably get one, but it’s hardly a good solution because even when/if your money is restored, there’s nothing spare to make the repayments anyway. Mind you, it’s an option more and more of us are turning too and personal credit in the UK continues to rocket. You could try a doorstep lender like Provident – at least they accept repayments in smaller amounts, but these seem to go on forever. But better than an illegal lender, a though which has crossed your mind. A Credit Union loan would be a better option, but (as yet) these aren’t available soon enough – you’ll need to be a saver for several weeks first in most cases.

If only there were hardship payments available to tied you over until the end of the sanction period – as least to put money on the meter and food on the table. What? You mean there are such payments? Why did no-one tell me about them?** Meanwhile, we’re all hungry and the last resort might be shoplifting, just so there’s something to feed the kids when they get home from school tonight.

 

After I wrote this blog but before I posted it, I read this article, which echoes some of my themes above and shows that sanctions don’t help people back into work anyway. Who’d’ve thought?

* see the Emergency Use Only report (pictured), p116

** see the Emergency Use Only report, p42 and p111

Food Banks and Society

Food banks are never far away from the news, not least because it’s hard to believe that so many people are reliant on their provisions in one of the richest countries in the world. Despite the Government failing to respond to this growing scandal, Frank Field and the Church of England launched their own inquiry, and this week the resulting report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group, Feeding Britain, was launched.

Interestingly, the authors of the report say that this: “our first and most important point is that we want to call all people again to consider how we want to live together as members of this society and how we can encourage one another”. In the light of the report, and in my experience working as a debt advisor and with a food bank, I’d like to offer my considerations.

I think we need to live together in a society which values and respects people in work. I do not think this is the case in a country where people are working, sometimes several jobs, and are still not earning enough to pay the bills. I’d like to see a society where people are not exploited for their labour, where zero-hours contracts are a happy adjunct to busy lives for a few and not a systematic way of keeping costs down while people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. I’d like to see a minimum wage which rises as the cost of living goes up. I’d like to see national and local government encouraging the implementation of a Living Wage for their own staff, contracted staff and through their procurement and tendering procedures, as well as ways to encourage other businesses and organisations to pay a Living Wage. I’d like to see protection of the rights of workers and strengthening of Unions, rather than a steady erosion of terms and conditions in the name of “flexible working”. I’d like to see a society which values people above profit, where money and growth is the means to an end and not an end in itself.

I think we need to live together in a society which values and respects people who are not in work. I do not thinks this is the case in a country which has become so focused on the very few who play the system that it has forgotten to take care of everyone else. I’d like to see a social security system which is a genuine safety net for those who are struggling and going through a tough period in their lives. I don’t want to live in a society where a man with learning disabilities who is trying hard to live independently after he lost his Mum and his job in a Remploy factory has his income taken away for four weeks because he struggles to read the letters sent to him from the Job Centre, and where he finds himself in debt because no-one took the time to explain to him that benefit changes mean he has become liable for part of his council tax bill which has previously been fully covered. I don’t want to be part of a society which counts and celebrates the number of people in work, and counts the number of people on benefits, but where those people who are not in work but have been cut adrift from the benefit system become people who no longer count. I want to live together in a country where we understand that our contribution to the state through tax and national insurance funds the way we share our responsibility for the well-being of all. I don’t want to be part of a country which is driven by an ideology which believes state spending should be as small as possible, and in the pursuit of this goal fails to protect the vulnerable and leaves all of us in fear of crashing through the gaping hole in the social security safety net if anything should happen.

I think we need to live together in a society which recognises the responsibility of Government to invest in the welfare of its citizens. I don’t believe we need to pursue austerity at all costs. I don’t believe that continuing to cut, not just benefits, but the services we rely on to help us navigate through life and Government bureaucracy, is the way to build up our common life. I believe that people want to share in our collective responsibility towards one another and would be happy to contribute. I think that there are people at the wealthier end of the spectrum who could shoulder a bigger portion of this responsibility. If we really need to tackle the deficit (though if Government borrowing is so cheap at the moment, perhaps it is not the imperative we are told it is) then increasing income is just as valid an alternative to reducing costs. Serious effort should be applied to closing tax loopholes and increasing transparency so we can collect the billions in taxes currently being avoided by multinationals operating in this country. We could introduce a “Robin Hood Tax” like our fellow citizens in Europe are doing, so that we benefit more as a country from the enormous financial markets in the City of London and so that there is at least a small application of the brakes on damaging speculative short term trading.

The Feeding Britain report makes other suggestions about benefits, tax credits, access to credit, energy and water bills, access to the internet and mobile phones. All these things are key to easing the financial squeeze faced by poor households. It also suggests something which it calls Food Bank plus. The theory is once some of the measures above are put in place, households with a short term crisis will not need to use a food bank, freeing the service up to offer more support to those with longer-term needs. The report identifies that the issue of food, being such a basic physical and social need, means that people have come for help who are otherwise “hard to reach”. With a more joined-up, co-ordinated approach, Food Bank plus would offer a portal to provide better support for these people, including debt advice, benefits advice, help for mental health issues, access to credit such as via credit unions, back to work programmes, help and advice around cooking and nutrition.

I can see what they are saying. I recognise that people came to the food bank I worked for who were very suspicious of anyone from the council or social services or the job centre, but were reassured by the staff and volunteers who made them a cup of tea, listened to their problems and gave them a bag of food. But… food banks cannot become an institutionalised part of our welfare system. We must be a country where the state takes responsibility for its citizens. If people are going hungry, the system is broken and needs to be fixed. If the appropriate funding was invested in job centres and advice staff, then people would have access to the advice they need and the benefit system would be navigated successfully. If mental health services were accorded the value and funding of their physical health counterpart, then people would have confidence in the services that were offered. Likewise for social services.

We are back to discussing the kind of society we want to live in, how we want to live together. The report speaks of a lack of social glue holding society together. I don’t think it is possible to say this is all down to government cuts. However, I do believe that the way the Government is behaving is symptomatic of the reason for the lack of social glue. Business, politics, economics – it is all driven by the pursuit of growth. It is all about the bottom line. We are all here to be efficient economic units – efficient in production and insatiable in our consumption. The value of people and the relationships between friends and neighbours are sacrificed on the altar of growth. But I want to be part of a society which values people above profit. Where government policy is decided on in the light of its impact on people and communities. Our trust in one another is eroded when inequality rises, when our status is under threat, our jobs are insecure and the social contract between a government and its people is broken. We could hope that civil society will do the job of government, will pick up the pieces and look after those in need. But I thought we’d moved on from that. I thought we’d decided as a society that we would like our collective responsibility to one other to be fulfilled through the instrument of the state providing education, health and welfare equitably and justly for all of us throughout the country, regardless of status or background. Otherwise we’ll end up like the Post Office, complaining now that it has been privatised, that it is not profitable to run services in remote areas for the same price as everywhere else. We surely knew that before it was sold, that’s why it was nationally owned. As a metaphor for the current regime, the Post Office debacle tells us pretty much what we need to know.

If you’d like to read more, some great work exploring the real lives of food bank users can be found in the Listen Up report and in the Emergency Use Only report.

Other interesting comments on the Feeding Britain reports can be found below

Joint Public Issues: Feeding Britain

The Safety Net: in urgent need of repair

A Way Forward on Food Banks

As Children Starve, Where’s the State?

And if you want to read some books about growth, equality and the creeping reach of market capitalism I can recommend these:

The Spirit Level by Richard Wilson and Kate Pickett

How Much is Enough by Robert and Edward Skidelsky

What Money Can’t Buy by Michael Sandel

Telling Stories

“Poverty is at its most deadly when we no longer notice, we no longer care, we no longer even question it.” (Fogg, A. The Guardian, Dec 1)

http://www.theguardian.com/…/poverty-deadly-evidence-auster…

Worth a read.. Shocking statistics about the increases in poverty that haven’t even been broadcasted to us! The UK is by no means over the recession we must not turn a blind eye to it and those in need! ‪#‎challenging

This is the most shocking thing I have read this week. Not the article, I’ve already read or read about most of the reports cited in it. No, I was shocked by this Facebook comment, which came from a friend of mine. Where’s he been? He’s clearly not been reading my Facebook page!

But it is unfair to be too critical, because as the article says, these stories are not making media headlines. The reports, stories and figures are there if you know where to look, but they are not the hot topics of conversation.

On Saturday I joined over 100 of others to talk about poverty in Sheffield, and in particular the impact of benefit cuts on people in Sheffield. We heard from Nick Waterfield talking about foodbanks, including telling us about the foodbank in Nottingham which has closed its doors because it has become part of the problem, not part of the solution. We heard from the “Sheffield academics” who have described the devastating impact of welfare cuts on people in Sheffield. And we heard from Jane Perry, the author of “Emergency Use Only”, the report published by the Church of England, Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group and Trussell Trust.

On Saturday, Jane was talking about a different piece of research, which I’ll come to in a moment. But before she presented her report, she had this to say. Policy makers can’t know the impact of policies unless we tell them. Even people in churches won’t know unless we tell the stories of those who have been affected. This is what needs to happen, so that my friends know the stories before they read articles in the Guardian. So let me take some time to tell some of these stories.listenup

I’m going to share some of the stories from “Emergency Use Only” and from the other research Jane was involved in. This project was called “Listen Up!” and enabled church members to take time to interview and listen to members of their own communities struggling with welfare cuts. I’m not going to comment further, just tell some stories, and hope that they speak to you and that you will speak them to others.

Kath lives with her three teenage sons. Her youngest son has several serious medical conditions and requires intensive support. After her partner left 4 years ago, Kath gave up work to become his full-time carer. This left the family finances in precarious financial position:

‘We live very close to the edge… we don’t have many things. My 17-year-old needed a passport to get a part-time job and I had to say no. My youngest, who’s 14, has never been on a school trip, and I can’t afford the art supplies my other son needs for his course.’

The family were just about managing when their Child Tax Credits were halved without notice. Kath had arranged her finances so that she relied on her tax credits to pay for food and other daily necessities, so the effect was catastrophic.

When Kath contacted HMRC, she was told her credits had been cut because she had failed to tell them that her two older sons were staying in education. Kath says she did update them. She was assigned a case worker and given a number to call, ‘and that’s where the problem started’.

‘I called them every day all day and couldn’t get through. And every time I got put through to the answer machine we got charged. It was awful. I’d go back to the helpline and say “I can’t get through”, and they said “Well, that’s the number”. They didn’t help at all. It went on for eight weeks.’

Kath was horrified by how she was treated. ‘When our money was stopped, there was no compassion, there was no way to get support.’

Meanwhile, she was getting into more and more debt: ‘We got behind on all our bills; everything just got swallowed up, and my direct debits were bouncing.’

She became unable to meet the family’s basic needs. ‘It was freezing cold, there was no wood for the fire, I was on the emergency on the meter and I knew the lights were about to go out, and I had no food.’ To attempt to make ends meet, Kath had to rehouse a much-loved family pet, a decision which she described as ‘heart-breaking’. But this was still not enough: ‘I had no money to get my children to school… I was desperate.’

To compound their problems, her youngest son’s conditions mean he needs to eat healthily, which Kath found challenging on a small budget. ‘He can’t eat fast food; he would have ended up in hospital.’

Kath and her family survived with the help of donations from her local Citizens Advice Bureau and food bank. It took eight weeks for the decision to cut her Child Tax Credits to be overturned.

She said of her experience: ‘I thought the system would protect me. I never thought I would be completely ignored. I feel I was let down hugely. My benefits are my safety net – if they’re removed, how are families like ours meant to survive?’ Emergency Use Only

Before her car accident, Abby described herself as being on a “living wage” of around £150 to £200 per week. The sick pay she currently receives through being unable to work because of her injuries has halved that element of income to £85 per week, leaving her much more dependent on tax credits and benefits paid for her children. After bills are paid, she is left with £20 for other things. Abby’s accident compounded difficulties caused by estrangement from her family and the loss of her baby to cot death, leaving her with ‘re-occurring depression’. And yet she retains an impressive sense of personal resilience, saying “I might be little but I’m mighty”. She expressed a certain sense of inevitability about having to be, as she described herself, “like iron”, based on perception of having little choice but to cope alone. When asked who she turned to in a crisis, she responded “to the mirror”.  Listen Up!

A woman seeking money advice had been receiving Income Support on the grounds of ill health and failed to qualify for ESA. Payment of her benefits had stopped towards the end of December 2013, leaving her with no income whatsoever. She suffers with diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and arthritis. When seen at the food bank in early February 2014, having lived without income for over a month, she was visibly struggling to stand, even supported by a walking stick. The client had phoned the DWP in January and said she wanted a mandatory reconsideration of the decision. In late February, the client received a notice that her request had been refused. The next day CPAG assisted her to complete an appeal form which was submitted to Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS). HMCTS confirmed to CPAG that it had sent acknowledgement of receipt of the appeal to the DWP eight days after it had been posted. The welfare rights adviser called the DWP the same day (12 days after the appeal had been posted) and explained that HMCTS had received the appeal, and asked for ESA to be reinstated pending its resolution. As the section of the DWP dealing with the issue had not received the acknowledgement at that time it refused to reinstate ESA. Three days later HMCTS finally agreed to send an email to the DWP confirming that the appeal had been received. CPAG also faxed the DWP the copy of the client’s letter from HMCTS confirming an appeal had been lodged. The DWP refused to act on this evidence. In late March, some 26 days after the appeal had been posted, CPAG received the papers for the appeal from the DWP (meaning that they must have received confirmation of the appeal from HMCTS). The client was finally paid ESA in early April (35 days after the appeal was posted to HMCTS).  Emergency Use Only

Upon investigation by the welfare rights adviser, it emerged that a woman had been sanctioned for ‘failure to attend work programme’ three separate times by different decision makers in three different offices:

  • Feb 2014 – decision made by Wellingborough Labour Market decision makers but reversed as client had been attending a job interview when not at the work programme.
  • March 2014 – decision made by the Watford Labour Market decision makers, reversed as the claimant had been ill on that date and had phoned to explain this to the work programme provider.
  • April 2014 – decision made by Cosham Labour Market decision makers, reversed because the claimant had had a meeting about rent arrears with her landlord at the time she was supposed to be attending, and had told the Jobcentre in advance.

There appeared to be confusion within the DWP regarding this case. In particular, sanction periods should not have overlapped as they did. However, from the claimant’s perspective, the multiple decision makers meant any phone calls and correspondence had to be with three different offices. It was also incredibly hard, even for a welfare rights adviser, to obtain accurate information regarding the case. It took in excess of ten hours of welfare rights adviser time to resolve these sanctions and ensure the client was paid, given the difficulties of obtaining information and the need to correspond with so many different parties. The client meanwhile, despite the fact she had obtained hardship payments and still retained her Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit during this period, had had to take her child’s Christmas presents to Cash Converters in order to pay for fuel. On redeeming these when she was finally paid she had to pay more than she had received.  Emergency Use Only

‘There should be more discretion for individuals with the bedroom tax. I’m on the list for a bungalow, but I realise that means someone else has to die for one to become available. But I’ll still have to pay bedroom tax, because sometimes my daughter has to stay the night when my mobility deteriorates.’  Woman in her 50s with disability, Listen Up

Raja lives in a small flat which he rents from a housing association. He worked as a nurse until 2008 when he was hospitalised with mental health problems; at this time, Raja also lost his home. He made a gradual recovery over the next few years and lived in a series of hostels. He was eventually re-housed to his current home and was able to start work again in 2011.

After losing his job again in 2013, Raja applied for Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). His claim took eight weeks to be processed. During this time Raja had to use the food bank for the first time, as he did not have enough money to buy food. His benefits were stopped at the beginning of 2014 because he could not access the system to complete the required job-search activities.

“Over Christmas for three days I didn’t have access to universal job match, as I didn’t have access to a computer as everything was still shut, my local library was shut. The day I went to sign on I found I had been sanctioned. It went on for four weeks. It’s not at all reasonable. I’m not just talking about myself, but so many people are sanctioned. I didn’t even have electricity whilst I was sanctioned as I couldn’t afford it, and I ended up at the food bank.”

Raja survived with the help of a crisis payment from Citizens Advice Bureau and food parcels from the food bank. His housing association also supported him in his efforts to find work.

Raja found the Jobcentre to be very unhelpful: he experienced a lack of empathy and support and a lack of information, particularly about whether the JSA sanction would have a knock-on effect on his Housing Benefit. When he tried to question the sanction he was referred to a helpline based in Newcastle, but the advisers were not able to help with his case.

“I don’t think we get enough help from the Jobcentre itself with applying for jobs. My local housing association do help me; they give me a one-to-one and they let me access computers.”

Raja remained positive about the future, and was learning new IT skills at college and applying for low-paid jobs.

“I think I’ve now got a part-time job working as a night receptionist so I’m very happy. Working is good for your health; it’s good to be doing something. I want to get off benefits. Even though it’s minimum wage, I can’t wait to get off them. I was on more money when I was a senior nurse but I think anything is better than dole money.”  Emergency Use Only

Poverty and our collective responsibility

Emergency use onlyI’ve been following with interest the reaction to the new report “Emergency Use Only” from the Church of England, Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group and the Trussell Trust about why people need to go to food banks. I read one blog here on the Church Action on Poverty site, talking about different aspects of poverty and the church’s response to it. The blog ends:

“[This shows] why the Church has such a vital and on-going role to play. Food banks and Night Shelters are run by the Churches because material poverty needs to be addressed.  Authentic faith always has a social impact. But the Church also has unique resources to address the poverty of relationships and identity.”

I find myself torn in my response to this statement. I haven’t quite finished reading “Emergency Use Only”, which details the circumstances of some of those using our many and growing food banks. But the stories in the report reveal the difficult situations some of our neighbours find themselves in and the tremendous amount of need there is. Of course people in the church (and others) will be motivated to help and to try to meet some of this material need. And yes, the church does have unique resources to address the poverty of relationships and identity. But I’m uncomfortable with the idea that the church should have an on-going and vital role to play meeting material needs, and even possibly relationship and identity needs.

The welfare state and the NHS were born out of the devastation of the second world war. People looked at the plight of their fellow citizens and wanted to make a response to ensure all those in need would be cared for. A collective, country-wide response to ensure there could be no gaps for people to slip into. The desire to help those in need was there, and those who were able provided this help through their national insurance contributions. The NHS and the welfare state became the agencies which act on our behalf to meet the needs of material poverty and ill-health.

This is not a matter of the state taking over our individual responsibility, but a rather a collective, organised response to the needs of society. We must continue to take responsibility by ensuring we participate in the democratic process and hold our governments to account. We all contribute to each other’s welfare through our taxes (direct and indirect) as well as national insurance contributions.

I’ve had conversations with people who feel that meeting material need should remain the role of the church. But at its best, this could only be a piecemeal response to need, dependent on the finances and social inclination of a particular church in a particular place. A nationally organised health service and welfare provision ensures that everyone can access the help they need. This is the agency through which the church and all its members are able to provide for the needs of others by virtue of being citizens. Looked at this way, we all remain collectively responsible for each other.

Churches will continue to respond to unmet need. I cannot criticise this. But I can and will question why that need exists in the first place. After the war, people wanted to make sure that no-one was left behind. It is quite clear now that many people are being left behind. Left behind to struggle with bereavement, ill health, chronic low wages, poor housing, relationship breakdown, redundancy among other things. The agency, which we (as in our predecessors in the 1940s) commissioned to help them, now fails to do the thing it was designed to do.

Is the rise in the numbers of people accessing food banks attributable to changes in the administration of benefits? The “Emergency Use Only” report says it can’t prove this either way. Are people being let down by a system of welfare support that is supposed to help them? Clearly the answer is yes, as the many stories detailed in the report attest to. There are many more untold stories from food banks around the country. How many of these stories do we need to tell before those responsible for administering our welfare state are prepared to act? The safety net which the citizens of the late 1940s created for the benefit of all now has far too many holes in. The holes need to be fixed, because right now, people are crashing straight through onto the rocks below.

Politics and knitting

P1010482

Well, I really couldn’t let this one go, could I? David Cameron’s new minister for civil society, Brooks Newmark, suggested that charities should stay out of the realm of politics. He added “The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting and doing the best they can to promote their agenda, which should be about helping others.”

Well – where to begin? I’ve blogged before about charities and politics when people got in a huff about Oxfam’s Perfect Storm poster. But it’s worth going over these arguments again.

Brooks Newmark thinks that charities should “help others” and keep out of politics. But you can’t do one without the other. Let’s take the nation’s favourite topic, foodbanks. Someone comes to the foodbank in need of help and they are given a wonderful parcel of food which will last them three days, to get them through whatever crisis brought them in. Is this really all that foodbanks can and should do? Certainly, foodbanks themselves don’t think so. They ask what has caused the crisis and try to address this need. The most rapidly rising cause for people attending foodbanks is having their benefits sanctioned. The Trussell Trust (along with Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty) investigated and found not a host of people who couldn’t be bothered to fill in forms and attend interviews, but a series of punitive measures implemented without flexibility or human understanding for genuine matters such as bereavement, illness, or even the inability to be in two places at once. Actually, giving out food parcels isn’t helping people, in the long term. What would really help people would be a welfare system implemented fairly but with compassion. And so, the three charities produced a report, Below the Breadline, which launched at the same time as a Channel 4 programme, Breadline Kids, and that notorious Perfect Storm poster.

This is certainly getting involved with politics. If any charity wants to help people, then it really must get involved with the causes of whatever need they are trying to help. It’s the old adage about not getting so focused on pulling people out of the river that no-one goes upstream to find out who is pushing them all in. Unless we look at causes, we’re not really helping. Brooks Newmark suggested donors don’t want their money to be used for politics. But how many donors want to keep on giving, year after year, to a problem that keeps on getting bigger because no-one is addressing the cause? I would go as far as to say that not campaigning to address causes and structures results in collusion. Does feeding families in crisis mean that the government can get away with cutting off a family’s income because at least they won’t starve? Are foodbanks just propping up an unjust, unsustainable policy?

Apparently later, Brooks Newman issued a statement saying that he really meant “party politics”, but even this doesn’t bear scrutiny. What does it mean? And why shouldn’t charities be party political? If criticising government policy, as Oxfam did, is party political, then charities will have to be party political. And if one party’s policies promote the agenda of the charity, then shouldn’t the charity voice its support?

P1010360

But it was the knitting comment that finished me off. What a patronising way of describing the work that so many charities, day in, day out. And what a failure to understand the creative and political potential of knitting. Brooks Newmark must have been on holiday in August when 7 miles of pink knitting was stretched out between Aldermaston and Burghfield to campaign against nuclear weapons. He’s clearly never heard of guerrilla knitting, or seen any of the work of the Craftivist Collective. Or even the wonderfully creative knitted bikes made for the Tour de France. Knitting is subversive because its slow, hand-made nature rejects the instant, fast technological fix of capitalism. Protesting with knitting is thoughtful and peaceful and beautiful. I’ll be getting out my needles later and knitting Brooks Newmark a piece of my mind.