A furore arose last week in Hounslow, West London, with a story breaking over the fact that a food bank run by local tenants and other residents, in partnership with Hounslow Council, would not be issuing food to those “in constant difficulties due to chaotic lifestyles” including “money management issues”. Nor would they be helping those with “a delay/reduction in benefits or who [had] been refused a crisis loan” or those “under sanctions from the Jobcentre” (all quotes were taken directly from the Hounslow Community Foodbox’s website, but since I started writing this piece, they have taken their statement down and changed the site radically).
According to a recent study by Oxfam , and Church Action on Poverty, more than half a million UK people may rely on food banks. The study blames benefit cuts, unemployment and the increased cost of living for the growth in hunger and poverty. The report was backed by the Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest provider of food banks, who said more than 350,000 people required help from its food banks during 2012, almost triple the number who received food aid the year before.
The new study says that the true number may be more than 500,000 as the scale of the problem is not being effectively monitored. It also said that up to half of all people turning to food banks are doing so as a direct result of having benefit payments delayed, reduced, or withdrawn altogether” and “changes to the benefit system are the most common reasons for people using food banks.” (These people would, as stated previously, be excluded from the Hounslow scheme)
The report also criticised changes in the eligibility rules for benefits, benefits sanctions, and delays in benefits being paid. Church Action on Poverty CEO Niall Cooper said: “The safety net that was there to protect people is being eroded to such an extent that we are seeing a rise in hunger. Food banks are not designed to, and should not, replace the ‘normal’ safety net provided by the state in the form of welfare support.”
The Salvation Army welcomed the report, saying: “Food poverty and increasing reliance on emergency food is not sustainable for those trapped in the cycle of dependency.” Commissioner Clive Adams, territorial commander of the Salvation Army in the UK, said: “We are finding that the problems with food poverty are coming from the benefits system and delays in payments.
So hold on – a large number of people using food banks are using them because of benefits cuts, sanctions, delays. And influential voices are saying that it is wrong that ‘food poverty’ should have to be helped by charity rather than by state welfare provision. But surely the answer to that should not be for the food banks to refuse to help bridge that gap. Nor, surely, should the charity food banks be colluding with the politicians in that refusal. In the case of the Hounslow Community Foodbox, in ‘partnership’ with the local, Labour-run council, and chaired by a Labour Party councillor. Labour – the opposition party to the Coalition Government, the last time I looked. I wonder how many people donating the food know about the terms and conditions applied to the distribution of it?
So what’s happening in Wiltshire? Doorway guests have been very worried about many issues of finances, benefit changes, the Food Bank (collected for and administered in Chippenham by the Salvation Army) recently, so Doorway tried to clarify the policies locally. It was ascertained that the Council’s Revenue and Benefits Service is administering the Local Welfare Provision (LWP) scheme, through its Benefits Operations Managers.
The Food Bank ‘red vouchers’ (to be presented at the Salvation Army in exchange for a ‘parcel’ of food) are now only to be issued after the applicant is interviewed, face-to-face or by phone, by a member of the LWP team. ‘An application process is followed, and a decision is made by the LWP officer as to whether the customer is entitled to an award’. The LWP officer will contact the Job Centre / DWP to check the details of the benefits issued, but the award decision is the LWP officer’s alone. Housing Options / Citizen’s Advice Bureau / Job Centre no longer hold any vouchers. There can only be two applications (note – these may not actually result in a voucher being issued) in any 12 month period unless a senior LWP officer decides to allow a third or subsequent application due to specific circumstances. And if the Food Bank is not open or available, the Council has no alternative to offer, other than directing them to Doorway drop-in sessions.
At least there is no specific mention there (unlike Hounslow) of disallowing an application because of benefits sanctions. Then again there isn’t ANY detail given re the mechanics of the ‘application process’. It would be good to be shown the algorithm, rather than perhaps a guest having to make an application under the Freedom of Information Act to find out……. Certainly, it all seems a lot more daunting for the applicant than, for example, going to the CAB, getting help with addressing the financial problems, and being given a voucher while there. Which, as it happens, the Salvation Army were still under the impression was possible. And there is also the issue of the standard maximum possibility of two food vouchers in 12 months – in Hounslow, it’s three, and also, approved referrers there include Housing Solutions, Adult Social Care, Children’s Services and Children’s Centres, and not just the ‘Revenue and Benefits Service’. So, as I see it, Wiltshire may be better than some ways, but more restrictive in others, than the demonised Hounslow Food Bank….
But the Daily Mail (and many of the saloon bar philosophers of this land) would probably say at this point that it’s a good thing that food isn’t just handed out willy nilly to ‘benefits scroungers’, substance abusers, those ‘too lazy to work’. Some of the talk around this issue, and around the changes to the benefits system, has entered the territory of the ‘deserving poor’ and the ‘undeserving poor’. This is hardly new territory. The attempt to distinguish between different categories of the poor goes back at least as far as Elizabethan England (the first one). Before the Protestant Reformation, it had always been considered Christian duty to, inter alia, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and welcome the stranger (Matthew 25: 35-40), but after the Reformation, adherence to these values was reduced, the poor were left without help, and many were driven to begging and stealing. Measures just before and during Elizabeth’s reign, including the establishment of Parish registers of the poor and the raising of funds to support them (formalised by a ‘Poor Tax’ in 1572), culminated in the ‘Poor Law’ of 1601. These moves were mainly designed to reduce the begging and stealing, and also to reduce vagrancy by ‘tying’ people to a parish.
‘In 1563, as part of this process, the poor were categorised as ‘deserving poor’ or undeserving poor’.
The ‘deserving poor’ were either wanting to work, but couldn’t find any; or were too old, young or ill to work. The former would get ‘Outdoor Relief’ of clothes, food, and possibly money. Or as we know it now, JSA. The latter would get ‘Indoor Relief’ in almshouses, orphanages, workhouses or hospitals, or, if young, apprenticed to a tradesman. So a sort of residential version of ESA, Incapacity Benefit and Work Placement……
The ‘Undeserving Poor’, also called ‘idle beggars’ or ‘sturdy beggars’, were those capable of work but who chose not to. They were to be whipped and beaten through the town, usually to the bounds of the parish boundary. Repeated offenders could be sent to prison and even hanged. The Government hasn’t yet found an equivalent for this beyond benefits sanctions, but I suspect they are working on it….. A cynic might also suggest that the driving of the ‘idle beggars’ out of the parish was a very early forerunner of part of London’s application of the ‘No Second Night Out’ policy…..
By the early 1800s, the cost of war, and the rising number of poor people, particularly in urban areas, led to increasingly pressing social issues, but also to increasingly widely held opinions that much poverty was a result of fecklessness. The culmination of the dissatisfaction with the old system was the 1834 Poor Law, with the deserving / undeserving distinction becoming legally formalised, so that only those who could work would receive help, and that in return for losing their freedom to enter the workhouse, and live in very unpleasant conditions. The Daily Mail would undoubtedly approve.
The TV and newspapers help in this process of demonising those receiving benefits, mostly portrayed as the ‘undeserving poor’ – the Vicky Pollards, the chavs, the ASBO youth, the hoodies, the street drinkers, the ‘asylum-seekers’. We should resist their lazy stereotyping. I would say, yes, there are some of those around. Some. But the more people I meet through Doorway and through my day job as a GP, the less easy it becomes to make what are often moral judgements. The Daily Mail articles see black and white. I see people with complicated stories, and endless shades of grey. What about the people with mental health issues, who may well be finding the whole benefits process and the recent changes too overwhelming to negotiate, who miss appointments and incur sanctions because of this? Who have no physical signs to show the Atos assessors, and are deemed fit to work, and have benefits stopped, pending a lengthy and equally stressful appeals process. No food parcels for them? What about other vulnerable people – for example, victims of domestic violence?
Jennifer Cirone, Senior Independent Domestic and Sexual Violence Adviser for Wiltshire, has often issued Food Bank vouchers under the previous scheme. She has not yet been told of any restrictions, and is extremely concerned at the prospect:
“Many of my clients are fleeing or have just fled a dangerous situation. They have often been subject to financial abuse also, including not being allowed control of the household finances. They will often, therefore, not only have no money, but they may not be used to budgeting and so will be prone to ongoing financial problems even when an income source is established. Benefits can take a while to sort out anyway, as the clients may be missing documentation, which is commonly destroyed by the abuser. I have had had clients who have had sanctions imposed on their benefits payments because of missing documents or through missing appointments due to the chaos in their lives. A refuge will provide accommodation, a place of safety, advice, but does NOT supply food, nappies etc., and I have seen cases where, through lack of these essentials, people have returned to the abusive household situation, so this really can be a matter of life and death. 2 or 3 food bank vouchers a year will not be enough – support is needed for 3 months minimum on average”.
I have no idea what training the Local Welfare Provision officers have had to be properly equipped to make their judgement of ‘entitlement’ to Wiltshire Food Bank vouchers, or what criteria are being used. I presume some means-testing is involved, which can be tricky enough – but if these decisions are made using moral judgements regarding ‘chaotic lifestyles’ and the like, to determine if the poor are ‘deserving’, then that is dangerous territory indeed. And since I’ve already uncharacteristically quoted the Bible, I may as well do it twice. John 8:7: “Let he who is without sin among you throw the first stone”.