16 Apr 2014

Life of a food bank user: no gas, no cooker, benefits delayed

I just met Keith, from Watford.

He used to crew a Nimrod in the RAF. Now his most challenging mission is to feed himself on £58.92  a week.

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He’s on disability benefits, but there are deductions: one for rent arrears, another to pay back a crisis loan. So he’s become one of the 913,000 people a year who used food banks run by the Trussell Trust last year.

“I’m Keith, and I’m depressed,” he begins – half jokily because it’s the delay in the DWP deciding whether he is depressed enough to get his full benefits that he thinks has caused the problem. “I used to be twelve stone,” he says, gesturing to a body that is now rake-thin.

He walked in to the Watford food bank yesterday, says the centre’s manager. They’ve given him an emergency food parcel but the more strategic problem is, he hasn’t got a cooker. Or any gas to cook with.

He takes me to his flat: bare floors, minimal furniture and nothing in the kitchen except a kettle and a sandwich toaster swimming in fat. The toaster is what he uses to cook bacon and eggs: he’s sold his freezer, cooker and washing machine already and last week pawned his mobile phone.

So tonight he’ll be eating from a “hot can” – sausage and beans, which ingeniously heat themselves once you puncture the tin. He survives on this, his medication and rollups.

The Watford food bank, which is run by the Trussell Trust, says more than half of all the people who’ve come there for food in the past year are there either because benefit delays or benefit sanctions.

Of the 1,649 people they’ve had to feed because of benefit troubles, more than six hundred were children, who are being denied money to live on because of alleged mistakes and irregularities by their parents.

Chris Mould, who set up the charity nationally, says: “Half the people who come here are for benefit problems, and 80 per cent of our centres report these involve sanctions” – that is deductions for not conforming to the set regime, or for arrears or debts.

Today the rolling news media have been revelling in the fact that earnings have – after five years of falling – risen in real terms by 0.1 per cent, over a year. To hear the tone of some of the coverage we should be declaring a national holiday.

Read more: Read more: Pay increases finally exceed rise in cost of living

But, says Mr Mould, the reality is still pervasive hardship:  “We’ve seen an increase in the number of people finding it impossible to make ends meet: low income, pressure on wages, problems with food prices rising above inflation – and they’ve been doing that for five years,”.

Since the economic crisis started I’ve been in numerous food banks and talked to their users.

What always hits me is the difference between the way charities treat them and the way the benefits system treats them.

Keith says: “When you ring up, there’s no word of hello, they just say, ‘National Insurance Number’. To them, you’re just a number. I’ve rung saying the stress and delay was making me suicidal, and their response is ‘What are you trying to insinuate?'”

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith has refused to meet Chris Mould, the man who set up the food banks.

Mr Duncan Smith accused  the Trussell Trust of “scaremongering”, creating demand for food banks by creating the supply, and of “political messaging”.

Read more: Read more: Food banks – on the front line with Britain’s poorest

Mr Mould responds:  “We’ve seen a distinct change in the way jobcentres are applying the sanctions regime.

“People are having their money cut for longer for what appeartto be very trivial reasons. It feels punitive, it looks disproportionate and we have questions about whether its appropriate or sensible.”

“Four million people donated food last year, there’s a very clear groundswell of support across the UK.

“People care deeply that their neighbours are going hungry, More than 30,000 people are volunteering – that sounds to me like a charity, not a campaigning organisation.”

Challenged this morning over rising food bank numbers, Employment Minister Esther McVey, said: “Since 2007 a lot of people have gone through a very painful time. What we’ve done is pick up the pieces.

“Do not blame the coalition government that came into power to stop the recession and build back up the country. It’s been a tough time for you, for me and everybody in the UK but we’ve now turned that round.”

Back in Keith’s flat, if you look at his few things – a battered old sound system, his medication, a pair of old binoculars to watch birds outside his window – it’s obvious he’s fallen through many safety nets, the benefits system included.

On Keith’s evidence it is a system that works only if you believe its function is to discipline, punish and stigmatise people too poor to feed themselves. The real safety net is the food bank.

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