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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50 reader comments

  1. Elizabeth Loudon says:

    It’s been a tough time for you, for me and everybody in the UK but we’ve now turned that round.” –
    Not exactly for everone though has it? Don’t see the bankers suffering, or MPs or those sitting in the House of Lords, so not everone, and therein lies part of the problem.

  2. KAREN BEECH says:

    the average claimant on JSA after bills has £1-11 per day to feed and clothes themself,that doesnt include any personal care items,,ie deordorant/showergel..,,we are back to Victorian times,the workhouse is next.

  3. Jon Lisle-Summers says:

    Please will you ask McVey exactly how she has ‘suffered’ from her government’s benefit cuts. What planet in universe is she from?
    Really tactless.

  4. Twm Owen says:

    ‘We’re all in this together’ was always a pretty shallow slogan but for Esther McVey to claim she has personally suffered when talking about people reduced to relying on foodbanks sounds as sincere as an apology by Maria Miller.
    I also think economists would say the UK economy was growing when the Con Dem coalition came to power and entered recession on its watch.

  5. TOM LONERGAN says:


  6. Adie says:

    It’s disgusting that mp’s that defraud their own expense systems can state that “we’re all in it together”, just be warned, Mr Government official, the number of freemen is rising and as more an more people learn that we can turn our back on your corporate ran democracy and leave you to run the minority of Britains left that don’t realise they can be freemen away from the yoke of your unwanted tyranny and you will then be the minority and we will live under common law, we can’t trust you any more, we are disgusted by your greed and avarice and you will get yours

    1. david digney says:

      Adie, I would like to know if you think that we can prosecute our present Government under international law? I do agree with what you say. But I want more, I want all MPs to be removed by force if needs be as they are bigger parasites than any you may find in the insect world.

    2. C. Yates says:

      You exhort us to be free but simultaneously demand that the self-same apparatus that that shackles us continues to bestow benefits. You’ll have to choose.

  7. Tony Dean says:

    I have to ask in this case where are the British Legion?

  8. tracy smith says:

    I see this every day in the work I do, These are decent human beings and should not have to live the way they do, it is inhumane, no food, heat or life essentials. I hope all this poverty ends soon, I work full time in a pretty decent job and still struggle. No person ever should be living in this kind of 3rd world poverty.

  9. Nigel Prior says:

    This is a tragic true story for a man who has served his country to be left in this situation is totally unacceptable, inhumane and intolerable. I am sure Keith will be the first to say he us not the only one. These cuts are hitting those that had nothing already the hardest. Money must not be put before humanity. As for Ian Duncan-Smith saying the food bank charities are scaremongering and inflating the truth. He is completely out of touch from the reality of the poverty they are creating. The wealthy could and should give up much more to support those in desperate need of help. Shame on you all!!

  10. Philip says:

    “It’s been a tough time for you, for me and everybody in the UK but we’ve now turned that round.”
    Practically every element of that statement is untrue – but that’s what they’ll be saying from now until the election.

  11. ronald herbert says:

    the man you discribe must be ex r a f the have charity supposed to help ex members worth a try
    its the same in all western countries with concervative gvts the poor and disavanted are blamed for thier sercumstances when in fact its the system the 1%ers are doing well everyware by stealing from the rest of us in the form of tax evasion and hidden bank accounts
    check the millionairs in europe and the states and russia and more and more china
    i came from poverty and i know how hard it was for my parants to make ends meet worst still the lack of expectation that things would improve lucky for us there was labour govt elected immediatly after the 2nd war the rich were paying at one time 19teen and6 out of the pound in income tax tey actualy paid there propper dues hs/nt happend since thanks to thatcher and raegon

  12. Antony Hill says:

    Would you Adam and Eve it,a million now using foodbanks !!. Did Nick Clegg say anything about this in his election campaign ?

  13. phayes says:

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

    I prefer to think of it as the difference between the way insurance companies treat their income protection policy customers (if they want to remain in business and out of jail) and the way the UK state ‘insurance company’ is now treating its customers.

  14. sandra scott says:

    I find this story heartbreaking. A man that worked to keep the UK safe thrown on the scrapheap and left to exist in misery. Esther McVey is a disgrace and has probably never known days hardship in her life. Thats why I will be voting YES for Scottish independence. At least we can take care of our own folk.

  15. Bowen Whiteoak says:

    Good blog entry/article but what it fails to mention is Channel 4’s part in helping to stigmatise those on benefits and/or low paid jobs that rely on food banks by showing programs like Benefits Street and the like.

  16. Bill Johnston says:

    Politicians, their interests so vested
    And poor truth, for too long molested.
    Their deceit and deception
    Near the point of perfection
    If it were my call, they’d ALL be arrested

  17. Tim Wilson says:

    This must be David Cameron’s famous “big society”. Except it suddenly seems like a bad thing, creating trouble. My heart bleeds for all the people like Keith. The sooner we get some humanity into the system, the better. Get rid of the psychopath IDS.

  18. David Edwards-Loaring says:

    Esther McVey says its been a tough time for you and me, I dont see her trying to cope on the State “hand out”, it is time the Minister of this Country are there to serve the country, and most of all to protect and nurture those who cant fend for themselves through no fault of their own. I dont see Esther McVey worrying where the next morsel of food is going to come from, this woman like so many other MPs in this Government have no idea what it is like. As for the Liberal Democrats, how they can nestle in so cozily with the policies of Ian Duncan Smith and his demonising of the poor,the sick ,the disabled I shudder to think, this is supposed to be the most liberal and caring of all Parliamentary Parties. I bah humbug to Nick Clegg and his whimpering cronies too frightened to stand against the Conservatives and the likes of Danny Alexander who is so far to the right of his party I wouldn’t be suprised if he defected to the Conservatives for the next election. Lets get this uncaring Government out of office and start caring for our own society, get back to basics and serve the voter at the election box, not get the voter to kowtow to the whims of the party.

  19. Peter says:

    I am currently sanctioned until June and had no benefits paid in 3 weeks. I live with my partner and a 14 year old daughter. We had to attend a food on Tuesday for an emergency food parcel and the staff were kind and considerate. But to hear those comments coming from a minister in a tory government saying that they have suffered along with the rest of us is a complete joke. I live in Scotland and definately voting yes in September. I would like to thank everyone who volunteer and donate to the foodbanks without you many more would starve in a country where poverty should have gone long ago.

  20. helen waine says:

    Heroes? That is what the government call you when they want you to risk life and limb in their illegal wars.

    Not such much a hero when you are surplus to requirements and need to claim what you are entitled to after paying national insurance! Its a disgrace. The theory is, btw, that is you create an hostile environment for depressed people, you’ll commit suicide, save on direct benefits payable to the claimant; carers lose their allowance, you free up housing and save the NHS mental trusts a load of money! See Benefits and Work or Black Triangle on how to use clauses to protect anyone at risk of suicide from having to keep signing on for benefits. Do not just publicize these things tell people what we can all do to HELP!

    1. c.yates says:

      I met someone like Keith once on the night-shift & he was an absolute nightmare. Not for me, he wasn’t aggressive but for his employer. He was brilliantly inventive at coming up with excuses for not coming into work. He ran rings round them for months; in the end he resigned.
      Anxiety is a very flimsy excuse for job dodging. As for having no phone – pull the other one. No one has the excuse of being without a phone when a million phones a month are discarded or retired in the UK simply ∵ they are no longer considered fancy enough. When I was in Bombay I could have bought an old phone for under a tenner.
      The locals there all had basic mobiles even though real, absolute poverty is a reality there in a way it hasn’t been here for nearly a century.

  21. john says:

    esther mcvey deluded doesn`t do her justice

  22. Sheila Shepherd says:

    It is a national disgrace that more and more people are being forced into poverty by a government that could not give a damn. Do we have suicide statistics since the con-dems came into power? We need a huge amount of publicity on their failings before their gagging law kicks in this September. Shame on this government, they have pushed many people into ill health with their ATOS assessments and their ill thought out policies like the bedroom tax.

    1. C. Yates says:

      What gagging law? I could do with knowing.

  23. Chris says:

    I cannot believe the depths to which this country has sunk. This government is for the rich, but dresses all the austerity measures up as if it’s “The Deficit – it HAS to be done.”

    Compare this with the 70s – rampant inflation, international crises, oil crisis after oil crisis, power cuts and wave after wave of strikes. Not a time we’d like to relive, but at least the benefits system still worked, and nightmares like Keith’s were far less likely to happen.

    If we as a nation could afford a welfare state then, we could afford it now. It’s only political dogma that causes all these cuts and suffering.

    1. C. Yates says:

      The welfare state is much more encompassing now than in the ’70s.

  24. dan says:

    I’ve started a petition, im not convinced of the usefulness of the court system in this country, so i have instead directed this petition to the european court of human rights.

    I’ve had my benefits stopped for at least 2 months, and have had to start busking.


    Feel free to sign and share.

    Cheers guys/gals

    – dan

  25. helen says:

    my son has had to move back home with me and my partner he money has been sanctioned because he has no access to the internet. He now on hardship which only give him 68 a fortnight to live on this also means he lost his housing benefit and council benefit. Which meant he lost his home all because he did not look for a job where the job centre told him to he did look else were paper signs on windows ect and then they let him off this week from doing it again because no one had shown him how to save the job search properly was that not nice of them. it sick how they treat people

    1. Michelle says:

      Please get yoiur Son to apply for Housing AND Council Tax Support based on ‘NIL INCOME’
      He is entitled to do this as is anyone that has been Sanctioned.

  26. Wendy Neil says:

    I work for Local Welfare Assistance on Wirral the sanctions are cruel a significant no of applicants are from people who have been sanctioned.I left work today after dealing with a very distraught young man fortunately we were able to help but this is a one off payment it’s barbaric the way people are treated.
    On WirralKeith from Watford could apply for help with a cooker , floorcovering and other essentilal items .he could also apply for help with food and fuel while sanctioned . He could also apply for a Discretinary Housing payment to help with rent arrears and any ongoing shortfall in his rent .Just wondering if thr food banks signpost customers to available support ? Bye the way Esther Mcvey lives in one of the most affluent parts of the Wirral

  27. Janet Street says:

    How can she say MP’s have had a tough time? They got a HUGE pay rise (9% or 11%) much more than front line emergency services and the armed forces. I actually fear for the future, revolutions have started for less

  28. susan dearing says:

    This country is the 7th largest economy in the world. We have more millionaires than ever. This is not a third world or a developing country. For people, especially children, to be going hungry and cold is outrageous! The MP’s from EVERY party should hang their heads in shame at what they have allowed this country to become! Bring in a living wage and make employers responsible.

  29. Cathy says:

    I have emphysema and probably won’t live very long but it amazes me to see all this! Even when I was younger and from a large family we had enough to eat! God help you all, you need to vote for the real prime minister not one who will take, take, take. Get real all of you!

  30. robert says:

    I think it is appalling that we have a pm and ministers who publically state that they are proud to give hundreds of millions away to overseas countries like somalia and pakistan and india whereas here in the UK we cant be bothered to support the poor and the needy and organizations like foodbanks are growing disproportionally fast. Duncan Smith and McVey are representatives of a completely defunct political system where care for human beings is a dirty word and multi millionaires in London are dictating how this country is run. Its time that they are thrown on the scrap heap themselves to experience what they are doing to others in this society. it is a crying shame.

  31. Ex-Nimrod says:

    “I just met Keith, from Watford.

    He used to crew a Nimrod in the RAF.”

    The Nimrod world was a very small word where everyone knew just about everyone else. I am ex-Nimrod, having served on them for nearly 30 years, and I still have many friends that were ‘also on the Nimrod for many decades. I can say with 99% certainty that he did not “used to crew a Nimrod in the RAF”. None of us have ever head of or recognise ‘Keith’.

    So if that part of the article is rubbish then what else in its content is inaccurate?

    1. ruby says:

      At ex nimrod it’s possible that “keith” is a cover name same I haven’t watched the video (very limited internet) but it may also be an actor
      I was in a documentary once about my illness except it was an actor they used all my words but used someone else to tell it
      I don’t know if that’s what happened here its just an option
      I live off benefits the forms get more degrading each time and are so stressful waiting to find out if it’s okay this time…. I worked from 12-33 gradually taking easier and easier jobs now I’m practicaly bed ridden have lists of things wrong but it’s not doctors that decide it’s bonus paid pen pushers and trick question computer programs and unqualified medics who lie on forms
      For everyone stuck in these circumstances it’s not fair to the mp’s I just don’t understand how you can brazenly lie and cheat the people you are supposed to be helping I’d be so ashamed find a replacement or do the job properly

    2. C. Yates says:

      I was thinking exactly the same. This story is largely if not totally cock & bull.
      I’m not ex RAF but I’m well aware the RAF is very choosy about who they allow near their aircraft.
      Keith must be a highly qualified & competent individual to have ever done such a job. How does this tally in any way with the pathetic, shambling wreck we see before us today? Short of a stroke & serious drug addiction there is no way they could ever be the same person.
      Paul Mason may well have serious questions to answer along the lines of his thoroughness & integrity.

  32. Tony Webber says:

    My Grandaughter came back from an extended holiday in Teneriffe. When she got back she had to sit a “Habitual Resdents Test” to prove she had the intention of staying in the uk and that she had resided her before.! although she was born here to English parents has lived here all her life. She was refused to “sign on” and claim Job Seekers allowance. This prevents her from getting any help from anyone including food banks. She has to wait until she has been back for 12 weeks before she will be allowed to claim Job Seeekers allowance. In the mean time if it was not for friends and relatives she would be walking the streets begging. At present she is now over £1500 in debt because she cannot claim Housing Benefit either and has to pay the full amount for her rented flat which obviously she can’t do. This is the result of the imbicile Duncan Smith and his DWP department. She went to she her MP and he agred that the dwp wewre wrong but she has now been told that her MP is wrong as well! This is a true story of what is happening in the uk today thanks to this government. If there is anybody professional out there who can help her sort out this government please contact me

    1. Michelle says:

      If you or your Daughter is on Facebook I suggest you seek help from “4UP”
      Great friendly Group with lots of good Benefit Advice.
      Please copy and paste the link below…..
      All the Best.

  33. steffon worthington says:

    I’m on £52pwk Working tax credits. I was one of the people who was persuaded by the DWP to become self-employed. My business is niche and, I’ve discovered, not that profitable so I’ve been living on my WTC. I take meds for nerve damage and I barely sleep through the night so I wouldnt make it through the day in a 9-5 job (seemingly now 8-6) but I’ve always resisted going on any type of sickness benefit because i want to work and believe those benefits are best reserved for the ill like Kieth. My housing benefit covers my rent but now we have to pay 25% of council tax (£40pcm for me… nearly a weeks money).

    I can’t take it anymore. I can’t talk to my friends. I need to DO something to give me some pride back. I’ve always toed the line and done the right thing… but with the biggest benefit cheats now the government it’s clear that doing the right and honest thing will get you starved and homeless. I aim to take back some pride. I won’t say what though because speaking your mind these days in the UK will get you arrested.

    When did we sleepwalk into a police state?

  34. tel says:

    As an ex serviceman he should contact SSAFA who will surely help him through his plight with help both financial and guidance. I am also an ex serviceman and things like this really sadden me and to think I was willing to go to war and kill to protect these self serving profiteering bureaucrats and corporations.

    1. c.yates says:

      Why were you “willing to go to war and kill to protect these self serving profiteering bureaucrats and corporations. “?

      They’re no more self-serving now than in former times.

  35. Janice says:

    Good god I left UK 52 years ago for Australia wondering if I had done the right thing .I sure know I did when I read what’s happening now .Went through world war 2 it was tough but with ration books and making do no body starved .Our latest government another conservative mob are trying he same tactics but thankfully not quite this bad (YET) telling us the days of entitlement are over but isn’t it strange these so called leaders are all wealthy and comfortable with their jobs, huge wages and the best pensions in the world the perks are set in stone and continue until death .All the problems in this world are from either religious or greedy bankers buying governments .Take a look at the documentary “The men who crashed the world ” that explains it all

    1. C. Yates says:

      Leaders the world over are much richer than their electorates. Doctors & lawyers are usually much richer than their patients/clients too. Does that make them unfit or immoral? Tony Benn was much richer than those he claimed to empathize with & George Galloway too. Bankers represent one set of problems but wasters like “Keith” represent another. There is such a thing as the undeserving poor. Some hard luck stories are phony.

      1. Paul Trembath says:

        “Some hard luck stories are phony” – but most of them obviously are not. Did you have a point?

  36. Cheryl guillot says:

    This government is pure evil!! Where has the compassion gone for people who find themselves in hard times..greedy out of touch snobs with no idea what the man on the street is enduring with their welfare cuts.. This is England not a third world country..shame on this government!

  37. Tom Horwat says:

    At some point I can see this turning into anarchy of some description, you can push and cajole the poor and needy for so long, but at some point they will rise up. It’s a national disgrace. I wonder if any of our western European neighbours are treating the less well off in the same manner?, I doubt it. If you are unemployed, or disabled, you are made to feel guilty nowadays.

  38. C. Yates says:

    If Paul Mason was doing anything like a thorough job he’d have investigated Keith’s employment. The RAF has a charity for distressed ex-servicemen like Keith. Why wasn’t this matter raised?
    On the subject of his former career as RAF aircrew; it’s worth pointing out the RAF is very choosy about who they allow near their aircraft. Keith must be a highly qualified & competent individual to have ever done such a job. This is just as true for non-pilot aircrew & nearly as much for ground crew. How does this tally in any way with the shambling wreck we see before us today? Short of a stroke & serious drug addiction there is no way they could ever be the same person.
    I met someone like Keith once on the night-shift & he was an absolute nightmare. Not for me, he wasn’t aggressive but for his employer. He was brilliantly inventive at coming up with excuses for not coming into work. He ran rings round them for months with nonsense about anxiety attacks; in the end he resigned.

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