It’s now approaching the end of November and very soon I will be collating the statistics for the month. On April 1st this year, our food bank became involved in a partnership with the local council to deliver pro-active support under their local welfare provision programme (LWP). This programme replaced the social fund scheme run by the Department for Works & Pensions. Under social fund, claimants could be given a cash loan to help them cope with an unexpected emergency or a grant to buy or replace furniture and white goods. Since the responsibility for this was placed on local government there has been a change in its operation.
As far as I am aware, no council gives out loans but instead will award claimants either a food voucher, gas/electric credits, white goods or a combination of all three! At the food bank we store the council supplied food and distribute it as necessary. In the beginning, it was a slow start and we saw very few coming through our doors. However, with the month of November not yet finished we have seen an upsurge of claimants. The stats for the period 1st April – 26th November 2013 show a steady increase in the number of people in crisis. Although November is not yet over we have fed 40 adults and 38 children who have had to apply for emergency assistance via LWP.
The number of children going hungry is increasing and these are just the ones we know about. Each applicant for LWP has to fulfil a stringent criteria, one of the main ones being that they must be receiving a qualifying benefit to apply. LWP does not cater for those who do not receive benefit or have had it ‘sanctioned’ for whatever reason.
Our ‘normal’ food bank stats show that so far in November we have supported 241 adults and 116 children. Let me do the maths for you! Combining both sets of statistics we have supported 281 adults and 154 children. In stark terms, 154 children are going hungry in Sandwell. And that’s just the ones we know of! This situation is repeated in each and every local authority. Talking to colleagues who operate the LWP scheme, awards have been made but not claimed! We don’t know the reasons why this happens but experience suggests that the ‘shame’ element is alive and well in Sandwell.
This is something that never seems to get reported in the media. Sure, we have the demonization of benefit claimants with ill-informed articles and comments by prejudiced readers, but how often do you hear of someone who is so totally ashamed of their situation that they refuse practical help? In the past we have had visitors come into our food bank, totally broken and ashamed by the circumstances they find themselves in. They have looked at the food we have offered and said ‘I can’t accept it’. In particular, we had one lady who refused the food and walked out in floods of tears.
Something has to change. The benefits system is manifestly failing those whom it was set up to support. There can be no justification whatsoever for sanctioning where it affects the health and well-being of vulnerable children. The sanction system is to my mind in disrepute because of the many questionable decisions that are made to cut a claimants benefit. It is indefensible to cut off the lifeline of children who through no fault of their own are in crisis.
Perhaps we ought to make it mandatory for existing MPs and aspiring politicians to complete a term of community service in the real world of a food bank or soup kitchen or any front line agency that is struggling to support their clients following cuts to funding and inhumane policies that bring nothing but untold misery to thousands.
I sometimes drift off into a fantasy world where justice, fairness and the welfare of our fellow men takes precedence over everything else. The problem is that I am jerked back to reality by the knock on our office door that means someone else in crisis has arrived hoping we can support them.