Just when you think the demonising of people on benefits could not get worse, along comes Edwina Currie to throw petrol on the bonfire of debate and unleash a veritable storm of vitriol across the twittersphere. Any serious points she was trying to make immediately shrank into the background as she accused benefit claimants of wanting to feed their dogs and have tattoos more than put food on their table. For those too young to remember, Ms Currie was a Conservative MP and a health minister. Unfortunately she was removed from that position after claiming all eggs were infected with salmonella. You would think that after that debacle she would steer clear of anything food related, but no!
This brings us to Katie Hopkins, the lady famous for being on The Apprentice. Ms Hopkins made the final of the process but quit the week before the final was due to take place. Ms Hopkins appears to be cast in the same mould as Ms Currie and never hesitates to jump in and give everyone the benefit of her wisdom, even though we have never asked for it. Her Twitter/TV attacks on food banks and their service users have to be seen to be believed. According to Lord Sugar, Ms Hopkins is a very very intelligent person. It would appear that this intelligence has deserted her when it comes to her understanding of food banks and the benefits process.
On my Sky+, I have three episodes of Benefits Street recorded but have yet to find the time to actually watch it. If we are to believe the hype and firestorm of media comments, all the people living on this infamous street are benefit scroungers, unemployed and criminals. It’s been a total gift to the government who are forever reforming the benefits system and Ian Duncan Smith the leading reformer has commented on the programme to back up his arguments for more benefit cuts.
At the same time IDS is refusing to meet with the Trussell Trust to discuss food poverty and the rise in their use because of HIS benefit reforms. He says that the TT are being too political! Of course they are, it’s as a result of his reforms package and political manoeuvring (on both sides of the House) that we have this horrendous situation.
“when I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why they have
no food they call me a Communist” (Archbishop Helder Camara)
So, with all the publicity and ill-informed comments that are flying around, what about the people at the centre of this war of words, the claimants themselves? In my last post I introduced you to four people whom I had met through the West Bromwich food bank. Through no fault of their own, they were either on or applying for benefit and had met obstacles all the way. The very agency that was supposed to support them appeared to be doing their best not to support them and give them the money they were entitled to so that they could fed themselves and pay bills etc.
Today, as I was on my way to open up the food bank I received a phone call from one of our partner agencies asking for help for one of their clients. ‘John’ is receiving benefits but had recently changed his bank account. He told the DWP about this and assumed that everything would be alright. No chance! When he came to draw out some money, there was none in his account. John contacted the DWP and it would appear that the details given had been misinterpreted thus resulting in no money into his account. Common sense would say that the situation could be rectified by pressing a couple of buttons on a computer. Think again! They have to investigate the circumstances and only then will they pay John. It is looking very likely that this may not happen until sometime next week. In the meantime John has to eat and pay bills.
Jason is a 51 year old man who looks years older! He is claiming benefits and lives in a bedsit. There are no problems with his benefit, he has an entirely different problem. For the sake of his health and physical safety, John needs to move and move quickly. He lives in fear of physical assault and on Christmas Day, he was alone and someone came into his flat and assaulted him. He has asked for our help in trying to get him moved and we are in the process of arranging to meet with the relevant local agency.
Jason’s problem is one of many we get to hear about as we meet and serve visitors to the food bank. It’s not always about having enough to eat! I met a guy yesterday who had moved in with a friend four days ago and for some reason had been forced out leaving him homeless. We have helped him complete the first (of no doubt) many forms to hopefully get him re-housed.
Then there are those who live in isolation, no friends, no family to support them. The highlight of their week is to visit our drop in centre and sit and talk to others. We do our very best to talk to them and often signpost them to where they can receive much needed support.
Often we will find that the inability to feed themselves is only the tip of the iceberg as far as their issues go. Our more vulnerable visitors have multiple needs. One ‘confessed’ need leads to another.
How can the likes of Edwina Currie, Katie Hopkins and Channel 4 justify their prejudices? Yes, we do meet people who try and work the system, but it is a very small number. You cannot demonise and denigrate the majority for the sins of the minority. It would be like saying that all Conservatives are callous, uncaring and unfit to govern when there are in fact some in that party who do care!
Channel 4 like all other broadcasters have a responsibility to be fair and present the facts. There is nothing wrong with presenting facts. The problem is that facts make for boring TV so hey, let’s put a negative spin on them and cause controversy. Benefits Street looks set to be the most complained about programme of the year with Ofcom receiving 900+ complaints during the three weeks it has been on.
Attitudes need to change. Whatever happened to the British ideal of fairness and justice? Do we really want to continue down the route of hatred and loathing for anyone who does not fit in with our idea of what they should be? If we are intent on going down that road will we be able to handle the consequences?