Monday’s edition of the BBC’s investigative documentary programme, Panorama, covered the massive expansion in food banks across the UK. Filmed in Bristol and Derby, the programme’s host, Darragh McIntyre, spoke to the organisers of the food banks, including a community of Anglican nuns in Bristol, the Sisters of the Church, who provide food to over 2,28 people, the unemployed and destitute forced to use them, and Tory spokesmen defending the government’s policies, including Edwina Currie. The people filmed using food banks including a young couple living in a homeless hostel. The young woman had been referred to the food bank by the staff at her hospital, as there were complications with her pregnancy and they feared that she was not eating enough. The reported stated that many of those being fed by the nuns had drug and alcohol problems. Another Bristolian using the food banks was Steve Hudson, who, although he was unemployed, was not yet on benefit. The man had gone without food for days on end, and there was literally nothing in his fridge except a bit of ketchup and a tin of kidney beans. He had to walk the four hours to the Jobcentre because he had no money for the bus fare to get there. The programme later returned to Hudson. By this time he had got a job, but it hadn’t worked out and he was back on the dole. He was again forced to use food banks as most of his dole money went to paying off the utility and debts. They also spoke to the head of the East Bristol Food Bank, Andy Irwin, which was run in partnership with the Trussell Trust. Three years ago the Trussell Trust had only 50 food banks across the UK. Now they have more than 300. The programme state that the food banks in Bristol feed about 8,000 people. The Trust claims that they supply food to hundreds of thousands of people across Britain, and that since 2012 demand has tripled.
Food Banks Created Through Poverty, Not Scrounging
The programme also reported the Tories claim that the existence of the food banks was responsible for the increasing numbers of people using them. They showed a clip of Ian Duncan Smith in parliament, reading out a statement from a member of staff at the Oxford Food Bank, stating that although food banks do a good job, the people using them were often those, who had asked members of the various welfare agencies, such as their social workers, to refer them. This claim was rebutted by Chris Mould, the chairman of the Trussell Trust, who stated that it was ridiculous as it suggested that the 18,000 members of the various agencies, that had signed referrals for the food banks, were somehow in collusion to rip the system off.
Anglican Bishops Condemn Rise of Food Banks and Government Policy
The programme also talked to one of the 27 Anglican bishops, who had written a letter roundly condemning the rise of poverty and hunger in Britain. This was after they had interviewed David Burrowes MP, the chairman of the Conservative Christian Fellowship, who claimed that the bishops were exaggerating the problem. He stated that although they had the right to address their concerns, they did it in the wrong way and so had been used as ‘pawns in a wider political agenda’. This was rebutted by the bishop of Manchester, David Walker, who said that it was ridiculous that they were being used as part of anyone’s agenda. He quoted Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said that there comes a time when, having fished enough people out of the river, you go up river to see why they’re falling in. And this, said the good bishop, inevitably draws you into politics.
Founder of Bristol Food Bank and Prof Elizabeth Dowler also State Food Banks due to Poverty
They also spoke to Mark Wing, an evangelical Christian, who runs the Matthew Tree in Bristol. This is the seventh food bank he’d opened in the city. When he was asked if Bristol needed seven food banks, he replied that it absolutely was. Wing aims not only to feed people, but also to reform their lives, and so those using the food bank are expected to show their bank accounts. They also interviewed Professor Elizabeth Dowler, the author of the government’s report Household Food Security in the UK. She too rebutted the claims that the explosion in the number of food banks was due to the number of people using them. She stated that it was simply because there were many more people in need. She pointed to the rise in food prices coupled with wages remaining the same or falling as a reason for the increasing numbers of people forced to use them.
Derbyshire County Council Funding Food Banks, Criticised by Edwina Currie
The programme mentioned the government’s view that the best way out of poverty was through work, and their statement that unemployment was falling. However, the programme pointed out that official figures show that 9.8 million people were living in relative poverty, that is, they had an income below 60 per cent of the British average. They also spoke to Julie Hirst, the Public Health Specialist on Derbyshire County Council. Previously the council had been concerned about healthy eating. Now they were worried about ‘food poverty’ – that people were not eating at all. As a result the county was investing £126,000 pound for its public health budget into food banks. They then invited one of the critics of food banks, Edwina Currie, to one run by a church pastor, Christian Thorpe, who church feeds 60 people a week. Currie was polite, but made her disapproval of the whole affair very clear. Shown the stores of food at the bank, she immediately picked at some of the items, asking whether they should really be giving food like it to the hungry. She objected to food banks, because they weren’t teaching people to live within their means, plan for a rainy day and not get into debt. Pastor Thorpe stated that they were indeed working with other agencies to teach people responsibility. Currie then stated that she felt food banks were ‘a bit of a trap’, and said that there wasn’t a need for food banks. She said that there should be more help for people with problems, but said that she didn’t believe there was food poverty. It was all due to people making the wrong choices. People, according to Currie, were not making the right, responsible choice because they knew they could get free food. Back in Bristol, Andy Irwin rebutted Currie’s remarks. 23 per cent of the people they saw, the largest single group of users, were people who had problems with their benefit, such as it being stopped. This was confirmed by the Citizens’ Advice Bureau. The government, however, denied that there was any link between their reforms and the increasing numbers of people forced to look for free food. They repeated the line that their reforms were encouraging the unemployed to find work.
People Forced to Use Food Banks Through Sanctions
The programme also spoke to Ian Hoswell, a man who had been sanctioned by the Jobcentre and had his benefit stopped for three months after he missed three interviews. McIntyre reported that for breaking the rules, you could have your benefit stopped for the minimum of a month to the maximum of three years. He also reported that the DWP had said that the conditions were made clear to claimants, and that they could apply for hardship payments and loans. Hoswell had applied for a hardship loan, but as you don’t get this for a fortnight, he had been forced to sell his CDs in order to eat. He was forced to go to the Matthew Tree for food because the £46 odd hardship payment left very little left over after he had paid his bills and also bought cigarettes. An increasing number of people are in Hoswell’s position. The programme cited government statistics that last year 875,000 people were sanctioned. They interviewed the founder of the Matthew Tree, Mark Goodway, who said that the people they saw were those who had no money. He felt that, while it could be debated whether the sanctioned claimants should have the money, they shouldn’t be starved while this was done. Back in London, Burrowes admitted that he realised that people went to food banks because they had no money, and that for many it was because they had been sanctioned, but the government was working to supply local authorities with funds for hardship payments.
McIntyre reported the ‘shocking statistic’ that in 11 months, over 133,000 sanctions had been overturned on appeal. This was almost 400 every day. It can, however, take weeks to overturn the DWP’s decision, during which time the sanctioned claimants were left with little or no money. He spoke to Dr David Webster, of Glasgow University, who has investigated and strongly criticised the immense number of people sanctioned by the government. He stated that there would be many more sanctions overturned if more people appealed. He also stated that part of the problem was the bureaucratic procedure, which people had to negotiate to overturn their sanctions, during which time they had little or no money. He stated baldly that people who started poor, would be driven into complete destitution. He talked to Susan Harkins, a woman with a partner and two young children. They had been forced onto benefit after her husband became to ill to do his job, and she lost hers. They were wrongly sanctioned, and placed on a low income of about £63 a week due to a clerical error. She stated that this meant that she and her husband had gone for days at a time in order to feed their children. They eventually managed to get the sanctioned overturned, but by that time they had been on an extremely low income for three months. She stated that her in opinion, such sanctions were simply a way for the government to save money.
Government Sanction Targets
In support of this statement, McIntyre showed the wall chart showing savings from sanctions, that was on display at a Jobcentre in Grantham last year. According to this, one three-month sanction would save £932. They spoke to Charles Law, of the Public and Commercial Services Union. Law stated that the government tells their members that there wasn’t a target, but then expects them to do the same as a cluster of other job centres over a week or month. He stated what was obvious: this was a target.
Needless to say, this was denied by the government, who said that the wall chart was only an isolated incident, which did not reflect policy, and that there were no targets for sanctions. Most of the decisions were correct, and the appeals process was an important part of the systems safeguards.
Part-Time Workers also Using Food Banks
McIntyre also reported that it wasn’t just the unemployed, who were forced to use food banks. He spoke to another Bristolian, Lisa Hall, who lived in one of the city’s suburbs. She worked in McDonalds, and had been forced to go to a food bank after going for days without food. Although she took home £900 a month, she was left with only a tenner a week after paying bills and debts. Her children had left home, and so with two empty bedrooms she had been hit by the government’s ‘bedroom tax’. They asked her the obvious question: why didn’t she move. She replied strongly that she didn’t want to, and explained at length that it was her home. She had managed to get another job, delivering pizzas, that kept her working sometimes till four in the morning. This meant she was earning enough not to need the food bank.
Food Banks funded by One Third of All Councils
McIntyre reported the government’s statement that food banks were not part of the welfare system. The lines were, however, increasingly blurred. In IDS’ own constituency of Chingford in London, the two councils which comprised it were spending £70,000 a year on food banks. The film-makers had contacted every council in the country, and 140 of them – a third – had confirmed that they were funding food banks. In the last two years, £2.9 million had been devoted to combating food poverty in the UK.
The Government’s Statement on Food Banks, but No Interview Given
The Trussell Trust’s Chris Mould stated that the concerns that food banks were becoming a part of the welfare state were valid, and that they should be tackled by politicians. Elizabeth Dowler of Warwick University declared that they were ‘an inadequate plaster over a gaping wound’ and the fact that they were being presented as a solution was ‘deeply immoral’. McIntyre said that they had tried to get someone from the cabinet to talk about their investigation into food banks, and had been shunted from pillar to post. The Department for Work and Pensions referred them to the Cabinet Office, and the Cabinet Office referred them back to the DWP. They were then referred back to the Prime Minister’s own press team at 10 Downing Street. They were not, however, given an interview. The government simply issued a statement that local authorities were now responsible for giving emergency help, and that they were being given additional funding to pay for it. It was giving help to families with the cost of living, and that thanks to its reforms three million households would be better off.
Do We Want People to Have to Survive on Food Hand-Outs?
The programme ended with Bishop David Walker saying that a clear statement from the government was needed whether or not food banks were part of the system, and if they were, how they could be improved. They reported some good news with the people they had interviewed using the food banks. Steve Hudson had now found work at a bar in Bristol’s city centre, while Lisa now had a full time job with B&Q. McIntyre ended with the statement that there was no doubt food banks are here to stay, and that they have helped very many people. He then asked the question, ‘Do we want to live in a society where people survive on food hand outs?’
Here’s the video
It can also be seen on Youtube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKVPwdNVb4s. The video is on a channel by someone called Theworkprogramme, who has posted a number of other documentaries and excerpts also tackling poverty in contemporary Britain.
It was a very, very good documentary, and did show the immense hardship experience by people due to the government’s welfare reforms. For that reason, I expect that it has already attracted the ire of the Tory faithful, who believe that the Beeb is composed entirely of liberals, Leftists and Commies dedicated to destroying British values. I do have some criticisms, however.
Firstly, I don’t trust the government statistics showing that unemployment is falling. Mike’s devoted a lot of time on his blog, as have a number of other Left-wingers on theirs, showing that these figures are the result of manipulation and falsification. The government’s figures only deal with those, who have been unemployed for under a year and are on a particular type of benefit. Those, who have been unemployed for longer and placed on the Work Programme are not counted as unemployed.
Then there’s the government’s statement that hardship payments are available for those, who have been sanctioned. This is another falsehood. While it may have been true when the documentary was made, the hardship payments are now being withdrawn. See Johnny Void’s pieces on this. Moreover, they were another benefit, about which claimants were not told by the Jobcentre staff.
As for help being available for families, this is being cut all the time. Mike and the other blogger have also extensively demolished the government’s claims that their reforms will make three million people better off. The fact that no-one from the government wanted to be interviewed seems to demonstrate that the government knows this is a lie, and really don’t want to have to face any intensive questioning on this issue.
As for the question of whether we want a society where people have to survive on food hand-outs, my guess is that the government does. The unemployed in several American states are given food stamps, rather than a welfare cheque, and it seems to me that food banks are being used in the same way here. It’s a way of punishing and humiliating the poor for their own poverty, exactly as it was intended to be.
As you might expect, I was also resoundingly unimpressed by Edwina Currie. She clearly was there simply to parrot the government’s line that poverty was all due to people’s own wrong choices. This is the attitude of the American Conservatives towards the grinding poverty that exists in the land of the free. One of the contributors to Lobster in one of its articles mentioned how it never ceases to amaze him about the way American deluded themselves about the cause of poverty there. He had been in a commercial conference in one of the American cities. During the conference, there was a report on the local news that 50,000 local citizens were homeless. When he asked one of the American attending the conference about how that could possibly occur, he was blandly told that they had all chosen to be homeless. Her comments also showed the strong influence of social Darwinism and 19th century notions of the deserving and undeserving poor, as well as a doctrinaire adherence to the party line that there was no link between the government’s reforms and poverty. It was also evident from the outset that she was not going to give the food bank a fair hearing by the way she picked around some of the articles and pointedly asked whether the bank should be giving such foods – like biscuits – to the poor and starving.
But then, my impression is that for all her Oxbridge education, Edwina has never been the sharpest knife in the kitchen cabinet. I’ve mentioned before how she looked bewildered when she was booed on Clive Anderson’s show on Channel 4 after making sharp comments about pensioners This was along the lines of ‘that’ll teach them to wrap up’, after he had asked her about her remark when in government telling them to wrap up warm when Major’s administration cut the cold weather payment for the elderly. She also made the mistake of locking horns with Ian Hislop a decade or so ago on Have I Got News For You. She was talking about how she had one a court case against someone for libel. She turned on the editor of Lord Gnome’s much-sued organ, and said, ‘Aren’t you glad I didn’t sue you?’ To this Hislop replied, ‘Aren’t you glad, my dear.’ I will give her some credit, however. Unlike IDS, Cameron, McVey or anyone else from the government, she did actually turn up and speak on camera. The others just seem to have hidden in the cabinet office and issued a press release in the hope it would all go away.
Unfortunately, it won’t. The poverty and starvation the government is wilfully creating is here to stay, and as long as it does, it should be criticised and challenged, along with the government, whose punitive cruelty creates it.