Though the UK is the seventh richest country in the world, half a million households right here on our doorstep need emergency food aid.
Ever wondered how you’d cope if you lost your job or fell ill? Or if a broken cooker pushed you into debt, tipping you over the edge into rent arrears? Or perhaps an error in the social security system meant your income was suddenly stopped for two whole months with no warning, no explanation and no apology. Are you confident that you could still put food on the table?
I have spent the past few months meeting families hit by just these scenarios. And now, my confidence in the British ‘social safety net’ that I thought could catch me in such times of crisis has been stretched thin as the net itself. As our report reveals today, it is at our peril that we take for granted the frayed system which now too often penalises, rather than supports those most in need.
Meeting working mum Lorna Sculley (pictured above) in Tower Hamlets, London hammered this home for me. Lorna works as a school dinner lady, but doesn’t earn enough to have a secure, regular income so receives benefits to top up her low wage. When the benefits office miscategorised her application a few months back, they stopped all of her payments without warning for months, sending her spiralling into debt. She was unable to obtain any help from the local authority, and was refused a crisis loan. As a dinner lady, Lorna was so embarrassed by the fact she could no longer afford her
son’s lunches that she held him back from school. It was her son’s school that referred her to the local food bank for help.
I don’t have children myself, but I don’t have to stretch my imagination far to understand how that must feel. “I was very ashamed” was what Lorna told me; “I couldn’t do what a mum should do; feed my children.”
I too feel deeply ashamed by Lorna’s story. But it is shame at the failure of what should be a functioning and compassionate system of state support. It takes guts to take yourself and your children into a food bank and ask for help, and it is an appalling situation to find yourself in. We should all be ashamed that Lorna was not offered the dignity of any other solution, and was forced instead to ask for food handouts.
Over the past few months, I have been struck again and again by the bravery and the commitment of people like Lorna to speak out and name the injustices which are keeping families like hers’ in poverty. Like Lorna, Jack Monroe (pictured above) also struggled through last winter with no central heating, feeding herself and her toddler on just ten pounds a week. Today, Jack is a passionate spokeswoman for Oxfam on the causes of food poverty in the UK. Next Monday, both Lorna and Jack are travelling to the Houses of Parliament, to give testimony to a group of MPs and journalists at an
event on UK hunger organised by the new Just Fair consortium, which Oxfam has helped organise.
Support our call for the government to act now
So today, ahead of this event, Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty and the Trussell Trust are raising the red flag and calling on the government to act urgently – please support us in doing so by writing to your MP. The sharply rising numbers of people seeking help from food banks in a
wealthy UK is not only shameful, it is the most potent and visible symptom of a failing social security system. We believe the rising numbers of food bank referrals from state agencies; from job centres, social services and GPs is extremely disturbing. We are moving towards a UK in which Job Centre Plus can sanction a person’s benefits with the one hand, and give them a food bank voucher with the other. This doesn’t help a person get out of the crisis they are in, and it certainly doesn’t help their self-esteem and dignity.
I hope that next week in Parliament Jack and Lorna will ask some difficult questions, and get the answers from MPs that they, and thousands others deserve.