A report by Human Rights Watch this week accused the Government of breaching its international duty to keep people from hunger through its “cruel and harmful policies”. Sadly, it will come as no surprise to those using the West Favell food bank in Northampton, as Natalie Bloomer and Samir Jeraj report.
Sarah (not her real name) walks into the Weston Favell food bank in Northampton pushing a double buggy.
Bundled up inside, is a tiny baby and a lively toddler. Before she tells staff why she is there, she is offered a cup of tea and some toast. She gratefully takes the tea and passes the toast straight to the little girl in the pushchair.
“I’m really tired,” she says. “I’ve been up all through the night with the kids and I’ve just had to catch two buses to get here.”
Sarah has five children all under nine, and the toddler who is now happily sucking on her toast, has had a string of illnesses.
Shortly after giving birth to her youngest daughter five weeks ago, Sarah was rushed into hospital for an emergency operation to remove a retained placenta. She says this happened on the same day she was due to attend a meeting for the Universal Credit benefit.
Who would create a system like this? It’s just crazy, people are going hungry. Who would think any of this was a good idea?Food bank user
“I had a choice to make,” she says. “Either go to the appointment or do what the doctors were telling me to do. So, I went to the hospital. As soon as I came out of theatre I called them to explain, but they said it was too late. I was sanctioned.”
She says that her doctor also called to confirm what had happened, but he was told that the decision wouldn’t be changed.
This isn’t the first time Sarah has been sanctioned. It has happened before when her toddler was in hospital.
“It’s really stressful,” she says. “I wouldn’t be coping without help from my mother-in-law. They think I might have post-natal depression now, I’m sure all this hasn’t helped.”
Sarah waits with her tea while her food parcel is prepared and the staff move on to the next person that’s arrived.
It’s a man sitting alone in the corner of the room.
He tells the staff that he was previously on Job Seeker’s Allowance, but signed off because he found a job. He had been expecting one last payment from the job centre, which would have paid for his bus fare to work for the first week, but there was a mix up and he never received it. This meant he couldn’t get to work and he had to sign on again – only this time he had to claim Universal Credit.
“We were already struggling,” he says. “Now there’s this five-week wait. Me and my partner haven’t had a proper meal since Friday [it’s now Wednesday], we’ve just been having the odd sandwich. Everything else is saved for the kids.”
He says the stress is taking its toll on his health.
“I’m just so stressed, I’ve got this constant headache and I’m not sleeping. We’ve got debts and stuff and this is just making it all worse.”
The roll-out of Universal Credit in Northampton began in November 2017.
It took a while for the impact to be felt, but around half of the people visiting the food bank today mention it as part of the reason why they are there.
Another man we speak to says that the amount of money he was entitled to dropped when he was switched onto the new benefit. As a former problematic drug user, he has struggled in the past to manage his finances. Because of this, he requested that his rent be paid directly to his landlord like his housing benefit had been previously.
“I knew I wouldn’t cope with it all being paid to me in a lump sum,” he says. “But when I asked them to pay it to the landlord, they said I needed to be behind with my rent before they could do it. How stupid is that? I had to get in debt before they’d help.”
The way the UK Government has handled its reduction in welfare spending has left parents unable to feed their children in the fifth-largest economy in the world.Kartik Raj, Human Rights Watch
The biggest operator of food banks in the UK, the Trussell Trust, says that, when taken together, Universal Credit and benefit changes and delays are the main reasons for people seeking emergency food parcels.
This week, a damning new report by Human Rights Watch found that cuts to welfare since 2010 have resulted in tens of thousands of families being left without enough food – something the group says is a breach of the Government’s duty to ensure the right to adequate food.
“The way the UK Government has handled its reduction in welfare spending has left parents unable to feed their children in the fifth-largest economy in the world,” Western Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch, Kartik Raj, said.
Universal Credit isn’t the only benefit that is causing problems.
Another issue that repeatedly comes up at the Northampton food bank is disability benefits being stopped or reduced.
A woman with a walking frame is waiting to be seen.
She has MS, osteoarthritis, incontinence issues and mental health problems. She says that when she was on her previous benefits, Disability Living Allowance (DLA), she received £440 per month. But, this changed when she was moved onto Personal Independence Payments (PIP). She now receives just £90.
“I’ve been waiting 32 weeks for a tribunal hearing,” she says, pulling a letter from her pocket. “I requested an urgent hearing but, look, it was denied because they said there were no exceptional circumstances.”
Before staff move on to the next person, she quietly asks if they have any large incontinence towels in stock. “I call them my nappies”, she says. “The normal sized ones aren’t any good, I need the big ones, it would really help if you have some.”
I’m just so stressed, I’ve got this constant headache and I’m not sleeping. We’ve got debts and stuff and this is just making it all worse.Food bank user
As more and more people struggle just to get by, food banks are being forced not only to provide essential food and toiletries, but also baby products and advisory services.
In Northampton, a different organisation is on hand to help each week. Sometimes it’s a housing adviser, other times a debt specialist or someone who can help people to keep their energy costs down. But, as demand increases, it is getting harder to ensure that everybody gets what they need.
At Christmas, staff were worried whether they would have enough space to store all the donations they were getting in but, just months later, they are regularly running out of basic items like chopped tomatoes and pasta sauce. They say they are receiving around the same amount of food as they were this time last year, but so many more people are arriving in need of help.
Food banks have become an important lifeline to people across the country but they are also a symptom of policy failure.
As one man who comes in for help asks: “Who would create a system like this? It’s just crazy, people are going hungry. Who would think any of this was a good idea?”