I’ve been working hard on a new book this week, but I did find time to vote today (Labour – we have a very good local candidate in my humble town). I also went to the nearby town of Clay Cross to research an article on foodbanks in the UK.
I wanted to do this because I was out with my daughter shopping at Tescos last weekend, when we came across some volunteers from the Trussell Trust in Clay Cross, who were asking shoppers to donate food.
Of course I’d heard about the growth of food banks in the UK, but this was the first time that I’d ever come across people asking for donations in this way. I donated, but I was also disgusted, not with the volunteers, but with a society and a government that has allowed such things to happen.
I also know Clay Cross. It’s a former mining town, where the Labour council once became nationally famous in 1972 because it refused to implement the Heath government’s ‘Fair Rent Act’ and raise rents for council house residents. Like many former mining towns and villages, it’s fallen on hard times, which weren’t helped by the closure of the Biwaters engineering firm in 2000, which was bought by a French firm and asset-stripped, despite some serious lobbying by the local MP Harry Barnes.
I taught adult ed at the local community centre there for a few years, so I thought it would be a good idea to do a piece about the local foodbank, which I’m currently working on.
Anyway, I went out there and spoke to the volunteers, who all emanated good cheer, as people who are helping their fellow human beings instead of ignoring or exploiting them often do. Only two service users came in that evening, though the centre has fed more than a thousand people since last August, and generally gets a lot more.
I spoke to one client, who I shall call Bernard. He told me he had gone nearly two weeks without any money, after his benefits had been cut, apparently because he hadn’t applied for one job that was presented to him – among many that he did apply for.
Bernard said that he never got the letter telling him about it, and in any case the sanction has been imposed till the beginning of July. So until then, unless he wins an appeal, or gets £29 hardship fund, he will have to live off nothing except the vouchers issued to him by the job centre, which enable him to get food from the Trussell Trust three to four times only.
Meanwhile, his flat is currently without gas or electricity because he has no money for the meter. Bernard wants to work, but there aren’t jobs, except temporary or zero hours contracts. He is 38 years old, and left school without any qualifications. But last year he finished an access course that enabled him to get a university place, studying youth work, which he didn’t take up because of the cost – and because youth workers are taking a huge pay cut.
Clearly the Trussell Trust are doing great work, but that is nothing to congratulate ourselves about. Because the seventh largest economy in the world should not be a country where people are having to go to foodbanks to survive, and volunteers should not have to collect food from shoppers to ensure that people without food or money don’t starve.
Once upon a time, local and national governments were supposed to do that. But tragically, too many people have allowed themselves to be corrupted by Lord Snooty and his Pals, and swallowed tabloid bile about shirkers and strivers, and benefit scroungers, Bulgarian migrants, Abu Qatada, foreign students, and all the other enemies/parasites de jour.
The result is a society that victimizes the poor and the powerless to an extent that has not been seen since the early nineteenth century; a society that is divesting itself of even the most basic connections of solidarity, empathy and humanity that make social life meaningful; a society that wants to take away housing benefit from the unemployed, health care from migrants, tvs from prisoners, pensions from pensioners, disability support from the disabled; a society that judges the value of every institution only by how much it costs ‘the taxpayer.’
None of this was necessary. None of it was inevitable. But we allowed it to happen. And if we don’t find a way to make it stop, many more people may find themselves obliged to pick up their vouchers to feed themselves and their children – including people who don’t believe it could possibly happen to them.