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By Jeinsen Lam, Housing Solicitor, South West London Law Centres
For the past 6 weeks SWLLC have been taking part in Q&A sessions following the successful run of a new play by Tara Osman called ‘Food Bank as it is’. As the title suggests this is a play based upon the real life stories of people driven by circumstance and poverty to obtaining emergency food from food banks.
The Trussell Trust recently reported that they distributed 1,183,000 three-day emergency food parcels to people in crisis which represents an increase of 6.4% on the previous year’s total (1,109,000). It is worth noting that in 2008/2009 only 25899 emergency food parcels were distributed.
Research by the Trussell Trust suggests that the causes of food bank usage are primarily low income 26%, Benefit delays 26%, Benefit changes 16%, other 8% and Debt 7%. It is our experience that there is a clear link between social security policy and the rise in food bank usage and other social issues such as rising homelessness, evictions and child poverty.
Take for example the rise in the use of Sanctions. In the year up to March 2016 310,000 people on Job Seekers Allowance/Universal Credit had their benefits stopped through sanctioning. Whilst this is lower than the high in 2014 of 1,041,000 (Job Seekers Allowance) it is inevitable that where a persons only means of support are removed they are driven to food banks.
Additionally the cumulative effect of measures that reduce household income such as benefit caps, bedroom tax, limiting child benefit/tax credits to two children and other measures such as the 6 week wait for universal credit or the increased use of benefit sanctions all result in many working people and families being unable to meet their essential living costs.
To compound matters, the government’s decision in 2013 to remove advice for debt and welfare benefits from the scope of legal aid means that many people affected by arbitrary or unlawful benefit decisions are deprived of the ability to effectively challenge the local authority/benefit agencies and restore their claim.
In our experience the failure to deal with problems holistically and nip problems in the bud means that often people on low incomes find that their problems snowball and escalate to crisis point, such as eviction, before they can obtain assistance. Staff at charities and food banks may try to help, but the need far outweighs available resources.
It is worth noting that in 2012/2013 76,766 debt cases and 85,194 welfare benefit cases we opened through legal aid. After the government removed both debt and welfare benefit work from legal aid in 2013 the numbers for debt/welfare benefit cases dropped to 2375 and 163 respectively in the following year.
The absence of legal aid means access to justice is severely effected for people within the benefit system and there is a severe lack of accountability for decision makers in local government and job centres.
It is in the context of these cuts to legal aid and social security that many people fall through the safety net and find themselves visiting the food bank. The dehumanising nature of the benefit system and the embarrassment people experience from being unable to feed themselves (often for reasons beyond their control) and their children and being forced to use a food bank is a palpable.
What is striking about ‘Food Bank as it Is’ is that it drives home the message that for many people the social security safety net is the difference between fundamental things such as your children eating or being able to heat your home or being able to pay your rent.
It is as much about a benefit system that is broken as it is about warning people effected cut across society and that the issues the clients in the play face are things that anyone of us could experience such as depression, loss of employment or domestic violence.
More fundamentally the play asks an important question of whether we as a country are happy to support a system where a man who has suffered a stroke and can barely stand can be passed fit for work or that in a six month period last year over 1.7 million emergency meals were handed out to children.
Watching ‘Food Bank as it is’ the visceral anger with how did we got to this point is matched only by the general compassion of the writer and desire for things to change. As a Law Centre we can only applaud the team involved in this production for attempting to educate and inform the public debate on the need for reform within the benefit system.
However just as Ken Loach’s I Danial Blake, which came before it, opened a window into a world of ‘conscious cruelty’ and dehumanising entrenched poverty the question inevitably is what do we as lawyers, writers, bloggers etc do to address the problems highlighted by the play and if we do nothing are we complicit in the suffering we so abhor?
If you would like to make a difference, please support the organisations that struggle daily to help the people caught up in this cycle of poverty, by either giving time as a volunteer or making a donation.
You can donate to South West London Law Centres, assisting people with their legal rights including benefits issues, online here or by texting SWLC01 £5 / £10 / £20 to 70070.
Your local food bank would also gratefully receive donations of food or funds, please contact them through their websites: