Easter Message from the Malice on Sunday: Let’s Start Bashing the True Christianity-in-Action of the Trussell Trust and Labelling its Malnourished Service Users as “Food Parcel Scroungers”!
May Ross Slater, Simon Murphy, Sanchez Manning, Geordie Greig, Paul Dacre and all those at the Mail Group hang their heads in shame for trying to undermine the vital humanitarian –and true Christian– auspices of the Trussell Trust in its intervention to try and prevent OVER FOUR MILLION (!) British citizens suffering malnourishment in the Tory-created hunger crisis, by a hyperbolic ‘undercover’ report on alleged lacks of checks for genuine need with regards to the distribution of food parcels. That this piece of poverty-intolerant ‘food bank’-bashing was published on Easter Sunday really does put it up there in the Mail Hall of Shame, just under the permanent No. 1 non-mover of HURRAH FOR THE BLACKSHIRTS! (penned by Mail owner Lord Rothmere in 1934).
The Recusant asks: What kind of creatures go to such trouble to sift around in the bargain bin-ends provided to the nation’s undernourished, not to highlight the moral disgrace of such auspices being necessitated in one of the richest economies on earth, but to try and weed out evidence that such provisions might be being taken advantage of by some mythical rogue minority? Answer: the dregs of the gutter-journalist community, those ‘yobs of the byline’ at the Malice on Sunday. For this latest offence against common decency dressed up as a ‘news’ article and unleashed on the public on Easter Sunday, in a desperate and utterly contemptible attempt to deflect from the growing moral scandal of “Food Bank Britain”, was apparently the result of some ‘undercover’ investigative journalism, which involved one of the Mail on Sunday’s hacks sniffing around at a Trussell Trust food bank to try and find some reason to besmirch said charity for fecklessly exposing itself to ‘abuse’ by a new mythical breed of “food parcel scroungers” –who are, nevertheless, as difficult to rifle out as the proverbial truffles in the woods.
The largely spurious propaganda about “benefit scroungers” has driven the most morally reprehensible and vicious welfare cuts in history, that have in turn led to an epidemic dependency of hundreds of thousands of both unemployed and underemployed families to rely on food banks to survive, to over 2 million families living in food poverty, and to thousands of suicides. But now those very victims of the mass pauperisation inflicted by Iain Duncan Schmidt’s Department for War on the Poor (DWP) are being tailed by Paul Dacre’s gutter-hacks to their one sanctuary of sustenance, in an attempt to mythologise a whole new shadow-projected breed of social scapegoat: the “food parcel scrounger”!
Is there nothing that the Mail won’t stoop to in pushing its Malthusian agenda against the poor, unemployed, sick and disabled of this nation? Not content with an extreme right-wing Tory-led Government which it supports having driven hundreds of thousands of citizens to the desperation and humiliation of relying on food banks for basic survival, due to the deluge of fiscal attacks on the poor in the form of welfare caps, undiscriminating benefits sanctions, medically illegitimate Atos “fit for work” decisions and the morally reprehensible bedroom tax, all deemed acceptable by and popular with the public, on the bluntly fascistic notion that any kind of pecuniary and nutritional need automatically makes one a “scrounger”, Geordie Greig and Paul Dacre’s scabrous neo-Malthusian rags are now sending in undercover reporters to try and undermine the vital work of charities such as the Trussell Trust –brought into existence due to the Government’s wholesale abandonment of any responsibility for the poorest– by claiming to have uncovered evidence that food banks are now being taken advantage of by a whole new shadow-projected breed of “food parcel spongers” or “voucher scroungers”!
These are the depths of misanthropic mean-mindedness into which vile right-wing hate-rags such as the Mail –and the Express et al– have tipped the already grossly distorted and imbalanced ‘welfare anti-debate’: the poor, the incapacitated, the desperate, the suicidal –none of these victims of unnecessary and ideologically-driven Tory austerity cuts are being allowed to find sanctuary anywhere in a society that only seems to be ‘Big’ enough for a vindictive rich and propertied to throw their judgemental weight around condemning the vulnerable as “undeserving” rather than trying to show them compassion and support. THIS is the deeply twisted, morally bankrupt and poverty-intolerant society which only last week David Cameron, our Pontius Pilate prime minister, had the utter effrontery to tag to the teachings of Jesus Christ! Yes, this most flagrantly anti-Christian of societies, where the victims of a deliberate government-driven mass-pauperisation are continually and without any humanity depicted by the plutocratic political elites and their right-wing newspaper cheerleaders as having “chosen” their circumstances, and punished accordingly with even greater poverty and shadow-projected opprobrium and stigmatisation; this pitiful Dickensian excuse for a society was, according to the Pinocchio prime minister presiding over it, “created by Christ”.
Well, The Recusant has already comprehensively debunked that perverse claim, which we would argue is tantamount to rhetorical sacrilege against the ethical legacy of Christ –and the 27 Anglican leaders who wrote an open letter to Cameron recently expressing their disgust at the proliferation of food banks and their escalating use in one of the richest economies in the world, would seem to have come to the same verdict. Not even Thatcher’s sledgehammer of a government was besieged so regularly and on such a scale by Church leaders.
Just at the point Cameron made his criminally counterintuitive claim that the ‘Big Society’ was “invented by Christ” (notably missing out the 'Anti'- prefix), followed swiftly by his counterintuitive cant in the Church Times, the Church of England and the English Catholic Church were both holding perhaps the most politicised Lents in modern British political history, emphatically practiced in the cause of highlighting the epidemic of malnourishment among hundreds of thousands of families, under the End Hunger Fast campaign banner. But, of course, in our indefatigably judgemental, poverty-intolerant society, whose public is daily duped by the reprehensible propaganda and sheer lies of an almost uniformly right-wing media, the still small voices of churches and charities –supposed to be the very pivots of Cameron’s sanctimonious and duplicitous ‘Big Society’ phantom-construct– are no match, in purely worldly terms, for the Yahoo-ish hectoring of the red- and black-tops.
To which, The Recusant wishes to know exactly when Greig and Dacre’s eugenics-greased black-top rags will finally drop their pretence of being a newspapers compatible with civilised society, Christian decency and basic democracy, drop their ‘gentrified fascist’ images and put their mothballed Blackshirts back on, so we can all at least know where we stand, but more particularly, where Dacre and his Orcish hordes of hack- ‘reporters’ actually stand. Just when some of us thought that no paper, no matter how intrinsically misanthropic, anti-democratic and vicious as Greig and Dacre’s, could stoop quite so low as the Daily Express in terms of ‘Scroungerganda’, the Mailthusian on Sunday finally trumps even Desmond’s ‘fascist-porn’ comic-strip by mythologizing a whole new spurious pedigree of ‘social parasite’ to add to its catalogue of pauperised scapegoats: the “food parcel scrounger”.
What is next up the Mail Group’s sleeve? Will it be the street homeless being accused of 'cardboard-scrounging'? Or perhaps the already persecuted sick and disabled further disparaged as ‘medication scroungers’ or ‘sponger-cripples’? Will the Mailthusian start lashing out at the 40,000+ sick and disabled claimants who died within six weeks of being declared “fit to work” by Atos over the past four years for cluttering up our graveyards and smoking out our crematoriums? Will it lash out at the hundreds of suicides among the mentally ill tipped over the edge by the remorseless atomism of the Work Capability Assessment regime as just so many “sob stories” designed to drag down the national mood? What is most disturbing is that such questions are plausibly rhetorical, given the sheer vileness of this paper’s record to date.
Nothing and no one is sacred when it comes to Dacre’s Crusade to finish off the last tottering outposts of compassionate social democracy at the fag-end of a Thatcherite revolution of attitudes which is almost complete under this moral abomination of a government. But a government which, of course, let us not forget, isn’t right-wing enough for the likes of Dacre! THAT is just how pathologically right-wing the editor of the Mail actually is: we might indeed term this new form of ‘acceptable’ lampblack fascism as ‘Dacreism’, to go alongside the new Falangism, or ‘Faragism’. Clearly the likes of Dacre and Greig won’t be satisfied until unemployment is made a criminal offence, the poor, benefit claimants and the sick and disabled disenfranchised from suffrage, immigrants shipped out en masse from Blighty, and processions of Blackshirts stomping through the streets of every city hoisting the new Swastika Jack.
No matter which side one takes politically today, there is simply no getting round the indisputable template upon which both the Tories and the right-wing tabloids such as the Mail and Express base their persecutory scapegoat propaganda: Nazi anti-Semitism. For where is the difference in terms of chilling logic and rhetorical application between Hitler blaming the economic collapse and cultural paralysis of Thirties Germany on the Jews, and today’s Tories blaming the economic collapse and cultural paralysis on the unemployed? Even the lexicons are identical: just as the Tories and Tory newspapers are doing today, the Nazis stigmatised many Jews and ‘undesirables’ –including gypsies, travellers, the disabled and the mentally ill (all latter day scapegoat targets of the Daily Express and Mail)– as “workshy”, or ‘arbeitsscheu’; papers such as the Mail and Express frequently use such terms as "workshy", “spongers” and “parasites” when talking of the unemployed –both terms used amply by the British eugenicists of the Thirties, as well as the Fascists. It can only be a matter of time before the British red-tops start to use the term “vermin” when speaking of those on benefits. Incontrovertibly, and to the shame of British society, the Dole is today’s ‘Jude’.
The Recusant will also remind those reading this that the Mail’s editor, Paul Dacre, is STILL in his demonstrably unmeritorious position as Chair of the Editor’s Code of Practice Committee, which ‘advises’ the toothless Press Complaints Commission! You couldn’t make it up could you? Not only are Dacre’s political views and social attitudes, as amplified through the Mailthusian, unsavourily right-wing in the extreme, but he is also of course still in opprobrium following his paper’s anti-Semitic slander of the Milibands, for which he has still yet to have the courage to answer, and the PCC, as ever, lack the cojones to hold him accountable over on pain of losing his preposterously unmerited Chairmanship of the ECPC.
To have Dacre as Chair of the Editor’s Code of Practice is rather like appointing Nigel Farage as Multiculturalism Tsar. But clearly Dacre, as is so typical of today’s antinomian elites –a distinctly un-illumined ‘illuminati’– believes himself to be above the moral checks and balances of the common hoi polloi –and, apparently, if the complete lack of any accountability expected of him by the PCC, he is above them. Dacre, along with Commandant in Chief of the Department for War on the Poor, Herr Iain Duncan Schmidt, are our society’s fulminating petit-Fuhrers who will have their fascist ways by stamping their feet in private tantrums while spewing out spurious and hate-filled propaganda against the poor, unemployed, sick and disabled (those they see as comprising a ‘social residuum’ and who are today effectively stripped of their human rights) through their various auspices.
The offending Malice on Sunday hate-article –which is frankly too attitudinally vile and morally offensive to excerpt from– was titled ‘No ID, no checks... and vouchers for sob stories: The truth behind those shock food bank claims’ –once again, only an extreme right-wing paper as the Mail could have the utter heartlessness and plain inhumanity to use a phrase such as ‘sob stories’ in relation to the unacceptable desperation that drives such vast numbers of British citizens to the last resort of having to queue up for free food parcels. As one Tweeter rightly put it –to paraphrase: The scandal isn’t to do with any so-called “scroungers” at food banks, but the fact that food banks have to exist at all!’ Hear, hear.
Roy Greenslade took a slightly more optimistic view in his Guardian piece on this latest vicissitude from the rapacious extreme right of our society, by noting how the Mail suffered a mighty Twitter backlash after its contemptible piece of gutter-level propaganda against the nation’s most impoverished people –and actually had the opposite effect of inspiring a whole new round of donations to the Trussell Trust to the tune of £50,000 –maybe this vile piece, published, most despicably, on Easter Sunday, was some sort of circuitous promotion for the charity, since most of the public realises, if the Mail or its Sunday twin criticises something, it must therefore be worthy of support:
There is an increasingly interesting power struggle between the national press – wrongly labelled in past times as "the mass media" – and its democratic digital replacement, "the media of the masses".
Although newspapers are still able to set the news agenda, they now have to come to terms with the fact that people have platforms that enable them to not only answer back but also switch the agenda.
So it was yesterday when the Mail on Sunday was confronted by widespread anger across social media, notably Twitter, over its two-page article about food banks. The paper's "special investigation", headlined "No ID, no checks … and vouchers for sob stories: the truth behind those shock food bank claims", suggested that claims about the scale of Britain's welfare problems had been exaggerated.
Three MoS reporters, Simon Murphy, Sanchez Manning and Ross Slater, revealed that Britain's biggest food bank provider, the Trussell Trust, had failed to run proper checks on people claiming food parcels. It was therefore being abused by "scroungers". One of the trio, Slater, reported how he got three days of food simply by telling staff at a Citizens Advice bureau, without providing any proof, that he was unemployed.
The report also claimed that many food parcel claimants were asylum seekers, and cast doubt on the trust's claims that almost 1 million people would use one of its food banks this year, up 163% on the previous year.
Reaction against the MoS's anti-food bank message was swift. The Twittersphere hummed with anger as people argued that the article discredited the mission of food banks to help the poor. One tweet said: "No, no Daily Mail [sic]. The scandal isn't that food bank volunteers didn't check your cretins' ID. The scandal is that food banks exist at all."
(Many commenters, incidentally, including the trust itself, named the Daily Mail rather than the Mail on Sunday as the culprit. They are separate entities with different editors).
Several people also put their money where their mouths were by making donations to the Trussell Trust. Before the article was published there had been about 250 public donations to the trust's JustGiving page since late January. In less than a day that jumped to more than 2,800 worth more than £30,000, according to a BuzzFeed report. A number of donors cited the MoS article as the reason for making a contribution.
While the paper took the brunt of the Twitter attacks, the reporters also suffered considerable flak: "Hi @murphy_simon your piece about food banks is the cruellest most disgusting piece of journalism iv ever read even by mos standards congrats."
Journalism graduate Nicole Froio was incensed by Slater's role, writing in her blog: "This report is essentially a non-story. Man pretends to be in need of food, food bank questions him about his unemployment, food bank gives him £40 worth of food to feed his family. So food banks are basically doing their job – what Slater is 'proving' is that there is a minority of people who might take advantage of this system. Which we already know."
I note that Murphy did not take to his Twitter account to respond, nor did Manning. But Slater, in the wake of the furore, returned his food parcel, tweeting: "All food returned to saint Philip church Notts at 0930 plus small donation". His gesture merely earned him, and the paper, yet more expletive-laden abuse.
I tried to reach Slater, a northern-based MoS correspondent, to ask him about his reaction to the Twitter reaction. Was he humbled by it? Does he regret his reporting? No luck at the time of writing. What strikes me, as it must have done him, is the way in which the intention behind the article – to belittle the food bank initiative – was turned on its head by the social media backlash.
But it is important to place "the Twittersphere" in context. By its nature it is not an homogenous entity. It is entirely plausible to imagine that a MoS spread advocating food banks would have generated a huge rightwing reaction on Twitter. That factor alone makes it unlikely that this kind of Twitter storm will result in a change of behaviour by the press.
Reporters in popular papers who are subject to personal attacks may dislike them, but they will argue that they are not wholly responsible for what they write. Editors dictate the agenda.
That said, the MoS editor, Geordie Greig, has a good record on helping the poor. In his previous post as editor of the London Evening Standard he was responsible for the award-winning "Dispossessed" campaign.
I understand he regarded the food bank investigation as a legitimate inquiry to ensure the system was working as it should, and regards the backlash as a relatively minor one.
He is not amused, however, that his paper is widely viewed as being no different from the Daily Mail.
The Recusant notes the crowning irony –not to say moral contradiction– of said Geordie Greig having launched an ‘award-winning’ (why does there have to be an award for everything these days, even for apparently altruistic projects?) “Dispossessed” campaign in the deplorably right-wing Evening Standard of all papers! How is it that so many people in positions of influence just can’t join up the dots of their own duplicities? To go from trying to raise awareness of rising destitution in one paper to then trying to undermine one of the very charities set up specifically to tackle such humanitarian crises smacks almost of split-personality!
Columnist Grace Dent in yesterday’s i (21 April) gave one of the most understandable explanations of her own drift into atheism, while also making a very important point as to the ‘unconditional’ nature of Christian charity in glaring contrast to the Tory –and Liberal and Labour for that matter– notion of “conditionality” in all things, including parcels of processed tinned mush (to which, no one has yet even brought into this debate the fact that, while the mostly tinned food of course keep people alive and just about functioning, and are a vital intervention, the inevitable absence of any fresh foods inescapably means that food parcel recipients will not being ingesting many of the vital vitamins the body also needs in order, for instance, to sustain the immunity system –hence more sickness is, excuse the pun, part-and- parcel of this rapid-response replacement for pecuniary state provision):
I didn’t fall away from religion because a lot of the Bible sounds like a pseudo-Dungeons and Dragons board game, or even because of the advance of very terrible “Christian praise” songs where some local lummox with an electric guitar honks through some piffle he wrote at home in a sub-Coldplay manner. Or even because of those oddballs who fling their hands in the air or weep during sermons, or the ones who rampage about bear-hugging people during “the passing of the peace”. No, what drew me away from religion – and cheers, David, for your Easter Sunday reminder – is the plain, old-fashioned, brass-necked hypocrisy of many Christians.
Because if Cameron is a Christian I won’t need to remind him that the most basic infant-school teachings about Jesus hammer home the belief about unconditional benevolence and compassion. It is all about kindness, feeding the hungry, being kind to the sick and anyone worse off than you. The important word here is “unconditional”. Christianity is the opposite of looking at a starving person and saying: “I could help but you’ve not got form 378a signed, sorry.” Or: “Yes I see you’re starving but shall we have a think about the life-choices you made to get here?” Or: “Look, if I give you food now it’s not a long-term solution, so no.”
If Cameron was to borrow a “Jesus for Dummies” style book from the library, the opening chapters would possibly cover one of Christ’s big crowd-pleasing acts: the feeding of the 5,000. Here, Jesus – yes the same one that Cameron believes in – apparently fed thousands of hungry people, summoning up some sort of Godly spirit to make meagre rations stretch far. A crucial bit of Christianity, that. If you don’t believe that the hungry should be fed unconditionally because all human life is important, and in fact they should starve, then – quite bluntly – you’re not a Christian, so shut up about being one.
On the same day as Cameron was doling out his Godly blessing, a right-leaning newspaper was exposing a “depressing” example of Broken Britain where it found that, if a reporter appears at a food bank purposefully clad in sack cloth and ashes (or, in his case, a scraggy jumper and three day stubble) and telling a tale about having messed up on fuel bills and his wife having no money and his kids going hungry, then the Trussell Trust will give a man a bag of rice, oil, baked beans, cheap biscuits and so on without the correct paperwork. Sounds like Christianity in action to me. But I doubt whether Edwina Curry, Lord Tebbit, Iain Duncan Smith or the plethora of Tories who deride food banks so regularly would agree.
A factual piece on the hard facts of the epidemic hunger crisis in the UK also appeared in the i on the same day, reminding us that, according to a new Oxfam report:
Nearly two million of the poorest families in Britain have been made poorer by a “perfect storm” of below-inflation benefit rises and changes to the welfare system, a new report warns.
An analysis by Oxfam and the New Policy Institute found the worst-affected 200,000 families were losing £864 a year as a result of benefit cuts.
It concluded that about 1.75 million households had been hit by one or more changes to welfare payments, including fewer council tax exemptions and the “bedroom tax”.
The charity called on the Government to introduce an “absolute minimum” level of financial support regardless of where people lived, which would be “high enough to prevent people from having to walk the breadline”.
The report highlighted four changes to the welfare system that it blamed for the falling living standards. It said 500,000 people were having their housing benefit cut by an average of £14.40 per week because they lived in a home with a “spare” room. A further 790,000 have lost money as a result of the lowering of the limit on local housing allowance payments to people renting privately rather than living in social housing.
Others have been affected by the introduction of a £500-per-week benefit cap, while the replacement of the council tax exemption means 1.4 million families become eligible to pay the tax for the first time since 2013, having previously been deemed too poor. Tom MacInnes, research director at the New Policy Institute and the report’s author, said the changes were particularly harsh because they affected costs which could not be controlled.
“There are two parts to the safety net. One is the means-tested cash benefit such as jobseeker’s allowance, which is rising by less than prices. The other is the benefits that help pay for specific unavoidable costs. This is where cuts have been targeted and where the greatest damage to the safety net is being done.”
Mark Goldring, Oxfam’s chief executive, said the report provided the “latest evidence of a perfect storm blowing massive holes in the safety net which is supposed to stop people falling further into poverty”.
“We are already seeing people turning to food banks and struggling with rent, council tax, childcare and travel costs to jobcentres,” he said. “It is unacceptable the poorest are paying such a heavy price.”
But the Department for Work and Pensions rejected the claims. “Britain has a strong welfare state, but for too long the system trapped those it was designed to help in a state of dependency,” said a spokesman. “Work is the best route out of poverty so we’re making sure it pays to work and supporting people into employment – with an extra 1.5 million people in work since 2010.
“Our reforms are specifically designed to improve the lives of the poorest in our society.”
Frances Ryan of The Guardian wrote another apposite column on the issue, appositely titled ‘Poverty has been rebranded as personal failure’:
I was struck looking at the Mirror's now famous crying, hungry child front page, not only by the poignancy of the image, but its contrast to another headline a few days earlier. A smiling woman looked out from the Daily Mail; a holiday snap of a "benefit cheat", the headline a gleeful breakdown of the thousands she had falsely claimed in disability allowance.
I wonder how bad things must get before a disabled face makes it to the front pages as a symbol, not of the handful of dishonest people, but of the hundreds of thousands who are now malnourished, cold and unable to pay their rent.
Disabled people in this country are twice as likely to live in poverty. The reality of having vast extra living costs or being too ill to work is not an excuse for government, but a damning indictment of its failure. The coalition government has compounded disadvantage. Policies such as the bedroom tax and council tax cuts have, almost wilfully, increased inequality. Each policy change imposed on disabled or chronically ill people has been a cut – a slash to support, or punitive, flawed hoops to jump through – dressed up as reform.
The work capability assessment (WCA), originally brought in by Labour, exemplifies this: 45% of appeals have been successful; people have died after being found "fit for work". The assessments are part of a wider, systemic disease: the Work Programme fails over 93% of the disabled people for whom it is charged to help find work, and the sanction system punishes them, stopping their benefits when they are too ill to get to a job appointment. A Freedom of Information request last month showed six out of 10 people on employment and support allowance who have been hit with a sanction, have a learning disability or mental-health problem. "Support" under this system is practically sadistic.
The Labour party, often all too ready to spread popular social-security propaganda, says it is ready to talk alternatives. Last year it charged Sir Bert Massie, a distinguished disability campaigner, to look at ways of breaking the links between disability and poverty and, last week, the party picked out reforming WCA as key.
It is right to choose that focus. How a society deals with disability and employment, both helping people into work and protecting those unable to work, reflects its moral core – whether it opts for evidence, fairness and support, or the current methods of inaccuracy, targets and abandonment. None of this exists in a vacuum. It is in a system that tells job-seekers to "make an effort"; where the politician responsible for work and disability is disappointed he can't, legally, make it harder for disabled and ill people to get benefits. This is a culture of suspicion and cruelty. It doesn't see health problems or people, but an underclass, feral and lazy. Why would you deserve help if you are barely human?
Poverty is different now. It's been rebranded as personal failure. We can hardly forget that as political decisions are absolved and individual choices rebuked. What did you do to get yourself into this state? What are you failing to do to get yourself out of it? The phantom work-shy now includes people too sick to get out of bed in the morning.
When the healthy are lining the streets for food parcels, what on earth becomes of the rest? The answer isn't on front pages, it is hidden behind closed doors. Poverty and disability isolate individually, yet we are in a disability poverty crisis. That our own government is entrenching it, is something that should make each of us shudder.
The Editorial of Monday’s Morning Star, as ever, put all the points and sentiments The Recusant shares much more succinctly:
You'd think the Mail on Sunday would struggle to plumb new depths of gutter journalism, but yesterday’s attempt to “expose” Britain’s food banks as a soft touch for “fraudsters” to exploit was way down in the sewer.
Intrepid reporter Ross Slater went undercover, braving who knows what risks to trick a volunteer who was “in her 60s” into believing he was destitute with a wife and children to feed.
He was — shock horror — then given some food, which the Mail sniffily reports included “less essential items” (a 65p chocolate pudding).
Clearly any fraudster worth his salt would want to get in on this act. The potential profits must be astronomical.
And with each person referred to a food bank able to claim up to three parcels, each containing three days’ worth of food, every six months, what incentive is left for the feckless poor to get a job?
They’re not going to go hungry without one, or at least not for more than 347 days a year.
It would be nice to say that only a rag owned by tax-dodging non-dom press baron Lord Rothermere (estimated wealth 2013: £720 million) would have the gall to pick Easter Sunday to launch a crusade against giving food to the needy.
Sadly, it would also be naive.
Let’s be clear. Food bank Britain is a creation of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition that took power four years ago.
In the 2010-11 fiscal year, the Trussell Trust — the largest food bank provider in the country — gave three days’ food relief to 61,468 people.
New figures show that in the 2013-14 period that number had shot up to 913,138. Nearly 15 times as many Britons are forced to rely on the charity to feed their families as in the days when David Cameron and Nick Clegg joined forces to put the boot in to the working class.
Given that not all food banks are part of the Trussell Trust, the number now going hungry in one of the world’s richest countries is likely to be well over a million.
The crisis has reached such a scale as to prick the usually sleepy consciences of the religious establishment. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby called attention yesterday to the “weeping in broken families, in people ashamed to seek help from food banks or frightened by debt.”
His Catholic counterpart Cardinal Vincent Nichols has also highlighted how welfare “reforms” directed by Iain Duncan Smith, nominally a member of his flock, had left people facing “hunger and destitution.”
The Tory response to such warnings? David Cameron spluttered that the cardinal’s remarks were “simply not true” and went one better, declaring that cutting people’s benefits was a “moral mission.”
This approach is popular with Tory grandees. Duncan Smith has accused the Trussell Trust of “scaremongering.”
Where’s the evidence that people are going hungry, they ask — except they don’t, because they know full well that the evidence of a million people needing handouts from food banks to survive is staring them in the face.
Duncan Smith’s undersecretary of state Lord Freud understands this. So he argues that supply is driving demand. From mysterious motives legions of volunteers have set up loads of extra food banks and there is “an almost infinite demand for a free good.”
But going to a food bank isn’t easy. You have to be referred to one by a professional, usually a doctor or social worker. The social stigma attached to needing charity to feed your kids makes applying for vouchers an agonising decision.
And research by Warwick University finds no evidence that supply is driving demand — quite the opposite.
The Tory media is echoing Tory ministers’ demonisation of food banks for a very good reason. Labour MP Ian Lavery is right to say the Mail should be ashamed — but the true shame lies with the wretched government that has caused Britain’s hunger crisis in the first place.
Cameron’s Constituency Office Barred the Bishop of Oxford from Presenting an End Hunger Fast Campaign Open Letter on Food Poverty at the Very Same Time that the Prime Minister was Penning His Hypocritical Cant for the Church Times
But just when The Recusant thought things couldn’t sink any lower in terms of the latest vile interventions from the UK’s right-wing rank and file, with last week’s Cameronian cant in the Church Times and the Mailthusian ‘food bank-bashing’ splash on Easter Sunday, we read today about this further gut-churning revelation reported on in today’s Independent (22 April) –brace yourselves, this piece once and for all exposes the absolute hypocrisy and moral cowardice of David Cameron and the lackies at his constituency office –(we reproduce some of the photos of the incident and the graphs and charts from The Independent (left), which can be magnified with your curosr):
David Cameron’s constituency office has come under fire for calling the police on the Bishop of Oxford and Reverend Hebden as they attempted to present him with an open letter on food poverty.
Their letter, part of the End Hunger Fast campaign, was signed by 42 Anglican bishops and more than 600 clerics and called on the three party leaders to work with the parliamentary inquiry into food poverty to implement its recommendations.
However, despite David Cameron’s Witney office expecting their visit, they were barred from presenting the letter and instead greeted by three police officers. Around 40 people had walked to his office following a service, and while the congregation stood on the opposite side of the road, the Rt Revd John Pritchard and Rev Hebden went to deliver the letter on their own. The police “weren’t there very long” when they realised the situation, Reverend Keith Hebden told The Independent, saying that they could see Cameron’s office staff looking out the window as they were forced to abandon their visit.
He added: “It is deeply ironic, to say the least, that on the same day David Cameron was writing in the Church Times talking about what a good Anglican he is, he was wasn’t able to receive his own bishop in his constituency office. I think this speaks volumes.
“They were expecting us, we had phoned ahead. Most of my surprise was reserved for them not even opening the door. The letter was positive and addressed to all three party leaders, so it wasn’t political.”
David Cameron said in the Church Times that Britain should be “evangelical” about its Christianity and in a separate claim made earlier this month that the Conservative party’s “Big Society” initiative was continuing Jesus’ work.
Dr Hebden and the Bishop of Oxford were presenting Cameron with the letter as it was revealed more than 900,000 people were given emergency food in the past year, an increase of 163 per cent, according to figures from the Trussell Trust, the biggest food bank charity. The explosion in demand has coincided with an increase in those seeking help following a benefit sanction.
Speaking about food banks and the impact of the current raft of welfare reforms being brought in by the coalition, Rev Hebden said: “We are facing a national moral crisis and actions speak louder than words.
"We the people have taken on our moral responsibility by fasting, volunteering at food banks and showing compassion to those affected. The government are not only failing to recognise the problem but failing to act with any compassion.”
In its most hard-hitting report to date, the Trussell Trust said the Government’s use of sanctions was “increasingly harsh” and that half of those referred to food banks in 2013-14 were as a result of benefit delays or changes.
Eight out of 10 of their food banks saw more cases relating to benefit sanctions over the past year. Tougher punishments for those on jobseeker’s allowance were introduced by the Coalition last October, raising the minimum sanction from one to four weeks. Benefits can now be stopped for up to three years.
In total, 913,138 people received three days’ emergency food from Trussell Trust food banks in 2013-14, compared with 346,992 in 2012-13.
Reverend Dr Keith Hebden went without food for 40 days and 40 nights during Lent to draw attention to the astronomic rise in the use of food banks and the need for the government to do more to tackle falling living standards.
But where was the coverage on the televised news of this shameful snubbing of a man of the cloth by the prime minister's own constituency office? Appeared there none! Not even on C4 News, let alone the Tory-castrated BBC!
There was another optimistic but apposite Guardian column at the weekend by Guy Standing, titled somewhat quixotically, not to say rather crassly, ‘Cheer up – a renewed left is coming’:
Next year is the 800th anniversary of one of the greatest political documents of all time. The Magna Carta was the first class-based charter, enforced on the monarchy by the rising class. Today's political establishment seems to have forgotten both it and the emancipatory, ecological Charter of the Forest of 1217. The rising mass class of today, which I call the precariat, will not let them forget for much longer.
Today we need a precariat charter, a consolidated declaration that will respect the Magna Carta's 63 articles by encapsulating the needs and aspirations of the precariat, which consists of millions of people living insecurely, without occupational identity, doing a vast amount of work that is not counted, relying on volatile wages without benefits, being supplicants, dependent on charity, and denizens not citizens, in losing all forms of rights.
The precariat is today's mass class, which is both dangerous, in rejecting old political party agendas, and transformative, in wanting to become strong enough to be able to abolish itself, to abolish the conditions of insecurity and inequality that define it. A precariat charter is a way of rescuing the future.
Every charter has been a class-based set of demands that constitute a progressive agenda or vision of a good society. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. A radical charter restructures, being both emancipatory, in demanding a fresh enhancement of rights as freedoms, and egalitarian, in showing how to reduce the vital inequalities of the time. Since the crash of 2008 and during the neoliberal retrenchment known as austerity, many commentators have muttered that the left is dead, watching social democrats in their timidity lose elections and respond by becoming ever more timid and neoliberal. They deserve their defeats. As long as they orient their posturing to the "squeezed middle", appealing to their perception of a middle class while placating the elite, they will depend on the mistakes of the right for occasional victories, giving them office but not power.
This retreat of the labourist left does not mean progressive politics is dying. Costas Lapavitsas and Alex Politaki, who wrote for this site earlier this month asking why Europe's young are not rioting now, are too pessimistic. Appearances deceive. The reason for the lack of conventional political activity reflects a lack of vision from the left.
This is changing, and quickly by historical standards. Let us not forget that the objectives and policies that emerged in the great forward march a century ago were not defined in advance but took shape during and because of social struggles.
I have been fortunate to witness the phenomenal energies within the precariat while travelling in 30 countries over the past two years. But a transformative movement takes time to crystallise. It was ever thus.
To make sense of what is happening, one must appreciate that we are in the middle of a global transformation. The disembedded phase dominated by the neoliberal Washington consensus led to the crisis of 2008 – fiscal, existential, ecological and distributional crises rolled into one. By then, the precariat had taken shape. Its growth has accelerated since.
What Jeremiahs overlook is that a new forward march towards a revival of a future with more emancipation and equality rests on three principles that help define a new progressive agenda.
The first principle is that every forward march is inspired by the emerging mass class, with progress defined in terms of its insecurities and aspirations. Today that class is the precariat, with its distinctive relations of production, relations of distribution and relations to the state. Its consciousness is a mix of deprivation, insecurity, frustration and anxiety. But most in it do not yearn for a retreat to the past. It says to the old left: "My dreams are not in your ballot box."
The second principle is that a forward march requires new forms of collective action. Quietly, these are taking shape all over the world. No progressive moves can succeed without forms of collective voice, and the new forms will include a synthesis of unions and the guilds that for two millennia promoted occupational citizenship.
The third principle is that every forward march involves three overlapping struggles, which take time to spring into effective life. The first struggle is for recognition. Here, contrary to the Jeremiahs on the left, there has been fantastic progress since 2008.
Recognition has been forged in networks boosted by a string of collective sparks, through the Arab spring, the Occupy movement, the indignados, the upheavals in the squares of great cities, the London riots of 2011, the spontaneous actions in Istanbul and across dozens of Brazilian cities in 2013, the sudden rise of Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement in Italy's elections last year, the riots around Stockholm, the brave, prolonged occupation of the streets in Sofia, Bulgaria, until usurped by an oligarch's thugs, and the even braver outrage of the precariat in Kiev in recent months. These events are messy, loosely linked at best. But the energy out there is vivid, if one wants to see and feel it.
What has been achieved is a collective sense of recognition, by millions of people – and not just young people. A growing part of the precariat perceives a common predicament, realising that this is a collective experience due to structural features of the economic and political system. We see others in the mirror in the morning, not just our failing selves. The precariat is becoming a class for itself, whether one uses that word or another to describe a common humanity. There is a far greater sense of recognition than in 2008.
That was necessary before the next struggle could evolve into a unifying call for solidarity. That is a struggle for representation, inside every element of the state. It is just beginning, as the precariat realises that anti-politics is the wrong answer. Again, there are encouraging signs that the energy is being channelled into action. We demand to be subjects, not objects to be nudged and sanctioned, fleeced and ignored in turn.
The precariat must be involved in regulating flexible labour, social security institutions, unions and so on. The disabled, unemployed, homeless, migrants, ethnic minorities – all are denizens stirring with anger and collective identity. We are many, they are few. The years of slumber are over.
The third struggle is for redistribution. Here, too, there is progress. The social democratic, lukewarm left has no clothes, and neither does the atavistic left harrying at its heels with empty threats, wanting to turn the clock back to some illusionary golden age. They would not understand the subversive piece of precariat graffiti: "The worst thing would be to return to the old normal."
Unstable labour will persist; flexibility will increase; wages will stagnate. Now what? The struggle for redistribution is in its infancy, but it has evolved into an understanding of class fragmentation, of how the plutocracy seduces the salariat and placates the proletariat. The struggle will show that with globalisation a new distribution system must be constructed, far more radical than that offered by a living wage, however desirable that might be.
A precariat charter should revive a rights-based path towards redistribution of the key assets denied to the precariat, including security, control over time, a reinvigorated commons, assets essential for its reproduction and eventual abolition. This vision is taking shape, messily but perceptibly.
In 1215, the class of barons forced a powerful monarchy to concede to demands for recognition, representation and redistribution. Throughout history, emerging classes have done much the same, from the French Revolution with its radical Enlightenment and the wonderful achievements of Thomas Paine and others to the Chartists of the 19th century and the spate of human rights charters after the Second World War. The progressives of the era have always reinvented the future. They are doing it now. Cheer up.
Fatuous end-gesture aside, The Recusant applauds many aspects to this cultural analysis, not least the fundamental ultra-democratic (or rather, authentically democratic) egalitarian politics underpinning it. But we remain somewhat unconvinced, sadly, by Standing’s evangelistic optimism (or should that be ‘leftish chiliasm’?), not to say by his highly acquired taste in neologisms –we feel sure there must be a more obviously ‘button-pressing’ variation on Marx’s terms ‘proletariat’ or ‘lumpenproletariat’ that might be coined, than the rather underwhelming and truncated ‘precariat’. Standing's term –presumably a medley of ‘precarious’ and ‘proletariat’– just doesn’t quite ‘cut’ the semantic ‘mustard’ to aurally encapsulate the chronic economic decrepitude of such a vast section of today’s citizens, whether in or out of work, the poor, unemployed, working poor, underemployed, zero hour contractees, most of whom are also apparently destined to being lifetime renters/house-sitters of a propertied elite’s brick-and-mortar investments. Nevertheless, much of what Standing argues is, in our view, incontrovertible, polemically spot on.
What Standing seems to be getting at, essentially, is the urgent need for a whole new root-and-branch reformation of democracy, through which citizens’ birthrights might once again be emphasized as inalienable buffers against governments’ truly dangerous and arguably anti-democratic fiscal powers to economically and materially enslave an already chronically disenfranchised portion of society; such dialectics must inevitably move towards advancing the argument for a Basic Citizen’s Income (long promoted by the Green Party, and now by Left Unity and the People’s Assembly too) to replace the punishing iniquities and contributory onuses of easily stigmatised welfare benefits; to challenge the highly dubious and in any case unsustainable Puritanism of the duplicitous Capitalist ‘work’ ethic. In short, to attempt to once and for all uproot the plutocratic tendrils of our covert democracy, redistribute wealth and property, and complete the historically truncated and obfuscated foundation of fully representative and participatory democracy –all of which were the fundamental aspirations of the radical groups of mid-Seventeenth Century England –the Levellers, Diggers, Ranters et al– whose ultra-democratic ideas are still in many respects way in advance of our thinking today (by coincidence, this writer is currently reading Christopher Hill’s classic historical polemic, The World Turned Upside Down (1972), which recounts in comprehensive detail the breathtakingly radical ambitions of yesterday’s English ‘proletariat’ which makes even the giant achievements of the Clement Attlee government look merely liberal by comparison). The original blurb for Hill’s book adumbrates these points succinctly:
Within the English revolution of the mid-seventeenth century which resulted in the triumph of the protestant ethic – the ideology of the propertied class – there threatened another, quite different, revolution. Its success ‘might have established communal property, a far wider democracy in political and legal institutions, might have disestablished the state church and rejected the protestant ethic’.
It is this ‘quite different revolution’ that Standing –among many others, including David Graeber, Occupy, the Runnymede Diggers, the Green Party, Left Unity, and the People’s Assembly et al– is aspiring to; what we might term a 'New Levelling' or 'Modern Diggerism'.
The Guardian’s John Harris wrote the following incisive review of Standing’s A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens, the book behind the column, one of many new polemical interventions, alongside Jeremy Seabrook’s Pauperland and sociologist Kayleigh Garthwaite’s monograph Fear of the Brown Envelope:
At the Labour conference of 2005, Tony Blair made one of his most fascinating speeches as party leader and prime minister: a tribute to the cleansing hurricane of globalisation, from a man who had seen the future, but worried that the people assembled in front of him were stuck in the past. "The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition," he said. "Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change."
Perhaps thanks to the far-left roots of some New Labour insiders, there were shades here of The Communist Manifesto, and Marx and Engels's description of the bourgeoisie, which had "put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations", "pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his 'natural superiors' … and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms … set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade." Even if Blair rejoiced in capitalism whereas Marx and Engels decried it, their analyses prompted similar questions. What is it to live in such a stripped-down, pitiless reality? And if some succeed in being swift to adapt and slow to complain, what lies behind their name badges and stick-on smiles?
Guy Standing is a scholar at Soas, who was once a high-up at the UN's International Labour Organisation. In his vocabulary, to be at the sharp end of modern capitalism is to be a member of the precariat: a split-off from the shrinking working class, and one which is growing in size, though not yet in influence. His 2011 book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class set out its story: the term was originally used in 1980s France to denote temporary and seasonal workers, but now, with labour insecurity a feature of most western economies, it is the perfect word for a great mass of people, "flanked by an army of unemployed and a detached group of socially ill misfits", who enjoy almost none of the benefits won by organised labour during the 20th century. In Standing's view, they increasingly resemble denizens rather than citizens: people with restricted rights, largely living towards the bottom of a "tiered membership" model of society, in which a plutocratic elite takes the single biggest share, while other classes – the salariat, free-ranging "proficians", and what remains of the old working class – divide up most of what remains.
I say, "they", but Standing's contention is that the precariat will soon become "we". It is increasing in size and range, and spanning no end of occupational categories, from the fluorescent-jacketed service workers who keep our cities running to ambitious graduates who take "jobs" in the digital world on the basis of bogus self-employment. Over time, these people will find a voice – and, as Standing sees it, the "labourist" political left will then have to radically alter its views not just of political economy, but of what it is to live. "Twentieth century spheres of labour protection … were constructed around the image of the firm, fixed workplaces, and fixed working days and work-weeks that apply only to a minority in today's tertiary online society," he points out. "While proletarian consciousness is linked to long-term security in a firm, mine, factory or office, the precariat's consciousness is linked to a search for security outside the workplace." This is fundamental: it shreds such sepia-tinted ideas as the "dignity of labour", and the notion – shared by both the old left and its reformist successors – that to toil is to express one's essential humanity. As Standing puts it: "The precariat can accept jobs and labour as instrumental … not as what defines or gives meaning to life. That is so hard for labourists to understand." It certainly is.
For that reason, among others, politics has real problems with the precariat. In the UK, partly thanks to the Labour party's panicked revival of interest in its working-class base, its condition has begun to intrude on national debate: MPs and ministers now at least talk about agency work and zero-hours contracts. But politicians of left and right still tend to think that the more forlorn elements of this new class are essentially there to be kicked around, which they believe plays well with the higher-up social groups who hold the key to electoral success. "The state treats theprecariat as necessary, but a group to be criticised, pitied, demonised, sanctioned or penalised in turn," Standing says: the trick was pioneered by New Labour, and is used on an almost daily basis by the current government.
It is members of the precariat who pinball in and out of the benefits system thanks to short-term working arrangements, and who now form a large part of the demand for food banks. In response, the Westminster consensus insists that they should be subject to regimes that are not just cruel, but dysfunctional. In other words, it doesn't actually matter if so-called welfare-to-work programmes actually help people, or just screw them up: the point is that they visibly punish them in pursuit of a political dividend. In that sense, the precariat is not only at the cutting edge of the economy, but at the receiving end of a postmodern politics that values the manipulation of appearances much more highly than reality.
This is obviously intolerable. Quite soon, Standing reckons, the precariat "will echo a slogan of '68: ça suffit!" Its initial voice, he thinks, will come from "the educated and 'wired' part of the precariat, exploiting the potential of electronic communications", but he claims that we have already felt its anger, in no end of civil disturbances. On this point, he gets carried away, giving far too much credit to the inchoate Occupy spasm of 2011, and projecting on to the English riots of 2011 a political motivation that simply wasn't there.
But the best of what he goes on to advocate in a 27-article charter is inspiring: among other things, an end to the punitive aspects of the modern welfare state, and the creation of new organisations that are rooted outside any single workplace (and might follow the lead of the US's International Workers of the World, or "Wobblies", who were founded "to organise the workers, not the job"). By way of addressing security beyond the workplace, his most compelling suggestion is a basic citizen's income, payable to all, which would increase the bargaining power of people at the low end, and by cutting across the orthodox benefit systems' serial poverty traps, actually increase the incentive to work. This idea has been circulating for at least 40 years, and may take just as long to arrive in mainstream debate. But if it seems outlandish by contemporary standards, that actually only heightens its appeal: the same, after all, was once said of the most basic aspects of the welfare state; and even the weekend.
Some of Standing's writing is uneven, caught between the slightly stunted vernacular of the academic and the fury of an op-ed polemicist. But as with his other books, A Precariat Charter is that rare thing: a text from the left that does not yearn for a lost past, but energetically embraces the future. It offers progressive politics a revived purpose: not a surrender to economic practices as if they were forces of nature, but the pursuit of a common security that would enhance our humanity – because, as he puts it, "knowing that your fellow citizen has the same rights as you do humanises us all".
The Recusant fully concurs with Standing’s fundamental analysis of the crippling problems of our perniciously regressive and backward-trawling anarcho-capitalist society, and is also, in our opinion, on the right path in terms of diagnosing possible long-term sustainable and socially just solutions to our current socio-cultural paralysis: chief among these is the highly ambitious proposal for a basic citizen income. Standing’s projection, too, that the most likely vanguard of a new formidable form of polemical activism is likely to come via the blogsphere of the ‘educated ‘precariat”, as has arguably been emerging now for some years (and, it is hoped, this very webzine is in part evidence of this).
Less optimistic, but just as apposite, was a short column by Michele Hanson asking, rhetorically, ‘Does London need internal refugee camps for its homeless people?’:
I'm out with my dog in the park and I spot two women talking to the keeper in an agitated way. There's worrying news. Strange men have been sleeping in the bushes, popping up in the mornings, giving the dog-walking women a fright and, worse still, going to the lavatory. "Over there," says one lady, pointing at a concealed area behind a hillock, where I've just walked. The dog was desperate to go there.
"Fox is bad enough," says she, "but human! Eeurgh!" I didn't see any. But I have seen sleeping men. One looked rather smart, in a grey suit, with a briefcase.
He was fast asleep in the early-morning sun, face down on some neatly spread-out newspaper, his head raised by a skateboard slope. Then up he got and went off to work, probably. Another suddenly appeared out of some bushes, and the Keeper tells us that one chap had bedding and a suitcase full of clothes in a bit of dense shrubbery.
Some sneak reported him, along came the police, wanting to take everything away, but Keeper managed to hang on to some of the clothes. "I know whose they are," he told the police-persons. "He goes to work. I'll give them back to him."
"There's going to be more of this," I said. The voice of doom. Because where is everybody meant to live, sleep and crap? There's nowhere else for them to go. Nowhere. Rough sleeping has risen 37% in England and 62% in London between 2010 and 2013. And it's not just men. I saw a toy bunny on the ground on Hampstead Heath early one morning and picked it up. A small voice came out of the bushes. "That's ours." It was a young woman, sleeping there, with her baby.
I don't quite understand how Boris Johnson's skyscraper dwellings, mostly for the super-rich, are going to help. No one will countenance rent controls, developers hardly ever stick to affordable housing quotas. So what about tent cities, with washing and lavatory facilities in all open spaces? Our very own internal refugee camps. Got any better ideas?
In contrast to the unholy alliance of the Mail’s Malthusian agenda, a socially conscious quartet of reporters in The Guardian reported on yet another heinous scandal indicative of the Government’s pathological animus against the poor of the nation, even via its own outsourcing of decisions to local councils, ‘Councils sit on £67m in emergency help for poor’:
A fledgling scheme to provide emergency help to the poorest in the country is in chaos, with £67m left unspent and record numbers of families being turned away.
Figures released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests indicate that by the end of January councils in England were sitting on £67m of the £136m that had been allocated to local welfare schemes. Half of local authorities had spent less than 40% of their funds.
An analysis by The Guardian shows that under the new local welfare assistance schemes, four in 10 applications for emergency funds are turned down, despite evidence that many applicants have been made penniless by benefits sanctions and delays in processing benefit claims. Under the previous system – the social fund – just two in 10 were. In some parts of the country, as few as one in 10 applicants obtain crisis help.
The schemes were designed to help low-income families in crisis, such as those in danger of becoming homeless or subjected to domestic violence. Charities and MPs have warned that those denied help are turning to food banks and loan sharks.
Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, which offers debt and legal advice, said the emergency financial support system was in chaos. "When the safety net fails, people are left with no way of putting food on the table, paying the rent or keeping the lights on. Confusion over what help is available and who to approach means that people who need support are left high and dry.
"People are in danger of being pushed into the arms of payday lenders and loan sharks by the chaotic emergency support system. Citizens Advice bureaux see people in desperate need of support who have nowhere else to turn when jobcentres and the local council don't give out support."
Under the new system, emergency funds are no longer ringfenced, meaning that councils can divert unspent cash to other budgets. Local welfare assistance schemes were created a year ago in 150 English authorities, alongside national schemes in Wales and Scotland, following the abolition of the social fund.
Most schemes do not offer cash or loans, but support in kind, such as food parcels and supermarket vouchers. The social fund provided loans repayable against future benefit payments – typically about £50 – and larger capital grants to destitute families who needed help to furnish flats or replace broken domestic appliances.
Despite charities reporting that demand for help has rocketed as a result of economic hardship and welfare cuts, some councils spent more money setting up and administering their welfare schemes than they gave to needy applicants.
Councils told The Guardian they had provided less in emergency funding than in the past because there was a lack of public awareness of the new system. Some had failed to advertise their schemes, while others set such tight eligibility criteria that many applicants – typically including low-paid working families, benefit claimants and those deemed to have not lived in their local area for long enough – were turned away.
Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP for Rochdale, who has repeatedly raised the issue of local welfare in parliament, said his constituents frequently reported struggles to get crisis help. Constituents he has helped include:
• A low-wage family with three children, including an 11-month-old baby, who applied for £35 to pay for gas, electricity and baby food to help them until payday. The council scheme initially referred the family to a food bank. After lobbying by Danczuk, they were given £20 for energy costs, but were refused money for baby food.
• A pregnant mother and her partner, who after benefit changes were left with £7 a week for food after rent and council tax. They were told that they could not apply as the scheme was for "genuine emergencies" such as fires and flood.
In each case Danczuk believes the families would have qualified for emergency support under the social fund. "Central and local government are pushing people into the hands of payday loan companies and food banks. They have in effect privatised the lender of last resort," he said.
A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions, which funds local welfare schemes run by 150 local authorities across England, said: "In contrast to a centralised grant system that was poorly targeted, councils can now choose how best to support those most in need. It is for local councils to decide how they spend their budgets."
But a Conservative council leader has called on the government to reinstate local welfare assistance funding, calling it a "cut too far". Louise Goldsmith, leader of West Sussex county council, said the proposed cut would leave many low income families without vital support when they were going through a "tough patch in their lives".
A briefing note prepared by the council found that 43% of 5,582 individuals and families helped by the local welfare fund to the end of February had applied because they had been left penniless by benefit sanctions and delays.
The Local Government Association has called upon the ministers to reverse the cut, and it is understood a number of councils and welfare charities are preparing to seek a judicial review of the government's decision to cut local welfare assistance funding in April 2015.
Many councils are using part of their welfare assistance allocation to provide financial support for local food banks, which provide penniless applicants with charity food parcels.
Lady Stowell, a local government minister, told the House of Lords in January that local authorities were "doing a good job of supporting people in times of crisis and are doing it without using all the funding that has been provided so far from DWP". But Centrepoint, the homelessness charity said that local welfare assistance underspending meant many homeless youngsters could not get vital support when they moved from hostels into independent living. "Councils need to start using these funds to address urgent need now and ensure that young people have access to it," said Seyi Obakin, Centrepoint's chief executive. Two local authorities – Labour-run Nottinghamshire county council and Tory-run Oxfordshire – have scrapped local welfare assistance altogether and plan to divert the money into social care services.
Conservative-run Herefordshire had county council spent less than £5,000 of its annual £377,000 allocation by the end of December last year, equivalent to 1% of its local welfare budget.It said its spending reflected low demand for crisis help, a claim disputed by Hereford Citizens Advice and Hereford food bank, which said they had been inundated with requests.
Labour-run Islington council had spent 80% of its emergency funds budget by the end of December last year and had spent all its emergency funds by April. It said it had encouraged its frontline staff to refer individuals to its local welfare scheme to ensure they got crisis help and assistance with any underlying problems, such as debt.
Local authorities are anticipating further problems over local welfare in 2015 when the DWP scraps funding for the schemes. Councils, charities and MPs have called on the government to restore and ringfence the crisis support allocation.
Councils say that in some cases they have refused emergency help because benefit claimants have been wrongly referred to local authority welfare schemes by jobcentres. Some councils have refused to accept applications from those who ought to have been offered a short-term benefit advance from their local jobcentre.
Scotland and Wales have their own welfare assistance schemes and these have higher applicant success rates than in England. In Northern Ireland, which still has the social fund, 70% of applicants received help.
What we are beginning to see, four years into class-selective capitalist austerity and the Tory-driven Malthusian directive against the poor, incapacitated and all those deemed ‘economically unproductive’, is very rapid polarisation of British politics, though, more perilously, almost entirely outside of the “Westminster bubble” of neoliberal pass-the-parcel Realpolitik, where the only options are between Malthusian Capitalism (the Tories) or ‘Compassionate’ Capitalism (Labour). But the ideological divide is nonetheless widening outside of Parliament, in society itself, a gathering of radically different agendas on the future direction of our society: ever-retrenching right-wing social Darwinism on the one end (the Tory Right, UKIP, and the EDL and BNP), and fundamentally ultra-democratic form of broad eco-socialism on the other end, a duo-toned Green and Red ‘Rainbow’ Alliance (the Green Party, Left Unity, The People’s Assembly, Occupy, UK Uncut, the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, various Anarchist groups, and the Labour Left –or ‘Red’ Labour). It’s time for all of us to decide whose side we’re on.
This is the attitudinal divide in real society today, evidence that Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ was nothing more than an ephemeral plateau of Realpolitik before the eventual resurgence of ideological antagonisms, brought on by the “Great Recession” and the atomisation and marginalisation of subsequent austerity and its associated moral and cultural bankruptcies. So this is the point we have arrived at –and it would seem that the General Election next year will not in itself decide the true outcome: that will, ultimately, be down to the people, and the ‘virtual’ democracy that has risen to the challenge of one of the most viciously right-wing and autocratic governments in British history, by holding it to account and even stopping some of the more morally despicable policy proposals in their tracks via online petition-sphere of forums such as change.org and 38 Degrees. It seems that in the absence of truly democratically accountable political ‘representatives’ in Parliament, democracy is being unwittingly outsourced by the malfeasances, cupidity and general ethical negligence of the “Westminster village”. It is such ‘green shoots’ of an incipient, extra-parliamentary ‘participatory democracy’ which is no doubt what Standing is optimistically signposting. All strength to it!
A.M. 21-22 April 2014