Usually anniversaries are something we celebrate, but today we certainly won’t be eating any cake or popping open champagne in Hastings. The fact that our foodbank opened seven years ago today upsets us. We wish we had never been needed. It’s shocking that we were, and it’s shocking that we still are. If we were blowing out candles today, we’d be wishing for a time when we could close our doors because no one needs our help any more.
What makes today’s anniversary even worse is that our numbers continue to escalate. Over these last seven years, we’ve given out 370,773 meals. Well over half of these have been given out in the last two years and four months, since Universal Credit arrived in Hastings.
Four years of almost static foodbank use now pales in comparison to what we see today. Our foodbank manager puts it this way: “What used to be our ceiling has now become our floor.”
He’s sadly right. It used to be that we gave out an average of around 40,000 meals a year – that was the case in 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016. Now it’s more than 90,000.
This is tons and tons and tons of food helping thousands of local people facing crisis situations. These days we’re giving out more than a ton of food every week – and we only open for four hours a week! Almost 40% of the food we’re giving out is going to children.
Whether it’s the deliberate five-week delay in paying Universal Credit or wages simply not paying enough to meet the increasing essential costs of living, we feel like we are facing a perfect storm of factors that are driving more and more referrals to our foodbank.
In March, we helped a woman who had booked a day of annual leave from her job so that she could come to us for a desperately-needed food parcel.
Just ponder that for a second. A young woman in a full-time job had to take ‘holiday’ from work because otherwise she would not have any food until her next pay day.
This isn’t a one-off. We’re seeing more and more people come to us who are working, but still can’t make ends meet. Just last week we were apologising to a man about running out of carrier bags. He immediately said that his workplace had lots of bags and offered to bring some up for us. His workplace.
This is important not just because it strikes at the heart of the myth some public figures perpetuate about people who come to food banks being those who would rather be on benefits than work. From what we see week-in week-out, that’s a lie.
But it also matters because the architects and champions of our new benefits system say that it is motivated by a desire to make work pay. But work isn’t paying. The DWP’s own data, released a couple of weeks ago, shows that absolute poverty is rising and, disturbingly, three of every four children trapped in poverty have a parent who is working.
What’s more, Universal Credit is designed to mimic work. That’s the argument behind the five-week wait from making a claim to receiving any money. But it doesn’t mimic work – not in coastal towns like mine where seasonal work is common. Significantly, though, not even if you look at how MPs themselves are paid. I emailed the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) and they confirmed that an MP who was newly elected on 8 June in the 2017 snap election would have been paid at the next pay-day, which was 30 June 2017.
Newly appointed MPs waited three weeks to get paid. Not five.
The national charity I work for, Jubilee+, supports the Trussell Trust’s #5weekstoolong campaign to reduce this wait, because we’re seeing its devastating impact on those struggling to make ends meet.
Even my own MP, Amber Rudd, who is also work and pensions secretary, has admitted that there could be a link between increasing foodbank use and the five-week wait. She has made some really positive steps. Yet so far, she hasn’t reduced the five-week wait.
On top of that, she hasn’t yet ended the benefits freeze, which this month entered its fourth year at the same time as MPs gained a £2,089 annual pay rise. We have been encouraged by a lot of what Amber Rudd has said about Universal Credit. But we must see her enact more than she has so far.
We are told that if you just work hard enough, you’ll be ok. Maybe that’s true for the powerful, but it simply isn’t true for the poorest at the moment. More and more working people are relying on foodbanks. More children with working parents are facing poverty anyway.
People on Universal Credit are told they have to wait so that they learn what it’s like to work, while those earning the top incomes are given pay rises that come through faster.
It is factors such as this that lead people facing poverty, and the army of volunteers trying to help, to believe that the Government doesn’t care about them.
Amber Rudd has said she wants to bring compassion back into the system. There’s a lot more to do before it can be claimed that has happened.