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Blog 20 (guest blog) FOOD AID IN GENEVA IN THE TIME OF COVID-19

Note: The authors of this blog are members of the research team for the project ‘Going hungry in the land of plenty: an anthropological approach to food aid in Switzerland’ and I have had the pleasure of working with them on several occasions. They offered this piece which reflects their recent focus on the effects of Covid-19 on food aid. PC.

 FOOD AID IN GENEVA IN THE TIME OF COVID-19

 Ossipow, L., Y. Cerf, A. Martenot and A.-L. Counilh, HETS, HES-SO Geneva (22.04.2020)

This text is a Swiss “echo” to Pat Caplan’s blog entry (https://sites.gold.ac.uk/food-poverty/) on food aid during the Covid-19 crisis in the United Kingdom. It is based on a number of sources. One is our current knowledge of the food aid network[1] in Switzerland and on our monitoring of the emergency aid mechanisms seen on Geneva websites that indicate the places that are functioning during the present health crisis (http://geaide.ch). Finally, we have gathered information from a number of articles in the local press (Le Temps, Le Courrier, la Tribune de Genève, 20 Minutes and 24 Heures.) Among those consulted (approx. 150), about fifteen concern the most destitute people in Switzerland as a whole and in Geneva in particular. The dates on which these appeared give us an idea of the relative lack of concern for the poorest in the country, who had to wait nearly a month (from March to April[2]) for their situation be recognised in the print media. However, one striking development, and a welcome one, is that these articles do focus on about precariousness and poverty, and not, as is often the case, on the recycling of surplus food for environmental reasons, which tends to make the poor invisible.

 Hunger in Geneva during the crisis?

While hunger threatens the most precarious groups of people in the world, even in Europe, the poor in Switzerland are still receiving food aid, although not everyone can eat three full meals a day. However, during the present crisis, the poor are deprived of the “more than food” aspect of these redistribution systems, i.e. of all the services and meeting places that sometimes accompany food aid (listening, advice, leisure), with the exception of showers and health care.

Emergency housing has always been managed by the City of Geneva and by various associations (mainly financed by the City). However, in the context of the health crisis, the logistics of the operations related to the pandemic have been centralised by the communal and cantonal authorities. Measures have also been taken by the Aspasie association to provide temporary accommodation for sex workers made homeless following the closure of their workplace, in hotels across the city. Just like the distribution of vouchers by the Colis du Coeur, which have offered a welcome choice and anonymity, these medium-term shelters have been well received by the beneficiaries. Although their comfort and security have been welcome, they remain exceptional. While some hygienic services continue to be open (such as the showers at Le Caré), others have closed, but are being replaced by the opening of showers at a sports centre provided by the City. The emergency measures that have been put into place by the canton and more specifically by the City, do not signal a sudden return to state intervention. Even though the state delegates many tasks to the private sector (Crettaz 2015, https://www.capas-ge.ch/new/sites/default/files/Rapport%20HETS%20statistiques%20CAPAS%202015.pdf), it remains relatively present, at least in the City, through the indirect financing of these associations, whether it be by offering free premises, by employing workers who are no longer eligible for unemployment benefits and by hiring professional social workers.

Continuity and reorganization of food aid organisations

Caritas grocery stores

As of mid-March, food aid redistribution was reorganized in Geneva. Some of the organisations did not change their functioning and were on the front line at of the outbreak of the virus crisis and have continued throughout the lockdown. The Caritas grocery stores are open almost as usual with people queuing up there just as they do in front of other food stores. Some employees wear masks, like the check-out staff, others don’t, but everyone tries to respect the famous ‘social distancing’ of two metres. In the line of people waiting to enter the store, several customers also wear protection. As usual, the food aid system maintains the difference between conditional aid (that of Caritas or Colis du Coeur, see below) which requires the presentation of a voucher, and unconditional aid, which serves everyone and asks for nothing except maybe a ticket in order to obtain a meal in certain places. During lockdown, however, the difference between conditional aid (voucher based) and unconditional aid seems to have blurred more than usual. The focus now is on ensuring that people do not apply twice for assistance but emergency benefits are still provided. Most vouchers handed out are based on mutual trust between applicants and those who deliver the goods. A majority of associations, and in particular Carrefour-rue, have noted an increase in requests for food aid. In addition, other associations have entered the scene and are also organizing temporary distributions.

Unconditional aid: in kind and free of charge

Already known as emergency aid in pre-Covid times, all the distribution systems  that offer free breakfast or meals (Le Bateau Genève, le Phare, Club Social Rive Gauche, le Caré and Café Cornavin as well as Carrefour-Rue) have rapidly transformed themselves from a sit-down system to a takeaway distribution. In some restaurants, transitional measures have been implemented (reduction in the number of tables and distribution of hand-sanitiser before entering in the restaurant). Meals, either hot or cold, are now served on a tray. The Open Church association of the Temple des Pâquis and Swiss Gambia Solidarity are carrying out an itinerant distribution within their neighborhood. Joining forces with the latter, anti-fascists groups have created the ‘Popular Solidarity Brigades’, modelled on experiences in Milan (https://lecourrier.ch/2020/04/24/limpossible-confinement-dans-la-rue).

The Colis du Coeur (‘Parcels from the heart’)

The Colis du Coeur (https://www.colisducoeur.ch/portrait/) distributes food parcels upon presentation of a voucher issued by approved institutions (https://www.colisducoeur.ch/services-sociaux/). Before the coronavirus, these vouchers were also issued by more marginal associations mainly serving migrants and so-called undocumented migrants (see p. 18 of the 2019 activity report, https://www.colisducoeur.ch/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Rapport_activite_CDC_2019.pdf).

Even before the pandemic, the number of beneficiaries picking up parcels every Tuesday was constantly increasing (about 3,457 beneficiaries every Tuesday; see p. 16 of the aforementioned report).  When the first coronavirus preventive health measures came into place on the third of April, the Colis du Coeur rearranged its distribution by bringing the beneficiaries into the premises, one by one, after they had waited outside. The volunteers (80 people registered) received them as usual, having been asked previously to put on gloves to handle the supplies (something people sometimes do in normal times).

However, by March 28, 2020, some volunteers were hesitating to come to work. This was the result of changes in the management of the association and the fact that volunteers, most of whom are well over 65 years old, were deemed to be at risk and had to remain sheltered. On 28th of March, food distributions took place in four different locations and also supplied hygiene products and nappies. This did not happen in the following weeks. With the support of MSF (Médecin sans Frontières), the Cities of Geneva and Carouge and the food bank Partage, these distributions were carried out in conjunction with local enforcement authorities[3] who ensured the protection of the volunteers and beneficiaries (https://www.tdg.ch/geneve/actu-genevoise/frappee-epidemie-laide-alimentaire-ressuscite-samedi/story/22403088). On the same day, the beneficiaries were asked to give their addresses and phone numbers, so that they could be reached and advised of the next distribution. Finally, a system of distribution of vouchers or “gift cards” which could be exchanged in three different supermarkets was set up.

Shortly afterwards, a questionnaire was sent out by Aude Martenot (member of the research team and also a worker at the food bank Partage) to the people who had been able to benefit from these vouchers. The processing and analysis of the survey (see Martenot 2020) shows that most of the beneficiaries were satisfied with the voucher system[4], even if some had not received them immediately. Paradoxically, while distributions are often unpopular, because they force the beneficiaries to travel across the city and deprive them of a choice, the use of vouchers allowed the beneficiaries  to again ‘have a choice’ (except for alcohol and cigarettes) and offered them the advantage of going almost unnoticed to collect their food aid.

At the present time, then, hunger does not threaten the poorest in Switzerland because help is still available. Rather, as Pat Caplan explains, it is the volunteers who appear to be in short supply. Younger volunteers have taken up the cause and the associations expect a rejuvenation of voluntary work (Le Courrier, 24.4.2020, p. 12). In Switzerland, as in other European countries, the problem for clients is not hunger, but the possibility of receiving financial aid (https://www.artias.ch/?mailpoet_routerndpoint=view_in_browserction=viewata=WzQzLCI4Mzk4OGVmMjVhNTQiLDM3OTMsIjM2OGM2NiIsMzMsMF0). Solutions have been found for the self-employed who will receive “loss of earnings benefits”, while others are technically unemployed. Students who have lost their part-time work can also apply for emergency aid from specific funds offered by their institutions (https://lecourrier.ch/2020/04/23/une-aide-durgence-pour-les-etudiants/).

Those who remain stranded are the so-called “undocumented” or clandestine population who normally could have found work on construction sites, in bars, in childcare or home help (https://lecourrier.ch/2020/04/16/une-nounou-en-enfer/). They could try to apply for exceptional social aid despite the lack of a residence permit. However, this could jeopardize a possible subsequent application for regularization of their situation (https://www.letemps.ch/suisse/fragilite-sanspapiers-accentuee-crise-sanitaire).

Conclusion

 In 2012, Janet Poppendieck, an American sociologist who studied the implementation of food aid structures after the “Great Depression” in the USA, compared food banks to a Pandora’s box[5]. Their inevitable if desirable institutionalisation in times of crisis poses a risk, in the long run, of serving as a fallback for public policies that are difficult to put into place. Ultimately, the worst is yet to come, as many small and independent businesses will no longer be able to pay their bills and will be forced to close down and apply for social aid. In addition to these people, there remain illegal workers who may find work again once the lockdown has ended, but whose income will have been severely reduced for almost two months. It is therefore on the side of social protection that things will be played out.

References cited:

Crettaz, E. (2015). ‘Final report of the research project: Profile, target audience and efficiency of private social action associations belonging to CAPAS’. Geneva: HETS.

Martenot, A. (2020). Monitoring the distribution of food vouchers under the COVID-19 scheme. Review of the survey conducted from 9 to 19 April 2020. Geneva: Fondation Partage.

Poppendieck, J. (1999). Sweet charity? Emergency food and the end of entitlement. New York: Penguin.

[1] The global research,

Going hungry in the land of plenty: an anthropological approach to food aid in Switzerland (2019-2022) is being conducted by L. Ossipow, A.-L. Counilh and Yann Cerf in collaboration with A. Martenot with the support of a grant from the SNSF (Swiss National Science Foundation; http://p3.snf.ch/project-185449).

[2]Semi-confinement was introduced by the Federal Government on 16 March 2020. (https://www.rts.ch/info/suisse/11166687-la-suisse-en-etat-de-situation-extraordinaire-jusqu-au-19-avril.html)

[3]The distribution must indeed be done following certain guidelines at the risk of being banned, as an association learned at its own expense. They attempted one without asking for authorization on Saturday 25 April and were stopped (Tribune de Genève, Friday 24 April). They then restarted under the control of the City.

[4] The vouchers are 50 CHF for a single person, 80 CHF for 2 persons, 100 CHF for 3 persons, 120 CHF for 4 persons and 150 CHF for 5 or more persons per household (Martenot 2020: 1).

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2012/aug/21/food-banks-lambeth-council.

Blog 19. Coronavirus, lockdown and food poverty. 020420

Before the Covid-19 crisis

Earlier blogs (14 and 15) refer to the report on extreme poverty in the UK by the UN Special Rapporteur; this, as well as a similar report by Human Rights Watch, appeared in early 2019. Both were excoriating, finding large numbers of people in the UK living in poverty, even destitution, while ten years of austerity had wreaked havoc with the social welfare system. These reports were dismissed, even attacked, by the UK government, but it is important to note that the situation highlighted in them forms the backdrop to the present crisis. Further, the issue of Brexit has not gone away, and, as noted in blog 16, is likely to lead to further difficulties in UK food production: regular migrant workers are unable to get visas hence a lack of labour to pick fruit and vegetable crops, as well as of a potential slow-down in imports if Brexit is finalised at the end of 2020 and customs checks have to be introduced (https://foodresearch.org.uk/food-brexit-briefings/).

Covid-19 and lockdown

The decision by the UK government to enforce a lockdown had a number of significant effects which included:

  • Closure of businesses and lays-off of staff, resulting in immediate reductions in income
  • An explosion of applications for Universal Credit, with nearly one million people applying by the end of March. Given that under ‘normal’ conditions the wait for any money to come through is 5 weeks, and often longer, it is clear that many of this million will struggle to get on to the system. The CEO of the Trussell Trust, Emma Revie, wrote a heartfelt plea for the waiting time for Universal Credit to be cut (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/13/food-banks-coronavirus-universal-credit
  • The closure of schools has meant that children who normally receive free school lunches, even free breakfasts in some cases, no longer get them.
  • There was a lot of panic buying in shops, resulting in empty shelves and some rise in prices. Online shopping became increasingly difficult, with few delivery slots available.

What has been done by various sectors to alleviate this situation?

  1. The government

Has announced a variety of financial schemes to help businesses, the self-employed and others, and the provision of grants of £800 per person. In addition, all families with children on free school meals will receive vouchers of £15 per week in lieu. However, all of these measures will take time to come into effect and meanwhile many people are being ‘furloughed’ at best or losing their jobs entirely.

The government has also set up a scheme of food delivery for those deemed to be particularly vulnerable in health terms, although there has been some criticism of the contents of the parcels which consist largely of ambient foods (https://www.sustainweb.org/news/mar20_food_parcels_delivered_to_clinically_extremely_vulnerable_people/

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/01/doubts-over-take-up-of-government-coronavirus-emergency-food-parcels).2. The food industry

2. The food industry

This sector has obviously been having a bonanza in sales and has, in some cases, given money or food to the food charity sector: Morrisons £10 million in cash, the Co-op £1.5 million of food to the redistribution charity Fareshare, while Lidl has said it will provide bags of fresh fruit and veg to NHS staff (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/30/morrisons-gives-food-banks-10m-during-coronavirus-outbreak). The supermarkets have also made some attempt to ensure that older shoppers have a dedicated shopping time and have paid much lip service to prioritising deliveries to older customers; even so, as I fall into that category myself, I  am well aware from personal experience and that of my peers that finding a slot is still often difficult. Most supermarkets now practice some form of rationing for their customers with caps on numbers of items and frequency of on-line deliveries.

3. The food poverty charities.

This sector, particularly food banks, has been hard hit. On the one hand there is greatly increased demand from old and new clients, on the other, many organisations have lost a large proportion of their volunteers, because they are over-70 and/or have ‘underlying conditions.’ Many food banks also do not have enough food because they are getting fewer donations (https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/food-banks-coronavirus-uk-latest-a4383936.html) . They have also had to revise their procedures for safety reasons to do with the virus.

Some examples of the effect of the covid-19 crisis on food aid charities

Over the last five years, I have worked intensively with a half dozen food aid organisations in both north London and West Wales. Four of these are food banks, three belonging to the Trussell franchise and one being independent. The remaining two organisations are a Community Centre on a council estate in north London and a CAB (Citizens’ Advice Bureau) in Wales. They are all the subject of a detailed report which is currently in press. Let’s look at how each has coped with the new situation:

The Community Centre has sought to remain open, although many of its activities have been suspended. In the last two years, it signed up with the Felix Project (https://thefelixproject.org), a food redistribution charity, which supplies the Centre regularly and which is currently offering food parcels to local residents who need food help. However, the Centre has not been able to run its regular Holiday Lunch scheme for local children in receipt of free school meals or operate its café offering nutritious but cheap meals.

The north London food bank reports a big loss of volunteers, many of whom were over 70, and is currently seeking additional volunteers for ’warehouse’ jobs (sorting food by date, making up food parcels) as well as drivers for its new delivery scheme. Paradoxically, it has received some large monetary donations but been unable to spend these as it wished, partly because of panic buying by the public and partly because of restrictions on buying in bulk. Nonetheless, it is continuing to operate as a food bank, albeit with revised procedures to ensure social distancing. These include making up (somewhat smaller) food parcels in advance, so there is not even the minimal choice previously offered, while no tea, coffee or biscuits are served.

A Trussell Trust food bank in West Wales which has a number of branches and also ran cafes has suspended the latter and closed one of its branches, but otherwise continues to operate using its usual source of donations (supermarket collections and Tesco/Fareshare Food Cloud with which Trussell has a ‘partnership’). It has produced a leaflet for users explaining why procedures had to change.

Another Trussell Trust franchisee in a poor town in West Wales was struggling last week when I looked at its Facebook page. However, in the interim, I got a report from the manager:

The community has rallied around and we have had a large amount of food donations already this week Our stock is a lot improved and we wait to see what the need will look like over the next week or two as everyone settles into a new way of life. We too have seen a huge number of financial donations come in over the last week or so. Many people who can’t get out have given money instead. Have had a couple of large financial donations from individuals too, four figure sums!!! Quite amazing and humbling too for a little town like ours. We are looking to go to deliveries only shortly for the protection of everyone.

The final food bank, a much larger, independent operation with several branches, has closed two of them and, like the Trussell food banks, makes up parcels in advance with a slightly reduced amount. The manager told me a week ago that they were ‘running dangerously low on supplies’ and noted that, like the London food bank above, it was handicapped by not being able to buy in bulk.

Conclusion

If we thought that the situation with regard to food poverty in the UK was bad before, it is likely to become considerably worse now. As Martin Caraher has recently noted, there is no way for the state to identify people who are suffering from food poverty and goes on to point out:

Our welfare system (Universal Credit) is not set up to deal with food insecurity and the policy has been to refer clients to food banks as opposed to giving them money for food..[while] the amount of money people currently receive for welfare is not sufficient for them to buy a healthy diet even if they could access it (quoted in an email from Food Inequalities Rebellion, 31/03/20).

Some of the more activist food poverty charities have called for greater action. The Church Action on Poverty (www.church-poverty.org.uk) has lent its support to a statement coordinated by Sustain (https://www.church-poverty.org.uk/coronavirusaction/) calling on the government to release more funds to eradicate household food insecurity and ease welfare constraints such as the 5-week wait for Universal Credit, at least for the duration of the crisis. This statement has been signed by 31 representatives of organisations and academics working in the field. The Food Inequalities Rebellion has focused on the food needs of children (https://foodinequalitiesrebellion.wordpress.com).

In the longer term, much needs to change in our welfare and food systems to seek to eliminate food poverty, as many have pointed out, most recently and notably Tim Lang in his book: Our Food Problems and How to Fix them (Penguin 2020). As he notes ‘charity can be good at highlighting need, can meet some of it, but is unable to provide lasting or adequate safety nets’ (p. 328).

Blog 18: Guest blog by Jane Powell: A new start for food and farming in Wales? How food poverty is part of a wider agenda

Beneath the anxiety and upheaval that the prospect of Brexit has brought to Wales, threatening as it does to cut off export markets for farmers, change the face of support for rural development and weaken our sovereignty if power passes back to London, runs a current of hope. As long-term assumptions about food, farming and the environment are shaken, so opportunities arise for fresh thinking.

One thing we need to face is food poverty, which is as much a problem in Wales as anywhere else in the UK, as Pat Caplan has pointed out in a recent blog for the Wales Food Manifesto. Even in Pembrokeshire, home to one of the strongest food cultures in Wales, rural poverty bites hard and many are reliant on food banks and community fridges. Malnutrition, diabetes and obesity are rife in other less well off communities in Wales, too. So how could this change?

In our recent paper for the Food Research Collaboration at City University, Corinne Castle and I argue that the disruption of Brexit is also an opportunity for a new view of the Welsh food system, one which draws all aspects of food together – farming, food culture, social justice, environment, public health and the economy – and puts human and environmental well-being at the centre of food policy. We can see several reasons for optimism, and we think that now is the time for a step change.

One important factor is the forward-thinking legislation that we have in Wales. The Well-being of Future Generations Act, in particular, requires public bodies to consider the long-term consequences of their decisions, and to draw up local well-being plans. These are administered by Public Services Boards located in each local authority, and although they are still finding their feet, they have an obvious role in developing local food policy. Ensuring that everyone has enough to eat is a foundation of well-being that nobody can ignore for long.

The Act also requires government to collaborate with businesses and community groups, one of five ‘new ways of working’ that are intended to bring about a new ethos of government, one which recognizes that we are all in this together. Combined with the Environment Act, which requires Natural Resources Wales to consult locally on the environmental matters, it suggests new possibilities for place-based working that could release fresh energy and ideas, unlocking the latent energies of grassroots action.

Another reason for optimism is the vigour and diversity of new initiatives that are springing up on farms and in communities around the country. Many imaginative projects are drawing on a combination of Welsh tradition and international examples to come up with new models of food production and supply. These range from agroforestry and a grain revival to Community Supported Agriculture, horticulture, micro-dairies and community gardens. There are also place-based projects, notably Food Cardiff.

Some of these initiatives have a bearing on food poverty, such as the Food and Fun project which provides free meals and other activities during the school holidays in areas of social deprivation, pioneered by Food Cardiff. There are also several projects redistributing supermarket surplus food to charities, or making it available through community fridges. Other groups such as Aber Food Surplus in Aberystwyth are using surplus food to run Pay as You Feel community meals for the public. These allow people to eat for free if they need to, while collecting donations to support local projects. Community gardens similarly provide free food to their volunteers.

The hope now is that by joining the energy of rural agroecology initiatives with urban social justice projects, using food as a link between the two, we can start a movement to push our food system in a new direction. We all need to respond to the climate change emergency and put the economy in service to human happiness, not the other way around. With the Wales Food Manifesto we are calling for a national civil society network for food, one that will draw people together on the basis of shared values and develop a vision for radical change.

There is plenty that government could do to support this: make more use of public procurement to support farmers to grow more food for local markets, use farming support payments to invest in food culture and environmentally-friendly farming, support regional self-direction, and broaden its food and drink policy to include social considerations, not just export markets.

It’s time for a new conversation about food.

Jane Powell is a freelance education consultant and writer based near Aberystwyth. She worked at Organic Centre Wales from 2000 to 2015 and has been the Wales coordinator for LEAF Education (formerly FACE) since 2006. She volunteers with the Food Manifesto and with community food projects in Aberystwyth.

Please download our briefing, Brexit and Wales: A fresh approach to food and farming?

Blog 17. Guest blog by Sabine Goodwin. Food Poverty in Scotland – Report on the independent foodbanks

We’ve known for years that more and more people are going hungry in the UK. But we’ve had to rely on the Trussell Trust network to understand how many people have needed to access a food bank because they can’t afford to buy food. Thanks to Scotland’s A Menu for Change I’ve been able to find out more.

From April 2017 to September 2018 the Trussell Trust gave out 258,606 emergency food parcels from 118 food banks across Scotland, but what of the emergency support given out by 94 independent food banks I’d also found to be operating? How many 3-day food packages had these organisations supplied under the radar?

Back in November my colleague Dr Mary Anne MacLeod and I met with independent food bank teams in Glasgow and Edinburgh to launch our joint project to establish the scale of independent food parcel distribution in Scotland. Representatives travelling from far and wide knew they had much in common, in particular that the extent of their work went unreported.

The majority of independent food banks have kept records of how many parcels they’ve distributed, the number of people of they’ve supported and/or the number referrals or visits that have come through their doors. It was our job to work out a common measurement that we could adapt to a variety of systems and to create a database for the many independent food banks able to contribute.

We have now established the number of food parcels that 84 of those 94 independent food banks gave out during that same 18-month period – April 2017 to September 2018. The results are shocking. Independent food banks, operating in 18 local authorities, distributed no less than 221,977 emergency food parcels. Added to the Trussell Trust’s distribution of 258,606 parcels, that makes a total of nearly half a million at 480,583.

In Wigtownshire, Machars Churches’ Basics Food Bank has been operating for seven years and has witnessed a growing demand for emergency food supplies. Its manager Marlane Cash said:

“Today’s figures reveal the herculean efforts being quietly made by independent food banks in their local communities to pick up the pieces of a failing social security system. Clearly, these efforts have been unnoticed and under-reported for far too long. These statistics help to paint a more comprehensive picture of just how many people across the Scotland are facing hunger.”

And this disaster on our doorstep is certainly greater than our figures reveal. We know that our statistics don’t include the emergency meals and other forms of food aid provided by countless independent organisations across Scotland, nor the people who don’t access food aid at all and would rather suffer in silence.

How is it that in the 5th richest economy in the world children across Scotland and the rest of the UK are living in households with no food in the cupboard?

Marlane adds: “It’s an utter disgrace that anyone in our wealthy country is struggling to find money for basic essentials like food. Hopefully these statistics spur our political leaders into getting serious about tackling food poverty, by ensuring that everyone has the money they need to put food on the table.”

Without a welfare state that is fit for purpose and without wages and job security to match the cost of living,how can this shocking rise in hunger ever be addressed?

We hope that the Scottish and UK Governments will sit up and take notice of this data, which almost doubles earlier assessments of food poverty in Scotland. It doesn’t take much analysis to understand that with at least 709 more independent food banks operating in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the contribution of independent food banks represents a large missing piece of the UK charitable food aid picture.

Sabine Goodwin is the Coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network and led the research in Scotland with A Menu for Change. She would like to express her gratitude to the many independent food banks contributing data and time to this project. Further details of IFAN’s research can be found here.

Blog 16. Food poverty and Brexit

Here we are just a month before Brexit and we still don’t know exactly what is going to happen, or what its effects will be. But here are a few thoughts around food and food security.

What’s the current situation?

• We have a food supply system dependent on ‘just in time’ methods of distribution largely controlled through chains of supermarkets. This works if there is a free flow of goods across borders but could not work if inspections and tariffs are imposed. Food ingredients cross and re-cross borders in the process of preparation of many items such as cheese and baked goods.
• Even so there are many parts of the country, including both rural and some urban areas, which are ‘food deserts’. Here there are few food shops and these rarely supply fresh food; in addition prices are high.
• While much of the UK’s food is imported, particularly from the EU, food grown in the UK is dependent on foreign workers coming from Europe for picking and packaging fruit and vegetables, while abattoirs also rely on similar sources for much of their labour.
• There are large numbers of people living in poverty in the UK according to the ONS (Office for National Statistics) (see www.theguardian.com/inequality/2019/feb/26/uk-income-inequality-benefits-income-ons). Most of those living in poverty are also food insecure and may be forced to buy and eat cheaper foods which tend to be high in fat and sugar.
• It is because of the increase in food poverty that we have seen the rise of food banks, deriving their food from public donations via supermarkets and more recently from the use of ‘surplus’ food donated by food suppliers.

It is scarcely surprising that parts of the national press have been warning of the effects of Brexit on both imports and exports, including food. In May 2017, Dan Roberts wrote that leaving the EU without a trade deal could put the majority of British food exports at risk ().

A more recent article by Zoe Wood on 23rd Feb. 2019 points out that nearly one third of British food comes from the EU bloc. She mentions as an example Cheddar cheese (the nation’s favourite), most of which comes from Eire and which could see a dramatic rise in costs with the imposition of tariffs under a no-deal scenario.

These warnings are echoed elsewhere, such as in the Huffington Post which has carried a series of articles about the likely impact of Brexit, especially one without a deal, including empty shelves in the supermarkets and fresh fruit and vegetables rotting at ports:

Given that the poorest people spend the highest proportion of their income on food, they are likely to be the hardest hit in the event of price rises.

A number of organisations have produced reports.

As early as July 2016, just after the referendum, the Rowntree Foundation produced a Brexit briefing urging the UK government to produce a plan to boost the poorest regions of the UK following Brexit. It showed the 12 regions scheduled to receive the most EU funding to tackle poverty and boost growth up to 2020. One of these is Wales, which was set to receive £1.9bn, representing £627 per head of population.

In September 2018 Rowntree produced another report ‘How could Brexit affect poverty in the UK?’. It predicted increases in prices of food which, coupled with possible falls in real wages and lower employment could be a perfect storm for the 14 million people in the UK who live in poverty. Child poverty is set to increase further after Brexit, affecting poorer areas most. And, as mentioned above, there will be an end of EU funding related to poverty reduction.

Last year the Soil Association also produced a number of policy briefings, noting that food needed to be put at the top of the political agenda, particularly given the extent to which the rules of food trade affect public health. In an article in The Guardian Julian Baggini made use of one of these reports ), plus another by the Harvard School of Public Health, to point out that trade liberalisation tends to lead to an increase in so-called ‘junk’ food and thus to obesity and other health problems, citing the example of NAFTA, which has changed the obesity rates for the worse in both Mexico and Canada.

What about government?

During 2018 DEFRA held a consultation about its command paper ‘Health and Harmony’, a revised version of which was published in September. The Food Ethics Council made a submission in May, noting that ‘Household food security is an area not adequately covered in the command paper. We urge the government to take stronger measures to tackle the root causes of household food insecurity…’ The FEC also argued strongly for public health to be supported by future food and farming policy, an argument also put forward by Sustain in its own response to the command paper.

Academic studies have also been plentiful.

An early report on the likely effects of Brexit on food security was written in 2017 by academics Tim Lang, Erik Millstone and Terry Marsden: ‘A Food Brexit: time to get real’.

Subsequently, these authors and a number of others from a range of universities have supplied useful and detailed information on food and Brexit in a raft of reports written under the auspices of the organisation Food Research Collaboration.

In terms of discussing food poverty, the most pertinent of these are ‘Feeding Britain: food security after Brexit’ (Tim Lang, Tony Lewis, Terry Marsden and Erik Millstone) and ‘Why Local Authorities should prepare Food Brexit Plans’ (Tim Lang, Erik Millstone and Gary Macfarlane). Both of these studies emphasise the importance of openness with the public and the need for public engagement.

In the first paper, written in 2017, the authors recommend a focus on the potential adverse effects of Brexit on food security and the avoidance of a hard Brexit ‘at all costs’. They also propose the creation of a new Sustainable Food Security Strategy.

More than a year later, in the second paper, the authors argue that Local Authorities (LAs) have a crucial role to play and propose the creation of LA Food Resilience Teams, which can mitigate the impact on SMEs (small and medium businesses) and also feed information to central government so that it is aware of local conditions.

And food aid?
If there is a food shortage, will the food industry continue to provide and will food banks continue to be able to help sustain their current number of clients? The Trussell Trust, for example, has warned that food banks are already fully stretched and is preparing “crisis responses” for Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal.

At present, it doesn’t look like food poverty is going to decrease any time soon.

Blog 15. A good day to bury bad news? Reactions to the UN Special Rapporteur’s Report 1/12/18

The preliminary report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Professor Philip Alston, appeared on November 16th. It has been the subject of my three previous blogs (numbers 13-15) and in this present one, I consider some of the responses.

a) The press conference – who was there?
On the day he presented his report (16th Nov. 2018), Philip Alston gave a press conference which has now been put up on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AlstonUNSR/videos/207369616828528/?__tn__=-R)
During the first half, he spoke about his findings, in the second half there were questions from, inter alia, the Independent, Guardian, New Statesman, Sky news and Financial Times.

Running alongside this podcast are many comments from those watching. People said that they had only known about the SR’s report through social media, not through the usual TV channels or newspapers, and asked why the BBC appeared not to be present at the press conference. All were very supportive of the UN report, thanked Alston, and one even proposed him for PM! It was widely recognised that the government would either deny or ignore the report. There were a number of commentators who focused on particular issues, especially around the cuts in benefits for disabled people. Others were women in their fifties who have recently had their pension age raised at short notice and now find themselves in poverty. One said that she had been recommended to take an apprenticeship!

The publication of the report raised a Twitter storm:
• The first of these says: ‘This government has blood on their hands…thank you for your thorough and honest appraisal. Unfortunately this will not be shown on TV, it may get a passing mention but then it will be swept under the carpet.’
• Another adds ‘Let’s face it – this government are treating the furore around Mays Brexit ‘deal’ as a good day to bury bad news’ while a third asks why the BBC is not covering this report.

Here is a small sample of the remaining hundreds of tweets:
• Philip Alston, thank you for your honesty in reporting the terrible levels of poverty and the lack of concern and political will shown by the British Government. I am so thankful that there is an independent and non-biased organisation that can report the truth.
• This important investigation should be splashed over the media, sadly it won’t! Many believe what this Government and media feed them, they should read this.
• Thank you @Alston_UNSR for making your findings clear, transparent, unequivocal and hard hitting. It’s excruciating to read. Even though what’s happening is plain to see, we’ve carried on relatively regardless. Now it is up to us UK citizens to tackle our #willfulblindness
• I have chronic illness aggravated by medical errors that I can’t afford to take to court. I’m a lone parent and last week signed a no resuscitation order because when Universal Credit comes to my city, I would be better dead than fighting even for food for my son.
• Dear Professor Alston. Thank you so much for your careful report. I am a GP in Plymouth &see the misery the Tory cuts cause my patients every day. Sadly our new DWP minister, Amber Rudd, &all other Tory MPs have denied everything & belittled your qualifications.
• Now this is a subject that deserves to shut down the bridges of London and be shouted daily behind outdoor newscasters, Brexit is used as a smokescreen to hide the immense suffering of our fellow citizens

The government reaction: shoot the messenger
• The newly appointed Minister for Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd, described the language of the report as ‘extraordinarily political’ and its tone as ‘highly inappropriate’. An article in the New Statesman by Anoosh Chakelian points out that ‘when you only care about the messaging, you’ve lost the argument’.
• A DWP spokesperson was quoted in a number of reports as saying that it completely disagreed with Professor Alston’s analysis: “With this government’s changes, household incomes have never been higher, income inequality has fallen, the number of children living in workless households is at a record low and there are now 1million fewer people living in absolute poverty compared with 2010”.
• On the BBC’s Andrew Marr show there was a discussion of the UN report by a panel which included the junior Brexit Minister Kwasi Kwarteng who entirely dismissed the report, said he ‘didn’t know who this man is (Alston)’. When confronted on the programme with the case of a brain-damaged teenager about to lose her home because of Universal Credit he merely said ‘it was a sad story’ while maintaining that the economy was in fine shape.
• The junior Work and Pensions minister Justin Tomlinson told a committee of MPs that families suffering from poverty might take in lodgers to alleviate their problems.

The mass media coverage
The BBC news channels did of course cover the report but they also made it the subject of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘The Moral Maze’, broadcast on 18th November, with a panel comprising Melanie Philips (columnist on The Times), Michael Portillo (former Tory cabinet minister), Matthew Taylor (Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts – RSA), Giles Fraser (described as ‘priest and polemicist’). Their initial comments on the UN report were unsurprising:
• Melanie Philips: I don’t recognise this picture of UK. Exaggerates in a disgraceful way in order to make a political attack on this country which the UN has no business doing. Another reason why UN is a moral disgrace
• Giles Fraser: I have bags in the back of my study for those who come knocking at my door, increasing numbers in last 5-6 years. It is a picture I entirely recognise
• Michael Portillo. Britain does not have extreme poverty nor are the rights of poor people being violated. In a democracy with a raucous free press, we hardly need intervention from the UN
• Matthew Tennant: one of the indicators of the high levels of poverty comes from asking people what they consider to be essential. We do have a big issue of poverty and also lack of awareness so the UN has done us a service
In short, then, a ‘balanced’ set of views, with the report (and the UN) being stoutly defended by some of the witnesses called such as Helen Barnard, Deputy director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and Natalie Samarasinghe, the UNA-UK’s Executive Director.

Alston’s report was also covered by most of the TV news channels, although some gave it more time than others. Channel Four had been following Alston during the 12 days he toured the UK, and it interviewed Alston on his preliminary report, as well as carrying a piece from its social affairs editor Jackie Long.

Most of the broadsheets (e.g. Times, Independent, Financial Times) also carried the story as did the Evening Standard, while the Guardian produced numerous reports before, during and after Alston’s visit and the publication of the report. The Telegraph highlighted the SR’s contention that the UK’s welfare system has a deep gender divide: “If you got a group of misogynists together in a room and said ‘how can we make a system that works for men but not women?’ they wouldn’t have come up with too many other ideas than what’s in place.” Alston noted the single household payments meant that women were not often able to control the family income, putting them at greater risk of domestic violence.

The Continental Telegraph on the other hand headlined its article with ‘The lie in the UN Rapporteur’s UK Poverty Report’ and dismissed it entirely.

The UN report was also covered by foreign-based news media. On November 21st, the New Yorker published a long article, while the Huffington Post focused on the Kwasi Kwarteng story. Al-Jazeera also carried the story in some detail and concluded by quoting Kartik Raj, a researcher for Human Rights Watch: “The government needs to sit up and pay attention to what he (Alston) has said at this crucial time, not hope that his recommendations get buried in the nonstop rolling news coverage of Brexit.” Raj was right of course, since coverage of Brexit is wall to wall but this is not the only reason.

Alas, there has been little follow-up, although coincidentally, a report which came out at almost the same time written by academics for the UK Equalities Commission (an all-party group) (https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/sites/default/files/is-britain-fairer-2018-pre-lay.pdf) makes many of the same points. As of course have many previous reports by third sector organisations and academics, as I’ve pointed out before in earlier blogs. A number of newspapers noted that this was the fifth visit by a UN special rapporteur since the Tories came to power in 2010, and all of their reports had been ‘buried’.

Blog 14. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights delivers his end of tour report and it is damning

The UN Special Rapporteur (SR) Philip Alston toured the country for 12 days up to 15th November, and on 16th November issued his 24-page provisional report, based both on the submissions sent in earlier (see Blogs 12 and 13) and his interviews and meetings with people all over the UK. (https://ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?LangID=E&NewsID=23881)
We will have to wait a while for his more detailed report.

Much of what this report contains some of us already knew, but it sums up, succinctly and incisively, the scale and depth of the problem of poverty in the UK, the fifth richest country in the world:
• Fourteen million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty
• Of these, 1.5 million are destitute
• Child poverty rates are rising and expected to rise further
• Demand for and on food banks is escalating

Yet the current government insists all is well and, as the SR maintains, there is a ‘total disconnect’ between what he heard from government ministers on the one hand and the considerable amount of evidence obtained both from the earlier submissions and from the people he heard on his tour on the other.

Alston notes that the government has made it plain that its aim is to change not only welfare policies but also the value system which underlay the welfare state in favour of greater individual responsibility for wellbeing and the limitation of government support. The SR maintains that this is a political choice in which ‘British compassion for those apparently suffering has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach’ (p. 3).

What to many will be particularly startling in this report is his contention that the driving force behind the levels of poverty in the UK is not just austerity, supposedly a necessary economic measure, but rather ‘commitment to achieving radical social re-engineering… a revolutionary change in both the system for delivering minimum level of fairness and social justice’. The SR maintains that ‘Key elements of the post-war Beveridge social contract are being overturned,’ (p. 2).

Why poverty?
a) Brexit
The SR discusses some of the reasons for this situation and begins with Brexit which, as he points out, has already made life harder for the poorest because of the rise in prices, caused in part by the fall in the value of the pound. It will continue to hit the poor disproportionately if the current benefit policies are not changed, and if, as seems likely, no substitute for the considerable amounts of money which the EU has been giving to the poorest regions is available.

b) Universal Credit
He then goes on to discuss further aspects of the current situation, beginning with the introduction of Universal Credit, a scheme which has attracted considerable criticism from many quarters, even Tory MPs, one of whom called it a ‘military-style command and control approach’ (p. 6):
• Delays in payment – at a minimum five weeks but usually much longer, and frequent errors in payments
• The ‘digital by default’ nature of the scheme which disadvantages those who are not computer literate or who do not have access online to the claims system: just over half of claimants find the application process ‘difficult’ and a similar number could not complete the claim without outside help from voluntary organisations or staff in hard-pressed libraries. Scarcely surprising then that one third of Universal Credit claims fail the application process
• The continuation of a punitive sanctions regime in which 6-8% of claimants are subject to sanctions, a third of which exceed three months. This has succeeded ‘in instilling a fear and loathing of the system in many claimants’ (p. 6)

c) The digital welfare state
He moves on to consider the government’s policy of creating a digital welfare state (p. 7) in the process of which, as the SR puts it ‘We are witnessing the gradual disappearance of the postwar British welfare state behind a webpage and an algorithm.’ (p. 7)

Further automation within both central and local government is planned including automated fraud and error detection and prevention, ‘risk-based verification systems’ and the use of artificial intelligence – in short a system of total surveillance. What is most alarming about this process is its lack of transparency, as a result of which few people know much if anything about it.

d) Austerity
The problems of poverty do not only lie in the low levels of benefits and the difficulties in obtaining them but also in the whole programme of austerity and the numbers and amount of cuts in public spending. One such is to local authorities, which have seen virtually half of their funding between 2010-11 and 2017-18 cut in real terms, even as the demands for their services have increased dramatically. The SR points to the resulting closure of children’s centres and libraries, the disappearance of the Local Welfare Fund, and to the struggle LAs have to provide even the minimum of their statutory services.

Measurement of poverty
Paradoxically all of these cuts have actually resulted in the need for increased spending in such areas as Accident and Emergency sections of hospitals. The SR quotes the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s estimate that ‘poverty is costing the UK £78 billion per year in measures to reduce or alleviate poverty – not counting the cost of benefits (p. 15)’.

However, the government refuses to measure or monitor poverty in any detailed or consistent way. Yet, as the SR points out, ‘to address poverty systematically and effectively it is essential to know its extent and character’ (p. 15). The UK produces four different measures, thereby allowing the government to pick and choose which of its figures to highlight or ignore.

Work as the solution
The government’s stated policy is for employment to be the panacea for poverty yet low wages, insecure jobs and zero hours contracts leave 2.8 million people who are in work in acute poverty. The hardest hit by the current situation are women, children, people with disabilities, pensioners, asylum seekers and migrants and those experiencing rural poverty.

Conclusion
Given this bleak picture, it is scarcely surprising then that life expectancy rates are no longer rising (and are falling in some areas), that the contemplation of suicide was a common theme in his discussions with people in the UK, that loneliness is soaring, in short that the social contract which binds us together is breaking. He quotes the 17th century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes who in his book Leviathan (1651) said that life would be ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ if there was no such social contract.

Blog 13. How much more evidence do we need before government policy changes? Academic submissions to the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. 30th October 2018

newspaper headline

In the last blog, I wrote about some of the submissions from official and voluntary bodies sent to the SR who is due to arrive in the country in the next few days. This week’s task has been to go through the many submissions from academics , some 26 in all, from some two dozen different universities and a wide range of disciplines: social policy, sociology, social geography, law and medicine. You can find all on https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Poverty/Pages/UKVisitSubmissions.aspx

I’ve grouped the submissions roughly into the following categories:
• Austerity and welfare benefits
• Health inequalities, including children and young people
• Housing
• Food insecurity

Obviously there’s no way I can possibly do justice to all, so here I have highlighted a few which I see as particularly pertinent to food poverty or insecurity. Reading through these submissions has reminded me how complex a topic this is and how people suffering from food poverty are also likely to have problems with employment, benefits, debt, housing and health, both physical and mental, all of which are referred to in these submissions.

1. Austerity and benefits
It seems appropriate to begin with austerity and welfare benefits on the day after the UK’s latest budget statement from the Chancellor, in which it has been announced that more money will be made available for Universal Credit, the government’s flagship scheme. As most of us will be aware, this is an attempt to roll all existing benefits into one in the name of ‘simplification’, and to ‘incentivise’ people to work. However, its roll-out has been dogged by delays and errors, while people migrating from the old to the new systems have to wait a minimum of 5 weeks, often much longer. It is also an essentially punitive regime with severe sanctions for any failure to comply. As Professor Adrian Sinfield (University of Edinburgh) notes:
‘The UK sanctions system therefore promotes extreme poverty. Its well-attested consequences include increased debt, worsened health, damaged family relationships, ‘survival crime’ and hunger’.

In a similar vein, Professor Jonathan Bradshaw (University of York) notes that in 2007 (before the crisis) public expenditure was 35.2% of GDP. Under the Labour government it rose to 40%. Now the aim is to reduce it to 34%, which is much below the European norm and on a par with Japan and US. At the same time, the reduction in deficit has been done by taking 80% from government spending and only 20% in increased taxes. He cites a number of other studies which have been done: ‘The conclusions are clear: the lowest income deciles have had the biggest losses; the poorest local authorities have suffered the biggest revenue losses; the cuts have hit the incomes of families with children most. Poor lone parents are the biggest losers…’ (p. 2.)

2. Health inequalities, including children
Given this by now eight-year period of extreme austerity, what have been the results? Among the academic submissions is one from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health which asked its members for their views. Most doctors thought things are getting worse for the young patients they see: ‘poverty contributes to the ill health of the children’ as does food insecurity, lack of housing and financial stress and worry, especially in the north of England. Yet the government has adopted regressive steps, with the abolition of the child poverty unit, the removal of the duty to report on four key targets for eradicating child poverty, and a two-child limit on family benefits.

The Royal College also points to a fall in happiness scores for 10-15 year olds, growing concern with child and adolescent mental health, a 68% increase in the number of girls admitted to hospital for self-harming and a rise in the Infant mortality rate which increased in 2015 and 2016 for the first time since 1985. Many of these factors can be attributed to poverty.

A third submission on this topic comes from Dr. Gill Main (University of Leeds School of Education) who argues that government antipoverty measures in the UK adopt a strongly individualistic approach which includes the harsh sanctions regime aiming to turn behaviour around. This uses tropes like ‘three generations of worklessness’ and other similar ones which blame those in poverty. She also notes that government measures of poverty use the household as the unit, ignoring the fact that resources may not be evenly divided within it. Using the household tout court also ignores the realities of complex households, including diverse outside stakeholders such as grandparents. The effects of poverty on children are extreme: deprivation, shame and stigma, even bullying, and lack of material necessities including food and clothing. Yet the voices of children are rarely heard.

3. Housing
Kate Hardy (Leeds) and Tom Gillespie (Manchester) write about the forced removal of residents to out of borough placements which often affects the most vulnerable, including the disabled, people with mental health needs and lone women with children. A borough can fulfil its duty of housing by the single offer of a rental in the private sector, which, if refused, results in ‘intentional homelessness’. Their study in a London borough found that over half of respondents had been offered housing in other London boroughs and a third even further afield, resulting in displacement, a situation which was reported on only this week in the national press (see https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/oct/29/number-of-homeless-households-moved-out-of-london-soars). This can mean loss of employment, schools, friends and neighbours or else spending long and expensive hours commuting.

4. Food insecurity
All of the foregoing make it likely that individuals and families with the problems list above are likely also to suffer from food poverty, to which two submissions are devoted, although it is of course mentioned frequently by others.

Elisabeth Garratt (Nuffield College Oxford) begins her submission by noting the absence of government monitoring data on food insecurity. She then goes on to consider some aspects of food charity and redistribution organizations which are ‘problematic from a human rights point of view’: there is limitation of supply, rationing of assistance, and uncertain suitability of compatibility with religious, cultural and health preferences. Her own data (like that of many others) reveal that food banks are considered a last resort and seeking such assistance is associated with embarrassment and shame.

The other submission on food poverty is from a multidisciplinary team’s project ‘Life on the breadline’ (Universities of Coventry , Manchester and Canterbury Christchurch) whose research is on the role of religious organizations in providing assistance. Faith-based responses have increased in tandem with the partial withdrawal of the state and these are relatively well-placed to set up e.g. food banks because churches may have the only public building in area – an important form of religious capital. The theologies behind such initiatives are those of the common good and an ethic of service and social responsibility but recently there has also been more emphasis on campaigning and a greater willingness to challenge the government. This team also points to the increasing importance of faith players operating outside the area of food poverty, with involvement in debt counselling, housing and legal advice, and ‘networked political action to challenge social exclusion’. Like the writers of other submissions, this team points to the need for a cultural shift around blame, shame and the individualisation of poverty.

Conclusion
These submission provide a powerful body of evidence that things are not well in the UK for many of its citizens, indeed, with the cuts ongoing and the likelihood of Brexit, they may well get worse, particularly for the lower deciles. Yet the government, instead of using these data to change their policies, continues its course, with only small concessions to those pleading the case for changes in policies which could bring people out of poverty.

Blog 12. Visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights to the UK, November 2018

Ahead of his visit to the UK at the beginning of November, the office of the Special  Rapporteur (SR Professor Philip Dalston*), called for submissions, and many of these are now available on the website: www.ohchr.org/EN/Pages/UKVisitSubmissions.aspx

This is a mine of information for researchers and policy-makers. Some two dozen academics have made submissions (including myself) and I hope to write about these later. Other submissions come from half a dozen NHRIs (National Human Rights Institutions), a handful of public institutions and many more civil society organisations and individuals. I have read through some of these and here offer a few comments.

Inevitably and unsurprisingly, there are many overlaps in the submissions which highlight low incomes, diminishing benefits, difficulty in accessing benefits, problems with the labour market (unemployment, low wages, zero-hours contracts), housing and homelessness. Some submissions try to give voice to those experiencing such issues, such as that by Churches Against Poverty. Others like Joseph Rowntree Foundation present telling statistics and examine trends over time. Like a number of others, Rowntree notes that the UK government does not even collect statistics on extreme poverty (any more than it does on food poverty).

The Trussell Trust suggests that the Special Rapporteur should visit a food bank, preferably at least one in an urban and one in a rural area. Trussell also notes the problems with the new Universal Credit System, as well as the on-going issues with the imposition of sanctions for the ‘failure’ of claimants to comply with the complex demands of the benefits system. This submission also quotes the experiences of a number of their clients.

As much of my research has been carried out in Wales, I read both of the submissions from that region: one from the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee of the National Assembly and another from the Wales UNCRC Monitoring Group which focuses on the rights of the child. They make for depressing reading.

The first notes that one in five people in Wales currently lives in poverty and forecasts suggest that this figure is likely to rise in the short term. It strongly urges the SR to visit Wales: ‘the country with the highest levels of poverty in the UK’. The Committee which wrote the submission also criticises the Welsh government for its failure to have what it regards as a proper poverty strategy and in particular argues that those policies which currently do exist fail to set out a clear set of actions. Like other submissions, this one also suggests that more needs to be done to provide more evidence and greater monitoring.

The submission from the UNCRC Monitoring Group notes that the Welsh government does not have all the powers it needs to address issues of poverty, notably in terms of taxation and welfare benefits, although devolved powers in education, health, housing, transport and the public sector fall within its remit. All of these relate to issues of poverty but, without sufficient financial resources to tackle such problems, the Welsh government remains handicapped. Meanwhile, the same issues are of concern as in other submissions, notably welfare reform (move to Universal Credit), food poverty, debt, employment (or lack of it) and housing. The Monitoring Group is concerned about the likely increase in children living in poverty and the lack of targets or dates for its elimination. It notes that most of the programmes and services which currently address this issue come from EU funding, for which Wales is a net beneficiary, and that Brexit is likely to create further difficulties in this regard unless some new source of funding is secured.

Three submissions relate to Scotland, which has a more highly devolved government than Wales.

The Poverty and Inequality Commission has been offering advice to Scottish Ministers since 2017, but its work will end next year since a Statutory Commission will be established through the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act 2017. This submission notes that in-work poverty is an increasing problem in Scotland and that poverty is more likely to be experienced by single parent households, people from non-white ethnic groups, and households containing a disabled person. In the course of its work, there has been an emphasis on listening to and amplifying the voices of those experiencing poverty and inequality themselves. This submission notes that more tax-raising and welfare powers have now been devolved to the Scottish government and suggests that the SR investigate the extent to which these levers are being used to maximum effect with regard to poverty.

The SNP Westminster Group submission focuses on child poverty and Universal Credit, noting that many of the premises on which this new welfare payment is based are ‘completely out of touch with the reality of most families on low-paid work.’ Furthermore, the two-child cap for child benefit means that larger families will be considerably worse off. As a result the Scottish government has had to spend on mitigating the effects of the welfare cuts – some £50m in 2017-8 on the bedroom tax alone, for example. The authors are scathing about the conditionality ‘baked’ into Universal Credit, noting that far from ‘incentivising entry into work’ it instead initiates and sustains a range of negative behaviours and outcomes, including ‘survival crime’.

The third of this trio of Scottish submissions comes from A Menu for Change about which I’ve written in past blogs. This is a three-year funded project managed by key anti-poverty organisations in Scotland which all share a deep concern about the rise in emergency food aid and want to find other ways of addressing this issue than yet more food banks. The authors note that food bank use grew by 17% in Scotland last year, a higher rate than elsewhere in the UK, and that this figure probably underestimates the numbers living in food poverty. Last month the Scottish government published its first national data on food insecurity and the SR is encouraged to take account of this latest information.

It remains to be seen what the SR will make of all of the information in these written submissions together with the findings of his one-week visit. At the end of last year, he visited the United States and his report is scathing – clearly human rights are being violated on a massive scale (see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/15/extreme-poverty-america-un-special-monitor-report).

Could the same be true of the UK?

*For more information on the SR please see https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/poverty/pages/srextremepovertyindex.aspx

 

Blog 11: On judging and being judged

Judgemental: critical, censorious, condemnatory, deprecating, disparaging, disapproving

I recently had a conversation with an advice worker and voucher holder who sees many food bank clients. She raised the issue of judgementalism, noting that while her own organisation stresses to its workers that it is not their job to judge clients, this still happens. Furthermore, when she has dealings with local officials and council members, remarks about those in poverty (including food poverty) are often disparaging: ‘ many people really have no idea how the other half lives and are not sympathetic. After all, they too are members of the public and they pick up the pervasive attitudes’.

Today with the ongoing roll-out of Universal Credit, we also know that there is an even more hostile environment for claimants. The same is true of food banks and their clients. This attitude is encouraged by much of the UK press (see Wells and Caraher 2014).

Some of the most judgemental comments come from a surprising source. Here is Jamie Oliver, celebrity chef and food campaigner in an interview for the Radio Times flagging up a new TV series on eating economically:

“I’m not judgmental, but I’ve spent a lot of time in poor communities, and I find it quite hard to talk about modern-day poverty. You might remember that scene in [a previous series of his programme] Ministry of Food, with the mum and the kid eating chips and cheese out of Styrofoam containers, and behind them is a massive fucking TV. It just didn’t weigh up.”

It may not have occurred to Jamie that a ‘massive’ tv may provide the only source of entertainment in households which cannot afford anything else. He was roundly criticised in some of the media and by charities working in the field of poverty.

At an early stage of my research, I was talking to the Chair of Trustees at a London food bank and we got on to this topic. This is what he said: ‘We had a client who was struggling with her food parcels so I helped her carry them to her car. To my astonishment, she had a Mercedes. She must have read my expression because she said “This car is all have and I’m living in it because I had to leave my home.” Since that time, I’ve been extra careful not to rush to judgement.’

Food banks and other organisations working in the field of aid for food poverty are encouraged to be different and volunteers trained to refrain from passing judgement on the clients. Instead they are exhorted to be empathetic and in my research I found that many of them are indeed just that. When I undertook the volunteer training, it was impressed upon us that it was not part of our job to condemn, we were there to help by giving food parcels in return for vouchers which had been acquired from other agencies after people demonstrated that they were in real need.

Even so, it is difficult for volunteers not to pass judgement. I have heard comments such as:

  • they can’t budget
  • they spend too much on drink, drugs or cigarettes,
  • too many young women get pregnant and become single mothers
  • it’s all because of the breakdown of the modern family

Here’s one volunteer in a London food bank complaining that a few clients abuse the food bank system:

‘We had a family with 5 kids. They came twice, then I saw them at the Christmas fair spending money and felt quite cross… Some people are in need when they first come, but some come repeatedly. We have a guy on the ‘blacklist’ who has been 18 times, he’s not looking after himself, he doesn’t really try, but his doctor keeps giving him vouchers.’

The sub-text of comments like these are ‘I am managing, even with difficulty, so why can’t they?’ It’s often difficult for volunteers to be aware of the back stories of clients with problems of low and uncertain income leading to debt or even eviction, as well as mental or physical health difficulties. Such problems are becoming even more common for a variety of reasons, not least the roll-out of Universal Credit with its long delays and the lack of help available.

But other volunteers in food banks are more positive about clients: ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ was heard not infrequently, while the manager of one food bank told me: ‘Many of our clients come in off the poorest council estate in the area. Some of them do have issues with substance abuse. Since I live in the area myself and know many of them, quite honestly if I had their problems, I would be hitting the bottle too!’