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The poorest and most vulnerable currently live on the edge of a precipice. If they put a foot wrong, they are plunged over the edge into poverty, destitution, perhaps homelessness. Missing an appointment at the Jobcentre, or even just being late for an appointment, can lead to benefit sanctions which leave them with little or no income. This, to a large extent, accounts for the ever-rising numbers of people dependent on a foodbank to survive.
A volunteer at my local foodbank recently told me of a woman who had missed a Jobcentre appointment because she had to rush to hospital with her daughter in a medical emergency. Her benefits were stopped despite her explanations, because the Jobcentre staff said she should have phoned to cancel the appointment. To expect a mother to be thinking straight in such circumstances, and to be organised enough to make that phone call, is asking a great deal. To take somebody’s income away for such a reason seems inhumane. It is not an isolated incident. Here is a letter from Chester and Ellesmere Port Foodbank:
"Jenny came to the Chester and Ellesmere Port Foodbank last month, having been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her prognosis was three to six months. She already suffered with several chronic illnesses preventing her from working over the last two years and was in receipt of Disability Living Allowance. Having no family she was trying to 'put her house in order', ensuring all her bills were paid and saving up for her funeral. Her DLA was stopped; the reason given was that as she was not expected to survive the required time, she did not qualify for this benefit!
"She came to the Foodbank not for herself but to bring a neighbour who had mental health issues and short term memory problems. He had been 30 minutes late for his appointment at the Benefit office (he had forgotten the time!) and had therefore been sanctioned. He had not eaten for three days. They were both given a meal and the time to talk of their problems and referred to the appropriate agencies for food vouchers and further support and help. Several weeks later Jenny came to the Foodbank to thank everyone for the help and food that was given and the kindness and support that was shown in their time of need. Jenny died three weeks later.
"Jenny shared her story with one of our volunteers, and requested that we share it with you. We are privileged to do so."
Compare this with the story of millionaire MP Nadhim Zahawi who, apparently inadvertently, claimed expenses for the electricity used to heat his stables and a mobile home in his stable yard. Mr Zahawi issued this apology on his websitesaying he was mortified by his mistake and apologised unreservedly. "I will obviously be paying back any money that was wrongly claimed immediately".
Meanwhile, he will probably carry on with his millionaire lifestyle, his high-profile and handsomely paid career, and frequent media appearances.
We have seen bankers wreck the economy and emerge largely unscathed. We have seen MPs like Mr Zahawi claim expenses they weren’t entitled to and suffer negligible consequences. At the same time we are treated to a stream of media coverage, disturbingly named ‘poverty porn’, which encourages an ever more harsh and punitive attitude to those who are living on the edge of destitution.
It is said that "With great wealth comes great responsibility". In modern Britain, great wealth appears to come with impunity, and poverty means you never get a second chance.
© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeadenTweet