Placing DWP staff in foodbanks

By Bernadette Meaden
October 31, 2015

A few days ago, Giuseppina Salamone, a welfare rights adviser from Brighton, wrote a powerful letter to the Guardian, which was headlined, 'Welfare cuts are now becoming a matter of life or death'. She wrote of clients, mostly young families with children, being reduced to extreme poverty as a direct result of measures taken by the government.

After telling of a client, a disabled woman who was considering an abortion because of planned further benefit cuts, Salamone wrote, 'The government’s decisions on welfare are not simply about people’s money: they also torment, harm and scar the minds and bodies of the weakest in society. They have become an issue of life or death – whether for sick claimants, or their children or, soon, their unborn children.'

For people who are temporarily or permanently unable to earn an adequate living, if the welfare state withdraws support they become hungry, cold, homeless - in the most extreme cases, they die. That is the simple truth of the matter. And the way the welfare state is currently being cut and cut again, more and more people are being abandoned to this fate.

This is not a matter for debate, it is a matter of record. The number of  disabled people living in absolute poverty has risen. The number of homeless people has risen. The number of people unable to adequately feed themselves has risen, to the extent that a hospital foodbank is now giving food parcels to patients when they are discharged, so that their recovery is not hindered by malnutrition. We are entering Dickensian territory.

The rise of the foodbank has perhaps been the most visible sign of the erosion of the welfare state, and the failure of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to support vulnerable people. The government talks about providing security for families, whilst growing numbers of people do not even have the security of adequate food.      

The fact is that the only possible way for some people to have an income high enough to be able to buy adequate food is if the DWP changes policy. As it stands, with the plan to cut £30 per week from the income of people the DWP itself has deemed unfit to work, the situation can only deteriorate.

Poverty is not some naturally occurring phenomenon which simply happens, nor is it a result of the behaviour of poor people themselves. It is actually just a result of how money is distributed around our economy, and as such can be controlled to some extent by those who  have the levers of power. Current policies are actually creating poverty, and only a complete change of direction can stop it increasing.

Until that happens, and government policy starts reducing poverty not creating it, charitable organisations like foodbanks have a vital role to play in helping people to survive. It is difficult to imagine what would have happened over the past few years had foodbanks not risen to meet this challenge - we would probably have seen a lot more begging on our streets, and an even bigger increase in shoplifting for food.

Foodbanks are often where people go when the DWP has failed them. Often having been humiliated, degraded and made fearful by their experiences at the Jobcentre, they find at the foodbank a compassionate approach which treats them as valued human beings, no matter what their economic status.  This is particularly valuable for people with mental health problems.

So the idea of placing DWP staff in foodbanks, as Iain Duncan Smith is very keen to do, seems a bad idea for several reasons. It could deter people who have been sanctioned or feel under pressure from the DWP from visiting a foodbank. It is in danger of integrating foodbanks so that they become an established part of the welfare state, bestowing acceptability on to a level of benefits that leave people unable to buy adequate food. If foodbanks become closely associated with the DWP and are seen to be working hand in hand with it, it could be seen as an acceptance of government policy.

It is only too easy to understand why the Secretary of State is now so keen to work with foodbanks. His flagship policy of  Universal Credit has been designed with a five week wait from first claiming the benefit to receiving any money. This would seem to guarantee that foodbanks become a permanent and necessary feature.

Also, under Universal Credit, people in low-paid jobs or working part-time, even those with caring responsibilities, will be pressured by the DWP to work more hours or find a higher paid job, to reduce their benefit payment. If they are thought not to be making sufficient effort to do this, they can be sanctioned. If job advisers are at the foodbank, it could make the foodbank seem an integrated part of that system, leaving people with nowhere they felt they could go to get help without being placed under further pressure.

Whilst Church Action on Poverty's Niall Cooper welcomes the dwp foodbank trial as an admission of the link between hunger and problems with benefits, he says it, 'risks the DWP institutionalising food banks, entrenching the idea that they’re just a necessary part of the ‘big society’.

Indeed, many politicians are very keen to blur the line between charity and the welfare state, allowing the state to withdraw , with a hope that charities will fill the gap. This paves the way for lower taxes, which disproportionately benefit the wealthy.  But as Nelson Mandela said,

“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings."

Instead of placing DWP staff in foodbanks, the government has it within its power to greatly reduce the need for foodbanks.

 Update : since this blog was written, campaigner Rick Burgess started a petition on Change.org, and quickly received a response from the Trussell Trust, stating,  'We have no plans to place DWP ‘job advisers’ in Trussell Trust foodbanks.' You can read the Trussell Trust's full response here.

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: @BernaMeaden

 

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