Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West.
It was obviously about so much more than just food. The smiling volunteers staffing the Bristol North West Foodbank greeted me warmly. “We have such a range of people here today for you to speak to,” they said. “It should give you a real flavour of what we do”. Tables were set out in the small church hall, adorned with bright table-clothes and inviting plates of biscuits. Friendliness, chattering and bustling filled the room.
As a magnificent cup of tea was thrust into my hand, I was introduced to some of the attendees at the food-bank. We chatted over our beverages about how they had come to be there. One lady had worked all her life but was now suffering from depression, and having problems with getting benefits to which she was entitled. A young man looking for work had recently moved. Since then, his benefits had mysteriously stopped. He had no income and was here at the foodbank. His story reeked of the kind of ‘glitch in the system’ that any MP’s caseworker, under any government, will recognise. I suggested he send my caseworker his paperwork…
This is not a blog about the merits or otherwise of the welfare reforms: these have been amply debated. (Readers won’t be surprised to find that I support the principles behind the reforms – change was badly needed.) But I was particularly struck by the fact that, contrary to what I had been led to expect, these did not seem to be the central complaint. Instead, I found my visit threw up much thornier, fundamental issues than one Government policy.
Cutting through some of the politicisation to look at the actual history of the foodbank movement, this became less surprising. Demand for foodbanks was rampant way before the economic crisis in 2008. When the Trussel Trust opened the first foodbank in Britain in 2004, the number of people using them rocketed fifteen-fold from 2,814 in 2005/6 to 40,898 in 2009/10. Even when we were living in the pre-Lehman good-times, numbers more than tripled between 2005 and 2007.
Such growth suggests that demand was significantly outstripping increase in supply even before the Financial Crash. Bear in mind, too, that this was during a time when the previous Government actually prevented Job Centres from referring people to foodbanks. Since the Coalition Government opened up foodbanks to job-centre referrals, the rise in numbers attending foodbanks has then doubled – from 61,468 in 20010/11 to 128,697 in 2011/2012.
The inevitable conclusion? Regardless of what you think of the welfare reforms, demand for foodbanks was rife even back in the pre-2008 days of plenty, when benefit payments, too, were soaring. That troubling reality deserves attention if we are really to solve reasons underlying this demand.
Indeed, my conversations pointed to much deeper issues, underlying the very nature of the state’s interface with the individual. Time and time again, attendees had simply fallen through the cracks of a system of tick-boxes where computer frequently said ‘no’. They were shuttled around, with no single person taking responsibility for their personal welfare, much less caring about it. No one’s life fits a template, so it is little wonder that the square holes of the system simply do not fit the multi-shaped pegs of peoples’ lives.
Personal interaction is not only more efficient for managing individual’s needs, it can also be part of the healing process for the applicant. Although food was crucial, it was not the only reason attendees were there. Each told me how this was a highlight to their week – meeting others in similar difficulties, in a sociable, non-judgemental climate. Disaster can be isolating. It is easy to feel that it is you alone suffering such troubles. Then it is easy to feel that it is all your fault: self-esteem plummets and depression sets in. For those with mental illness, this social time was an informal therapy.
Negotiating government systems and managing government forms and paperwork is often a challenge even for the experienced MP’s caseworker. For a member of the public, especially if they have a learning difficulty such as dyslexia (often undiagnosed) or are one of the many adults let down by the past education system who are illiterate, it can be almost impossible. This leads many to make accidental mistakes, problems, and loss of benefits, simply because the paperwork is so complex.
Volunteers highlighted the need to give good financial education to help attendees. Many had not been brought up into a culture of saving, even if they were lucky enough to be able save, so that the advent of difficult times hit them all the harder. Personal finances can be difficult to negotiate for all of us. Good financial education at schools, as well as more widely for adults, would have an enormous impact.
It became clear to me that foodbanks are providing a model of how the state should, ideally, interact with individuals, therefore making foodbanks themselves unnecessary and redundant. Instead of the intimidating monolith of a government department, the foodbank offers a live human being to help diagnose and then navigate anothers’ problem. This is far more effective than the impersonal gateway into the welfare system that is now exacerbated by increasingly impersonal technology.
As our population gets larger, as we get older, as more of us (happily) survive illnesses, our welfare needs are going to get more complex. The existence of foodbanks, as well as basic observations, suggest that the way the state currently interacts with us as individuals is not working. Under more pressure, it can only get worse – regardless of who is in Government, and what policy they introduce.
You don’t need a costly, time-consuming report to see that if we really want to learn the lessons of foodbanks, we need a fundamental shift away from our current departmental model, towards a far smaller, more local, personal, food-bank inspired mechanism: a mechanism in which the individuals’ first encounter with the state is not an online form, or a telephone request to ‘press ‘1’ for this, and ‘2’ for that’ but a human being, who is interested, local, knowledgeable about the individual, and even cares. A similar approach is already being used in Jersey, but rolling something like ‘parish-based’ centres to such a large population as the UK is an enormous challenge.
However, if we really want to do more than just score political points on the backs of hungry people who have been let down by our clanking, monolithic welfare system, and really give the credit to foodbanks that they deserve, we must instigate not another report, but a fundamental government revolution that all parties will have to work together to embrace. Unless we do, foodbank use looks sadly set to rise, regardless of which party is in power.