‘This is not normal’ - hard-hitting letter to MPs on rise of foodbank use in Morecambe Bay

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The chair of trustees at Morecambe Bay Foodbank has written to MPs who visited the charity last week, saying the country has a welfare system that “regards those who ask for help with suspicion and derision”.

Joanna Young, who lives in Lancaster, has made it clear that the views in the letter are not the views of the foodbank, and that for the last two years she has “carefully constructed press releases that stick to the line, avoid controversy and don’t get too heated”.

Joanna Young, chair of trustees at Morecambe Bay Foodbank

Joanna Young, chair of trustees at Morecambe Bay Foodbank

But, she said “now it’s time for me to tell you what I really think, especially as you have come to listen, so here goes”.

She added that the government must reduce the five week waiting time for Universal Credit recipients and increase the level of benefits currently paid.

Poverty is...Morecambe residents tell visiting MPs truth about low income and Universal Credit

Dear Mr Field and Ms Allen,

My name is Joanna Young and I am Chair of Trustees at Morecambe Bay Foodbank.

I am sorry not to be with you today but I am at work so I thought I’d write to you instead.

I have spent the last two years composing carefully constructed press releases that stick to the line, avoid controversy and don’t get too heated. But now it’s time for me to tell you what I really think, especially as you have come to listen, so here goes. These are my views, not those of the Foodbank.

Here’s the headline.

The numbers of people without enough to eat in Morecambe continue to go up, and this is directly and absolutely caused by the deliberately hostile welfare policies that have been introduced since the roll out of Universal Credit. This includes the current rate of benefits, zero hours contracts and the changes to, and caps on, disability and other benefits over the past five years. Last year (January - December 2018) at Morecambe Bay Foodbank we distributed over 7,000 emergency three day food supplies.

The population of Morecambe, where the majority of our clients live, is around 40,000 people.

Here’s what matters.

I have met mothers with children the same age as my own, who have had to ask me for a toothbrush for their child; women who regard sanitary towels as a luxury; and mums for whom deodorant or shampoo for their partner or teenage son is a treat.

That’s degrading, but it’s nothing compared to what it’s like to be given food that you didn’t choose and aren’t sure what to do with, with which to feed your children.

I have met dignified gents my dad’s age who have been ground down by a system that has refused to recognise their talents, their potential or their experience and that treats them like failed economic units of production when things go wrong.

Even when they’ve paid their taxes, sometimes for forty years or more.

All they want is a bit of help and instead they get a kick in the teeth and they can’t believe they’ve ended up in a Foodbank.

I met a magnificent lady who drew herself up to her full height and eloquently described her professional life before she got sick, and her anger when she got judged to be well enough to work.

She paid into the system all her working life and then got nothing back when she needed help.

She packed her tins of donated food neatly away, straightened her back and went away, her head rightly held high.

She should not have been in our Foodbank because the state should have been helping her when she was too sick to work.

I meet ex-cons who are released from prison having been ‘rehabilitated’ by doing nothing inside, who are given forty six quid and told to go away, with no phone, no idea how to use the internet, no skills and no home, and who are expected somehow to contribute to society shortly thereafter.

I have met pregnant women who have not eaten for a while, and who need money for nappies, because the baby is about to arrive.

I have met people who were sanctioned because they were having chemotherapy and missed a DWP meeting.

I met one man who walked from Carnforth, eight miles away, in the rain to get to our Foodbank because had no other means by which to feed his family.

I have met people who are so ashamed and upset that they won’t meet my eye, and I don’t blame them a bit. Some people come in and cry when you offer them a cup of tea or a biscuit because no one has been nice to them for a long time.

Now, I am starting to meet people who think that it’s normal to be in a Foodbank.

Those are the ones that I find the hardest to serve. This is not normal.

This is what it means

We have a welfare system that regards those who ask for help with suspicion and derision.

A culture that assumes that if you’re not earning, you have no value, and if you ask for assistance then you are weak, helpless, lazy or stupid and that it is definitely your fault.

We have a system that is so mind bogglingly expensive I can’t even start to imagine the cost.

The cost of a cohort of children who have been raised to think that it’s normal to attend a foodbank.

Kids who have to sellotape their shoes together, have no coat in winter – in Morecambe – and get in trouble for it at secondary school.

A generation of people who are growing up in a culture that doesn’t treat them with potential, excitement, creativity and encouragement but that punishes, demeans, demands and then blames them for their own miserable shortcomings when they can’t magically summon up the social capital to succeed.

The price of this in mental health, low educational attainment and expectations, poor physical health and lack of aspiration is astronomical. How can you expect people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps if you take away the boots and the straps?

How can a single mum even think about an education course or a different career when she can’t feed her child? How can a growing thirteen year old boy concentrate on his homework if he’s hungry and doesn’t want to upset his mum by asking for something to eat?

How can you expect people to plan and take responsibility for their finances when zero hours contracts treat them as dispensable economic units rather than people with rent to pay, homes to heat and children to care for? That’s not socialist talk, that’s just real life.

The haves and have nots are now divided by a wafer thin bit of paper - between those who are just about making it, and those who by sheer bad luck, bad judgement or both, are not. When you don’t make it, the ladder is kicked out from under you and you fall to the bottom, and sometimes you just can’t get back up, however hard you try.

Our donations from the general public, our Facebook comments and our surge in volunteer numbers are showing that people now understand this. I would suggest that electorally speaking, it’s an unwise course.

From a conservative point of view, not investing enough money into these communities is fiscal madness. You are piling up years of economic sluggishness and depression into the future. Where will the bright lights of economic growth, entrepreneurialism and nurtured talent come from if you treat people like this? Children in this kind of poverty can’t aspire - they are too hungry! Ask the amazing teachers that you will meet today whose jobs have morphed from being educators to being triage on the front line of a need that isn’t letting up and has no end in sight. They are unlikely to attain Mr Gove’s exacting grammatical standards in key stage 2, not because they aren’t trying but because Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is so obviously getting in the way.

So, to paraphrase Bob Geldof, who confronted a very different kind of hunger but who had the same kind of indignation that I (a devoted political centrist and usually reasonable human being), feel about the current situation in England: please, just give them some f*cking money.

This is so utterly avoidable, so pointless and so costly. If you leave people with no money in a situation whereby they have nothing to survive on for five or more weeks, that there will be a major crisis in their lives and the lives of the people who depend upon them.

Isn’t that obvious? How would you cope if that happened to you? I couldn’t walk a day in the shoes of our clients and I challenge any politician to try it.

As I hope you will know, The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, signed and ratified by the UK and effective since 1976, regards access to adequate food (as well as social security) as a human right. The state is currently, according to our evidence here in Morecambe, in contravention of this to the tune of the 1229 families with children in them that we helped last year. You must do something about this, if you can.

***

A word on our sixty magnificent volunteers who give their own precious time to help people they don’t know every week. They are the demonstration of all that is right in our society. They show kindness, determination, love, great character and huge compassion. All of these things have been lost in the culture of our welfare state and I heartily hope that this will change in the future. Since when did we think it’s normal to punish people who ask for help?

Thank you for coming to listen to us today, thank you for being willing to hear what we have to say and I hope that it has been useful to you. If you have any questions of us please just ask. We are committed to doing anything that we can to change this situation and to make our welfare state more kind and more compassionate for those who are already at the bottom of the social pile.

****

A final thought. After a busy listening session at the Foodbank I go through a small but important ritual.

I pick my kids up from school, sometimes letting them have whatever snack they want from the corner shop on the way home. Getting home, I turn up the heating to dangerously luxurious levels, let the children relax and do what they want, put on my slippers, make a cup of tea and then I sit on my bed for a few minutes on a soft wool blanket that was given to us for our wedding, and I just have a moment to myself.

I am so, so lucky. These simple pleasures - a snack, some free time for the kids to play with their toys, a cuppa, a warm, comfortable house, a soft clean blanket - these are, for many of our clients, things they don’t have. In 2019, in England, it seems that I am rich indeed.

Joanna Young.