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Mind the gap: how charities are mopping up after the government’s failure to care

Under austerity, charities are regularly having to substitute for government. We live in a twenty-first century Britain where poorer citizens are back to relying on handouts to live.

“Twelve bags, mainly men’s and baby’s clothes. All washed and clean,” Dawn Wilson lists, pleased, as she checks through the latest donations collected from her local area.

Wilson, in her forties, has been co-running the Durham Socialist Clothes bank for three months now. She’s a full-time carer for her disabled husband and is characteristic of what is emerging as a makeshift frontline service up and down the country: volunteers, often on benefits or low wages themselves, filling in the gaps now being left by the state.

Wilson tells me she formed the idea for the bank with a friend last year after seeing a woman crying in a local shoe shop.

“This mother was saying to her young son, ‘it’s your sister’s turn, I’m sorry son’. It spurred us on to do something to help, to help people on benefits or who’ve been sanctioned or are homeless,” she says.   

With help from regional union funding, Wilson and friends began running the clothes bank out of their local community centre in October 2014. By mid-December, they were handing out around a hundred and fifty bags of clothing, with toys on top for Christmas, and seeing over a hundred people through the door in a day.

“We thought we’d be starting with two tables,” Wilson says. “But it’s just ballooned.”

Demand is so high that they are now looking for a permanent storage facility for the donations (Wilson currently uses her house and garage). Two more, separate north east clothes banks – one in Teeside and one in Stanley – are due to open in the coming month, she tells me.

Clothes banks are perhaps the latest stage of what the “safety net” has become under austerity. A few years ago, not many of us would have believed that food banks – at last count, having fed a million people – would be entrenched into our towns and cities on a national scale. The reality is they are now only one part of a much wider trend of charity substituting for government: a twenty-first century Britain where poorer citizens are back to relying on handouts to live.

The clothes bank in Durham

Since coming into office, the coalition has presided over “a dramatic decline in support for some of the most vulnerable groups in society”, as researchers behind an extensive study put it last month (pdf). Benefits are being cut and sanctioned at the same time as crisis funds are being removed. This is turning out to be a lethal two-tier loss of state support: where policies like the introduction of the bedroom tax, the removal of council tax exemption for the poorest, and failing reforms to disability benefits push people into financial crisis as ongoing abolition to local welfare funds removes where they can go for emergency help.  

“People haven’t got money for rent, gas, or food, never mind clothing. That comes way down the list,” Wilson tells me. “It’s a mixture of people who come to us but mostly they’re unemployed, disabled, homeless…but also ones who are employed and struggling on child tax credits. Zero hour contracts are a nightmare, as they don't know when their next money’s coming in.

“I remember, we saw a pregnant girl,” she says. “Twenty-six weeks pregnant but she’d been without money for over ten weeks because she’d had her benefits sanctioned. We put a plea out for her and we got her a lot of baby things. Clothing, a buggy, things like that.”

It’s telling of the scale of the problems leading people through the doors that the title “clothes banks” only goes some way to describing the needs being met by services like the one Wilson runs. These banks are keeping people warm (there are bags of jumpers, hats and winter coats in what Wilson tells me are for all ages and sizes) or fed. But there are bigger items, notably often for children and babies: buggies, car seats, and cots. Shampoo bottles and nappies sit on other tables. Boxes of tampons wait for women who can’t afford to buy their own.

“We find a lot of people are embarrassed to ask for help,” Wilson says. “We have this one woman in her seventies… She got so upset that she had to ask for help. Her pension just didn't go far enough due to her heating bills.”

 

***

 

“Wherever possible we prefer to give money so that people can feel that they have some autonomy and control over their own life,” Jemima Hunt* tells me over email, writing from her London home. “I’ve always said that if we gave a family money for food and they bought cake as well as fruit and vegetables then that should be their choice.”

Hunt, 35, is the founding member of the Biscuit Fund: a charity project that gives small grants, advice, and gifts to “people who are struggling and at their wit's end”. Hunt herself relies on disability benefits due to having severe chronic fatigue syndrome and anxiety and much of the work is done from bed.

Hunt tells me she had the idea for the project in 2013 when, seeing a friend was struggling, she put a plea on social media for help. She raised £100 in around ten minutes and had what she calls a “eureka” moment. Formed with a few people who had offered help in Hunt’s original post, the Biscuit Fund has now assisted just fewer than 250 people, providing anything from money to help pay the bills to delivering a washing machine.  

What is particularly striking is the way the fund actively seeks out its recipients. Forty-six volunteers – from Newcastle to Cornwall – now keep an eye on their own communities through local papers and trusted officials as well as scouring online, from bedroom tax forums to disabled advisory groups, for people who need help. It clearly meets what are basic practical needs but, each time I talk to Hunt, it’s the emotional impact of the donations that is most evident. (Hunt tells me one recipient who was given a new fridge invited her father over simply to “admire it”. Another took a photo of herself with her donated oven.) The aim, she says, is to offer “a reminder that there are people who care”. 

“I’ve never seen the Biscuit Fund as a political project,” Hunt explains. “It’s purely an exercise in hope and bringing a sense of relief. It’s deeply upsetting that there’s a need for us to exist, but while that need is there we will be here.”

The majority of people the fund finds in need have disabilities or health problems and are struggling on benefits or low wages, or are one of the many who have encountered the sudden loss of money that comes with a growing sanction system – or, as Hunt says, are a combination of each as they “frequently roll into one giant issue”.  

“One quite poignant case for me was a gentleman who’d previously had substance abuse issues and had several quite serious heath issues,” she tells me. “He’d managed to get clean specifically so that he could have contact with his daughter [and] it was to be the first Christmas in a long time that she spent with him, but due to a sanction he was struggling for food. In fact he was missing meals so that he could feed her when she visited twice a week.”

The Biscuit Fund team sent the man some shopping, and then another food order “so he could do a full Christmas dinner with his daughter”, along with a couple of stocking fillers for her and a few baubles.

He reported that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been excited about Christmas and that he’d been dreading it because he couldn’t provide her with the kind of Christmas they had both dreamed of,” Hunt says. “Apparently they had an absolutely wonderful Christmas together.”

“It still often amazes me, though, how little it can cost to help someone and restore a bit of hope,” she adds. “Quite frequently, we’ve had cases where the client has actually been considering suicide… Once in a while, something as insignificant as £50 can actually…restore a bit of faith in humanity.” 

Sarah Timothy*, 35, is a previous recipient of the Biscuit Fund and, after being touched by the help she received, their newest volunteer. Her gratitude beams from her.

“They’re the reason I’m still here today and able to help others who are now how I once was,” she tells me from her flat in a small town she asks to keep anonymous. “I was blown away by them. They offered me that tiny glimmer of hope which I very much had thought impossible at the time to have.” 

Timothy, who has emphysema, mobility problems and agoraphobia, is classed as a vulnerable adult. She lives in supported housing with the help of nurses who visit her daily but after being attacked in her home by a man known to her in February 2014, had to move to the first flat available. The floors had been left without carpet, the curtains needed replacing and there was no oven or washing machine. Timothy found herself in a situation familiar to many on a fixed or low income: forced to live hand to mouth and when a crisis hits, there are no savings or spare money to fix it.

“I tried all things [to get help] but I met with a brick wall each time,” she tells me. “The DWP were little support and every agency I approached said no. I did try a lot of places and each time I’d go back to the lady and she’d say ‘No, they can’t help.’ I did honestly try everyone, I even rung the council for help. Every suggestion was met with a ‘no’.”  

Timothy was eventually given a no-interest Budgetary Loan – a government pot designed to pay for essential items such as household equipment or furniture – for £113. It had cost £150 for removals alone and, by nature of a loan, she now has to pay it all back to the social fund. She tells me her application form still had a slot for Community Care grants on, despite the fact these were abolished in April 2013 as part of the “reforms” to local welfare funding.

Often, these charitable services end up as a last resort for those in crisis

“I’m on benefits and disabled so I had no means of buying an oven or anything,” she tells me. “I had to either choose to eat or keep warm and I chose to stay warm and live on Cuppa Soups.”

“When you’re at rock bottom already, it becomes a mundane task daily to battle to get simple things you need to live,” she adds. “I don’t know why in emergencies like this urgent help can’t be given by the DWP.”

It gives some insight into the extent the coalition has tampered with people’s ability to access “urgent help” that 75 per cent fewer financial awards were made in 2013/14 than before the Community Care Grants and Crisis Loans were abolished. Recent research into the impact of the coalition’s changes concluded that the ability of low-income households to access emergency financial assistance on a repeat basis has now been “virtually lost” in many areas.

Not content at that, the government is currently in a battle to abolish the funding for local Welfare Assistance funds. This, despite warnings from the Keep the Safety Net campaign – backed by a national network of over 100 voluntary sector organisations and local councils – that the government getting its way would be a “present” to loan sharks and further force low-income families to turn to charity.

It was the kindness of strangers and sheer coincidence, rather than structured governmental support, which allowed Timothy to wash her clothes and eat hot food again. Upset, she wrote a post on social media about her situation and a volunteer from the Biscuit Fund happened to spot it. Three days later, a brand new oven and washing machine arrived at her door.

“I remember I sat and cried when they said they’d help,” she tells me. “I hadn't eaten well for weeks or been able to even wash my clothes. At first I kept thinking that it maybe wasn’t true. I still didn’t believe it until they were actually delivered.”

“I do find it hard having to fight for simple needs,” she adds. “The basics, as well. Not luxuries.”

 

***

 

Rob Graham, 45, spent two and half years helping to meet these “simple needs” in his local area. He was one of the original volunteers at “NG7”, an independent food bank in one of the most deprived areas in Nottingham. This was a large-scale operation: table after table of toilet rolls, food tins and crates of fresh fruit and veg given out to people referred by multiple agencies, from refuges to the local Citizen’s Advice Bureau. Since the bank opened in 2012, 45 volunteers helped run the service – including Graham’s three teenage children – feeding over 5,500 people. After holding a final Christmas session, it closed its doors in December.  I ask Graham what happened.

“Unlike the Trussell Trust we chose [from the beginning] not to set up a referral arrangement with the DWP. We created our own referral arrangements with specific organisations…where we could be sure that alongside us providing food there was in place some support to address the issue that had created the food crisis,” he explains. “We started with a clear ethos to be 'a service of last resort', not an alternative for the local authority or the DWP to use instead of their own funds.”

But Graham and others at the bank soon began to be contacted by workers from the local council.

“We spent significant time signposting staff from Nottingham City Council Family and Community Teams from across the city,” he says. “It was individual workers in these teams who informed us of how they were advised to use food bank referrals by their management and felt pressure to not use internal funds.” 

This pattern of using the bank to fill in for statutory services ties in with the Freedom Of Information (FOI) requests that the NG7 volunteers made.

“A mere £68,000 was handed out in emergency hardship payments in 2013/ 2014,” Graham explains. “Our FOI request clearly shows that the council have not addressed the issue of access to emergency hardship support through its local welfare assistance programme, especially around those people who have been sanctioned by the DWP.”

Some of the supplies offered by the NG7 food bank

Graham tells me it reached the point where he and other volunteers were “regularly overwhelmed” by phone calls from support agencies and Nottingham County Council to the extent that in March 2014 they stopped accepting them. 

“[We ended up leaving] a voice message which signposted workers or potential service users to where they could find immediate advice,” he says.   

The experience of the NG7 food bank highlights the lurking fear at the back of any discussion of these expanding charitable services: that this may be exactly what the government wants. It is not clear whether the slow entrenchment of food banks and charitable services are the product of an active attempt to draw back the state or simply the tacit approval of a lack of action.

By the end of 2014, the Institute for Fiscal Studies was stating that “colossal” cuts – both current and those still to come – mean it would be justified to ask whether the government was planning "a fundamental reimagining of the role of the state", changing it “beyond recognition”. It is difficult, as we watch carers open clothes banks and the chronically ill deliver food parcels, to not recall David Cameron’s 2010 promise: a shift “from state power to people power.” Perhaps the “big society” has come to life.

It has been just over a month since the NG7 food bank stopped its service and Graham tells me, as the funding for welfare assistance schemes is planned to come to an end this year, he fears things will only get worse.

I'm aware that some voluntary sector groups, mainly charities, are looking to extend their work into food banks,” he says.Without critical challenges from food banks or campaign groups, councils and the DWP can continue to utilize these free resources unfettered.” 

“When we initially opened there were only five food banks in the city,” he adds. “Now there are thirteen.

Back in Durham, Dawn Wilson is finishing sorting the piles of donations. There will be another session in a few days.

“It's heart breaking to see people on their knees and not getting the help,” she tells me. “We do shed a few tears.

“It's a sad state of affairs,” Wilson adds. “This government has a lot to answer for.”

*Some names have been changed

You can donate to The Biscuit Fund here: www.biscuitfund.org

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

André Carrilho
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"Jeremy knows he can't do the job." What now for Labour and Britain's opposition?

Senior figures from all parties discuss the way forward: a new Labour leader, a new party or something else?

In the week beginning 13 March 2017, the Scottish National Party demanded a second referendum on indepen­dence, the Chancellor tore up his Budget and George Osborne was announced as the next editor of the London Evening Standard. One fact united these seemingly disparate events: the weakness of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

When Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, addressed journalists at Bute House, her Edinburgh residence, she observed that Labour’s collapse entailed an extended period of Conservative rule. Such was the apparent truth of this statement that it went unchallenged.

Twenty minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions on 15 March, the Conservatives announced the abandonment of their planned rise in National Insurance for the self-employed. Their expectation that Jeremy Corbyn would be unable to profit was fulfilled. “Faced with an open goal, Jeremy picked up a tennis racket,” one Labour MP lamented of his leader’s performance. Rather than a threat, the government regards PMQs as an opportunity.

Two days later, Osborne was announced as the next editor of the Standard. “Frankly @George_Osborne will provide more effective opposition to the government than the current Labour Party,” the paper’s co-proprietor Evgeny Lebedev tweeted. His decision to hand the post to a Conservative MP was another mark of Labour’s marginalisation. In more politically competitive times, owners are warier of overt partisanship.

The Tories have a parliamentary majority of just 15 – the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 – but they enjoy a dominance out of all proportion to this figure. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat former deputy prime minister, told me: “The fundamental pendulum swing of democracy, namely that the people in power are always worried that the other lot are going to hoof them out, has stopped.”

Labour is hardly a stranger to opposition: the party governed for just 20 years of the 20th century. But never in postwar history has it appeared so feeble. By-elections are usually relished by oppositions and feared by governments. But in Copeland in the north-west of England, a seat that had not returned a Conservative since 1931, the Tories triumphed over Labour. In recent polling the governing party has led by as much as 19 points and on one occasion it was leading in every age group, every social class and every region.

Corbyn’s MPs fear that were he to lead Labour into a general election, the attack dossier assembled by the Conservatives would push support as low as 20 per cent.

When David Miliband recently said that Labour was “further from power than at any stage in my lifetime”, he was being far too generous. After the forthcoming boundary changes, it could be left with as few as 150 seats: its worst performance since 1935.

The party’s plight was both predictable and predicted – the inevitable consequence of electing a leader who, by his own admission, lacked the requisite skills. “Now we made to make sure I don’t win,” Corbyn told supporters after he made the ballot in 2015. The lifelong backbencher stood with the intention of leading debate, not leading the party.

Neil Kinnock, Labour’s leader from 1983 to 1992, told me: “From the outset, I said that Jeremy [Corbyn] just can’t do the job . . . Now I think he knows that. He’s been a member of parliament for 34 years and will have a sense of self-examination. Both he and the people who work around him know that he just can’t do the job.”

Morale in the leader’s office has seldom been lower. “They’ve got the yips,” a Lab­our aide told me. Shortly after the Tories’ Budget U-turn, Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications, Seumas Milne, asked journalists whether there would be an early general election. He produced no evidence of any hope that Labour could win it.

Yet Corbyn’s leadership alone does not explain the crisis. In the early 1980s, when Labour was similarly enfeebled (but still strong in Scotland, unlike today), the creation of the Social Democratic Party provided hope. But the mere 23 seats won by the SDP-Liberal Alliance in 1983 (on 25.4 per cent of the vote, against Labour’s 209 seats from 27.6 per cent) acts as a permanent warning to those tempted to split.

With only nine MPs, the Liberal Democrats are too weak to function as an alternative opposition, despite their accelerating recovery. The third-largest party in the House of Commons – the SNP – is an exclusively Scottish force. The hegemony of the Nats, which cost Labour 40 seats in Scotland in 2015, has encouraged forecasts of perpetual Tory rule. “I don’t think there’s any way the Labour Party in this day and age can beat the Conservatives south of the border,” Clegg said.

To many eyes, the UK is being transformed into two one-party states: an SNP-led Scotland and a Conservative-led England. “The right-wing press have coalesced around Brexit and have transformed themselves from competitors into, in effect, a political cabal, which has such a paralysing effect on the political debate,” Clegg said. “You have a consistent and homogeneous drumbeat from the Telegraph, the Express, the Mail, the Sun, and so on.”

In this new era, the greatest influence on the government is being exercised from within the Conservative Party. “Where’s the aggravation? Where’s the heat coming from? Eighty hardline Brexiteers,” Anna Soubry, the pro-European former Conservative minister, told me. “They’re a party within a party and they are calling the shots. So where else is [May’s] heat? Fifteen Conservatives – people like me and the rest of them now. So who’s winning out there?”

Soubry added: “The right wing of the party flex their muscle against the only lead Remainer in the cabinet, Philip Hammond, for no other reason than to see him off. And that’s what they’ll do. They’ll pick them off one by one. These people are ruthless, this is their life’s work, and nobody and nothing is going to get in their way.”

Theresa May’s decision to pursue a “hard Brexit” – withdrawal from the EU single market and the customs union – is partly a policy choice; there is probably no other means by which the UK can secure significant control over European immigration. But the Prime Minister’s course is also a political choice. She recognised that the Conservatives’ formidable pro-Leave faction, whose trust she had to earn, as a Remainer, would accept nothing less.

***

The UK is entering the most complex negotiations it has undertaken since the end of the Second World War with the weakest opposition in living memory. Though some Tories relish an era of prolonged one-party rule, others are troubled by the democratic implications. Neil Carmichael MP, the chair of the Conservative Group for Europe, cited Disraeli’s warning: “No government can be long secure without a formidable opposition.” It was in Margaret Thatcher’s and Tony Blair’s pomp that calamitous decisions such as the poll tax and the invasion of Iraq were made. Governments that do not fear defeat frequently become their own worst enemy and, in turn, the public’s. The UK, with its unwritten constitution, its unelected upper chamber and its majoritarian voting system, is permanently vulnerable to elective dictatorships.

As they gasp at Labour’s self-destruction, politicians are assailed by Lenin’s question: “What is to be done?” Despite the baleful precedent of the SDP, some advocate a new split. In favour of following this path, they cite an increasingly promiscuous electorate, a pool of willing donors and “the 48 per cent” who voted Remain. Emmanuel Macron – the favourite to be elected president of France in May, who founded his own political movement, En Marche! – is another inspiration.

A week after the EU referendum, the Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, was taken by surprise when a close ally of George Osborne approached him and suggested the creation of a new centrist party called “the Democrats” (the then chancellor had already pitched the idea to Labour MPs). “I’m all ears and I’m very positive about working with people in other parties,” Farron told me. But he said that the “most effective thing” he could do was to rebuild the Liberal Democrats.

When we spoke, Nick Clegg emphasised that “you’ve got to start with the ideas” but, strikingly, he did not dismiss the possibility of a new party. “You can have all sorts of endless, as I say, political parlour game discussions about whether you have different constellations or otherwise.”

Anna Soubry was still more positive about a new party, arguing: “If it could somehow be the voice of a moderate, sensible, forward-thinking, visionary middle way, with open minds – actually things which I’ve believed in all my life – better get on with it.”

However, Labour MPs have no desire to accept that the left’s supremacy is irreversible. But neither do they wish to challenge Corbyn. An MP distilled the new approach: “There is a strategy to give Jeremy [Corbyn] enough rope to hang himself. So it has not been about popping up in the media and criticising him in the way that colleagues did a year or so ago.” By giving him the space to fail on his own terms, rather than triggering another leadership contest, MPs hope that members will ultimately accept a change of direction.

Corbyn’s opponents acknowledge the risks of this approach.

“People are incredibly mindful of the fact that our brand is toxifying,” one told me. “As each day goes by, our plight worsens. Our position in the polls gets worse and the road back gets longer.”

Shadow cabinet ministers believe that Corbyn’s allies will never permit his departure until there is a viable successor. An increasingly influential figure is Karie Murphy, the director of the leader’s office and a close friend of Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey. “She’s holding Jeremy in place,” I was told.

Leadership candidates require nominations from 15 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs, a threshold that the left aims to reduce to just 5 per cent through the “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make ballot when he stood in 2007 and 2010).

Should the rule change pass at this year’s party conference – an unlikely result – the next leadership contest could feature as many as 19 candidates. Labour has no shortage of aspirant leaders: Yvette Cooper, Dan Jarvis, Clive Lewis, Lisa Nandy, Keir Starmer, Emily Thornberry, Chuka Umunna. (Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary and Corbynite choice, is said to believe she is “not ready” for the job.)

All are clear-sighted enough to recognise that Labour’s problems would not end with Corbyn’s departure (nor did they begin with his election as leader). The party must restore its economic credibility, recover in Scotland, or perform far better in England, and bridge the divide between liberal Remainers and conservative Leavers.

Lisa Nandy, one of those who has thought most deeply about Labour’s predicament, told me: “I do think that, for many people, not being able to have time with their families and feel secure about where the next wage packet is coming from, and hope that life is going to get better for their kids, is really pressing as a political priority now. They will vote for the political party that offers real solutions to those things.

“That’s why power is such an important unifying agenda for the Labour Party – not just through redistribution of wealth, which I think we all agree about, but actually the redistribution of power as well: giving people the tools that they need to exert control over the things that matter in their own lives,” she says.

But some Labour MPs suggest even more drastic remedial action is required. “In order to convince the public that you’ve moved on, you have to have a Clause Four-type moment,” one member told me. “Which would probably involve kicking John McDonnell out of the Labour Party or something like that.

“You have a purge. Ken Livingstone gone, maybe even Jeremy [Corbyn] gone. That’s the only way that you can persuade the public that you’re not like that.”

Political commentators often mistake cyclical developments for structural changes. After Labour’s 1992 election defeat it was sometimes said that the party would never govern again. It went on to win three successive terms for the first time in its history. In March 2005 Geoffrey Wheatcroft published his book The Strange Death of Tory England. Less than nine months later, the Conservatives elected David Cameron as leader and returned to winning ways. As the US political journalist Sean Trende has archly observed, if even the Democrats recovered “rather quickly from losing the Civil War” few defeats are unsurvivable.

From despair may spring opportunity. “It is amazing how this Brexit-Trump phase has really mobilised interest in politics,” Nick Clegg said. “It’s galvanised a lot of people . . . That will lead somewhere. If in a democracy there is a lot of energy about, it will find an outlet.”

Editor’s Note, 30 March 2017: Len McCluskey of Unite wishes to point out that Karie Murphy is his close friend not his partner as the piece originally said. The text has been amended accordingly.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition