Labour

The hidden hunger of Surrey’s expanding food bank service

At a showing of I Daniel Blake at the new Thames radical cinema which meets monthly at the Riverhouse Barn in Walton, I met Bronte Schiltz an active Labour Party member who informed the audience that she volunteers in a local food bank. If you have seen Ken Loach’s award winning film you will recall the powerful scene when the two central characters queue up to use a food bank and the young, single mother opens a tin of baked beans when no-one is looking and scoops them into her mouth to stave off her hunger.

In Surrey they don’t queue round the block to use the food bank so you could be forgiven for thinking this is just an inner-city problem or a regional issue. Here the poverty is largely hidden as the food bank will bag up the groceries for you and deliver them to your door. Bronte recalls the desperate thankfulness of those who are provided with three days emergency food. You can’t just walk in off the street and help yourself. You have to be referred by the job centre, the school, citizen advice bureau, local councillor or GP. One such person was an 80 year old grandfather who informed Bronte that he had a job interview coming up as he needed money to feed his grandchildren. He was hopeful that he wouldn’t need to return and as she went through to the other room to fill some bags with food she found it heart-rending that this proud man had been let down by our welfare system.

When Bronte isn’t helping out at the food bank or working as the publicity officer for Thames Radical Cinema she works as the English Intervention Tutor at Esher Church of England High School where 25% of the children live below the poverty line. She explained that the food bank is essential in the school holidays when the children are unable to access free school meals. She wants to know why Surrey, one of the richest boroughs in the country, has over 34 food banks in operation with more food packages provided every year. When the issue was raised at a local husting in the 2017 election Dominic Raab the MP for Esher and Walton was not in attendance and other audience members felt that the question of food banks was not ‘a local issue’.

They clearly had not read the Inequality in Elmbridge report which contained official figures showing that 2,300 children – 8.7% of those under 16 – in Elmbridge live in poverty (where household income is below 60% of national median earnings).

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In a Guardian article on the subject well-to-do Gareth relates the following experience after becoming “startled” by what happened in his local Tesco at 8pm; “I couldn’t believe what I saw. A large group of people were hovering around the vegetable section. A man came along and reduced all of the food. Then it was a free-for-all and I have never seen anything like it in my life. A cabbage which was probably £1.50 was reduced to 20p and it was a fight to get the food,” he recalls. “I guess these people live in Elmbridge, I don’t know.

Hidden, but growing, the need for food banks continues to rise across Surrey and Bronte confirmed that Surrey food banks gave out more than 14,000 three day food parcels in 2016/17, an increase of almost 20% on the previous year. This situation is likely to become much worse as Universal Credit is rolled out in the run up to Christmas. The Trussell Trust reports a steep rise in areas where Universal Credit has already been implemented and claimants are paid in arrears with six weeks or more delay for the first payment.

According to the Trussell Trust statement; “it’s no surprise that trying to live off so little for an entire month can lead to destitution and hunger. Most households had been unable to afford heating, toiletries or suitable shoes or clothes for the weather. 78% had skipped meals and gone without eating – sometimes for days at a time, often multiple times a year.

Once a household falls into debt it is near impossible to make ends meet and pay off what is owed. When you lose a short-term contract you go back to the start of the process.

In a recent vote, calling for a pause in the roll-out of Universal Credit, Conservative MP’s failed to show up to the House to either defend their policy or to vote. If you don’t turn up for your benefit appointments you get sanctioned and given another six week hold on payments. The Trussell Trust confirms that the three main reasons people use the food banks are benefit delays, low income and benefit changes.

Yet in the run up to the last election Dominic Raab stated on TV that “The typical user of a food bank is not someone that is languishing in poverty, it is someone who has a cash flow problem episodically”.

Bronte described this response as, “ignorant and callous to brush it off as minor or temporary.”  Mr Raab hasn’t written about the use of food banks for his constituency blog since February 2014 where he links to an article he wrote for the Telegraph.  Mr Raab was paid £220 for the article and registered it as 2.5 hours work. Earning £88 per hour in addition to his main salary it must be difficult for him to understand the need for food banks and in his search for a reason he blames global markets, trade barriers and the EU Common Agricultural Policy – everything in fact except government welfare reforms and puts the interfering Bishops in their place with the following statement taken from his article in the Telegraph; “But the bishops’ blunt claim that welfare reform accounts for more than half of those using food banks displays a reckless disregard for the facts, and wilful ignorance of the underlying causes.”

Maybe it is time that Mr Raab took another trip to the food bank in Cobham he opened in 2013 but has failed to attend since. Hugh Bryant, who runs the Cobham Food bank, said: “Although Mr Raab opened our food bank it’s a shame he hasn’t been in touch to check the figures.”

Ken Loach has questioned why the rich are incentivised with bonus packages and perks while the poor are driven by hunger and homelessness. Here’s another pesky member of the clergy, Giles Fraser, writing about his experience of answering his door to an increasing number of destitute parishioners. He argues that Universal Credit was designed to blame the poor for their poverty and force them to accept low pay, poor working conditions and zero hour contracts; “there are those who would characterise this as “workhousing” – that is, deliberately making life so intolerable for poor people that they are forced into doing absolutely anything to keep themselves off the streets“.

Universal Credit stems from pure ideology and has cost more than it has saved. As the millionaires of Westminster increase the levels of poverty across the country they are protected from the reality of life on the breadline with their entitlement to taxpayer perks and second incomes. When they fail to turn up to even defend their policy, just as they failed to turn up to defend their record in the last election it gives off a stench of arrogance. Low paid work with inconsistent hours does not ‘set you free’ in fact the very opposite, it traps you in a cycle of debt and despair as you make daily choices between paying the bills, heating the house or feeding your family; a shocking indictment in 21st Century Britain.

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No Cap on Courage for Britain’s Firefighters

Recent events in Britain have brought into sharp focus the role of our public services in daily life. The two main strands of this discussion have centred around their importance to us in times of need and to what degree they should be financially rewarded for this.

Most recently, and in such horrifying circumstances, it has been Britain’s firefighters at the forefront of our minds.

Having been called into action to tackle the macabre blaze at Grenfell Tower last month, the sight of these brave individuals looking so utterly haunted in the aftermath is one that will long reside in the public consciousness. Equally, hearing individual firefighters lament the fact that their ladders did not go high enough to reach the highest floors of Grenfell Tower was intensely difficult.

For many of us, however, the intricacies of a firefighter’s role are something of a mystery. Naturally only firefighters will fully understand what it is they do and how it is they do it, but the revelation that firefighters at Grenfell were required to write their initials on their equipment before entering serves as an eerie symbol of what these people could be called upon to give at any given moment.

The purpose of the initials, of course, was to identify their bodies should they not have made it out that night. As job-related requirements go, it doesn’t get much heavier than that. There were officers at Grenfell witnessing scenes they had never seen before. People like 26 year old April Cachia, who told the Daily Telegraph how she helped terrified residents from the towering inferno having only been in the job for five days:

“The smell of smoke, the sound of crackling, the sound of debris hitting the ground, children screaming, people hand you their phones to speak to their loved ones – these are the things you won’t ever forget.”

The bravery of the firefighter is of course well established almost to the point of cliché, but in view of recent public discourse concerning public sector pay, the question of how to adequately reward firefighters has become particularly relevant.

In response to the defeat of Labour’s amendment to the Queen’s Speech, which proposed to “end the public sector pay cap and give the emergency and public services a fair pay rise”, MPs on the winning side of the vote were heard cheering in the Commons.

Regardless of party politics, such grotesque displays of contempt merely highlight the disconnect that exists between some politicians and the will of the public.

Boris Johnson telling Labour-Assembly leader Andrew Dismore to “get stuffed” in 2014 in response to the question of his office’s cuts to fire services was another unsavoury incident which looks far worse in retrospect.

Firefighters and other public service workers are often lavished with praise but little else. Unfortunately, praise doesn’t make ends meet. Despite this, it was heartening to learn that some of the firefighters who attended Grenfell have been amongst the first to take free holidays donated via the Grenfell Tower Holiday appeal group.

Fire Brigade’s Union General Secretary Matt Wrack has noted that firefighter’s real wages are falling and “our members are struggling to make ends meet.”

Wrack went on to launch a scathing criticism of governmental policy, saying: “it is sickening to hear politicians praising firefighters for the outstanding work they do every day of their working lives only to be told they have to tighten their belts as a result of economic problems caused by bankers.”

With this having been said, political dogma categorically should not take away from the fact that when called upon, Britain’s firefighters step up to the task. Their numbers may be diminished – there are 19% less firefighters than in 2010 –  but their resolve to protect is not.

Blessedly for all of us, there is no cap on the bravery of Britain’s firefighters.

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General Election 2017: how the young took back British Politics

The young people of Britain left their detractors bewildered on June 8th. Turning out on a scale not seen since 1992, they delivered a comprehensive repudiation of a political system that has marginalised them for too long.

It has been a seismic year in British politics. This time twelve months ago, Britain had just voted to leave the European Union after a bitterly contested, divisive and at times toxic referendum campaign. What followed was undoubtedly one of the most remarkable periods in British political history.

At the end of a political epoch which saw the resignation of David Cameron, Theresa May’s appointment as Prime Minister; Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election as leader of the Labour Party; Donald Trump taking office and the United Kingdom triggering Article 50, Theresa May called a snap General Election.

It was an opportunistic and cynical move which came despite previous assurances to the contrary. Even against the backdrop of May’s repeated insistence that no General Election would be called until 2020, the sight of Labour floundering in the opinion polls combined with her own personal approval ratings proved too much to resist for May and her advisers, who went for the jugular.

Parliament found itself dissolved after two-thirds of the Commons voted in favour of a motion for an early General Election and Britain was once again going to the polls.

Theresa May banked on the opinion polls proving accurate. A landslide victory was to condemn Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour to electoral oblivion whilst simultaneously handing her an overwhelming mandate to negotiate Brexit unopposed and unchecked. Complacency was rife and understandably so.

After all, many political commentators had already concluded that young people had no right to express their concerns over Brexit as they had supposedly not bothered to get out and vote, so why would it be any different this time?

Initial reports after polling day put the youth turnout at around 36%, leading to widespread attempts to bury young people’s Brexit concerns beneath accusations of political apathy. Later evidence compiled by the London School of Economics suggested youth turnout for the EU referendum was in fact around 64%, vastly higher than originally reported. Still, none of this mattered and would matter even less when Labour and their young supporters were reduced to political non-entities.

As the General Election got into full flow, the Conservatives were beset by calamity. Despite a highly personalised, almost presidential campaign, Theresa May was floundering. Stage-managed public appearances in sterile environments did little to undermine suspicion that the Prime Minister was unwilling to meet the public and unable to engage with voters on the ground.

By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn was undergoing quite the political revival. Since first being elected Labour leader in 2015, the 68-year-old had been portrayed by Conservative MPs, large sections of the British press and even his own back-benchers as nothing short of a political pariah.

However, since the General Election had been called, support for the Islington North MP had been gathering considerable momentum. His backing, particularly among the young, was soaring.

His principled, emotion-driven style of politics stood in direct contrast to Theresa May’s scripted, repetitive and rigid approach.

As Corbyn continued to address large crowds of young people, extraordinary levels of condescending rhetoric emerged from sections of the press and some political commentators.

It was all well and good Jeremy Corbyn speaking to and winning the support of all these young people, but young people didn’t matter. Sure, they’d cheer his name in the streets or in a football stadium, but if it rained on election day he couldn’t count on their vote. Such were the methods used to denigrate and dismiss swathes of young people casting off decades of political apathy to become engaged, energised and inspired by politics for the first time.

The same sneering attitudes were prevalent in dismissing as unreliable the various polls which had Labour closing the gap on the Tories with each passing day. Again, none of this would matter when the youth vote collapsed on polling day.

Eventually, the time for talking was over. Polling day arrived on June 8th and by the time night fell Theresa May’s majority was gone.

Labour’s surge was astonishing. Young voters across the country had mobilised, taken to the streets, knocked on doors and engaged with politics in a way not seen in decades. So much for apathy.

When Jeremy Corbyn addressed a Glastonbury crowd last Saturday as big as any seen in living memory, he stated that “the politics that got out of the box is not going back in that box.”

That is the challenge that lies ahead for young voters – to stay engaged, stay energised and make sure nobody speaks for them without their permission ever again.

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Voters unite: take action against the coalition of chaos

On June 8th something happened that few outside of the hopeful grassroots community could ever have expected. Jeremy Corbyn led the Labour party to an astonishing increase in parliamentary seats; destroying the majority previously held by the Conservative Party.

As a Labour supporter I personally welcome any result that reins in the power of Theresa May’s government. But whilst the hung parliament we’re left with does bring with it a small number of positives, it’s far from an ideal outcome.

On the plus side, without a majority May has already been forced to reconsider the manifesto she plans to submit for the Queen’s speech this week. Hard line policies on pensions and ridiculous notions such as repealing the fox hunting ban have been scrapped. This is wonderful news for those affected, and a clear victory for those of us who fought against such policies.

The snap election also delivered a result which has confirmed Jeremy Corbyn’s position as leader of a strong and stable opposition. The in-fighting which dominated the Labour Party last year is over; for the Tories such battles are only just beginning.

There is a negative side to all of this, of course. And not just for Conservative voters. In a desperate bid to keep hold of the keys to number 10, May has sought a deal with the most regressive party in UK politics; the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland (DUP).

The DUP are a right wing party with intensely conservative and religious views. This party (who now potentially have control within the UK government) are passionately opposed to LGBT rights, are anti-abortion, largely deny climate change, and most worryingly of all, have strong support from (and reported links to) the Ulster Defence Association (UDA).

A violent loyalist paramilitary group, the UDA is still active in Northern Ireland to this day. Just weeks ago, a man was shot dead in broad daylight, and in front of his three-year-old son, by a member of the group. During the troubles in Northern Ireland, the UDA were responsible for over 400 deaths, the vast majority of whom were civilians.

Much of the Conservative election campaign was built around the false notion that Corbyn is a terrorist sympathiser. Yet May has wasted no time in jumping into bed with a party strongly linked to terrorists still operating in Northern Ireland today. Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has warned Theresa May that the deal she has sought risks jeopardising peace in Northern Ireland, and is a potential violation of the Good Friday Agreement.

Already we have seen signs of May making decisions to appease the DUP. In appointing her new cabinet she has given the role of Justice Secretary to David Lidington, who has consistently opposed LGBT rights; and the role of Environmental Secretary to Michael Gove, despite his previous poor record on environmental issues.

Despite who you may have voted for, a minority government propped up by a terrorist-backed, right wing section of the Northern Irish assembly is unacceptable. It is simply wrong that we should allow such regressive politicians to have any say in how our otherwise progressive society is run. If you voted Labour, this is not what you voted for. But just as importantly; if you voted Conservative, this is not what you voted for.

Millions of people across the country, myself included, live in Conservative areas which means we are represented in parliament by Conservative MPs. It is vital that we now contact them to make it known we do not give our support to a deal with the DUP, and that neither should they. The integrity of our country is far more important than whether a political party is able to cling onto power or not. We must call upon our MPs to say no to any deal with the DUP, even if it means relinquishing control of parliament, or calling another election. On this principal we should all be agreed, regardless of our political alignment.

This is something we must act on now. Anybody that lives within a Conservative constituency must contact their local MP today. Talks between the Tories and the DUP are ongoing, and the Queen’s speech, it seems, has been delayed. The minority government as it is being proposed has no credibility, and this is something that must be communicated to our representatives in Parliament before a vote of confidence is held.

This is a rare opportunity for all voters to stand together. It’s time to put our differences aside and unite in opposition to the DUP and the potential regressive lurch to the right that comes with them. It’s time to stand up for the values that so many have fought for, and to protect the rights of every British person.

Important links:

Here you will find a sample e-mail which can be copied, edited as desired, and sent to your local MP.

Here you can find out who your local MP is, and how to contact them.

Whilst this direct action should be the priority, it is also well worth signing this petition to the UK Government, which has already reached over 150,000 signatures (at the time of this being published).

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