It’s the moment in the blockbuster film of this year, I Daniel Blake, which brings home the enormity of the desperate situation the lead female character finds herself in.
Finally reaching the end of a winding food bank queue, the young mum is overwhelmed by the availability of food and is so hungry she can’t help herself from opening a tin and stuffing the cold, unappetising food into her mouth.
When this scene played out to a packed screening at The Station a few months ago, there was much rummaging in pockets for hankies, suppressed sniffles and clearing of throats.
But what the film followers experienced as fiction that evening is also playing out for real close to home. At a meeting last week, Richmond west ward councillor Linda Curran told her colleagues about the scenes she had witnessed at Richmond’s food bank, the StoreHouse on Victoria Road.
“We are talking about young families with young children who are being pushed into poverty, basically, and into hunger. I’ve been with quite a few families to the food bank and seen little boys and girls pounce on the food that’s available because they are so hungry.”
StoreHouse confirmed there had been a recent sharp increase in the number of people looking for help.
StoreHouse co-ordinator Paige Rutherford said: “We have seen a large increase over the past month or so of people accessing us. A normal week, we tend to see approximately 15 clients using us (which could feed anywhere from 15-20 people). Recently we’ve been seeing about 20-25 clients weekly which feed 30+ people. In comparison to large cities, this may seem a very small number, but for a town our size, and based on our normal weekly averages, this is a huge increase.
“Our increase seems to be coming from the choice between heating or food (one factor, but a fairly key one at this time of year).”
Councillor Curran believes that part of the issue pushing families into poverty has come about due to major policy changes from both local and national government relating to the way benefits are dealt with and the timing of when the money is paid out.
The topic is complex and multi-layered one which can be a baffling world of new terminology and processes just as the Ken Loach film exposes. The language used and systems deployed make public debate of the issue a minefield for people outside the system, a scary world of confusing new terms and undecipherable symbols.
For example, a process known as ‘sanctioning’ translates to mean that benefit money is withheld from people if a representative of the Department for Work and Pensions decides so. Richmondshire has the unhappy ‘honour’ of being at the top of the league for the whole of the UK for sanctions. In other words, as a proportion, more people claiming benefits in this area have them taken away leaving them without any financial support.
This month it was revealed that the area has also topped the league for homelessness in Yorkshire for the first time too, although it should be noted that that’s an accolade the council doesn’t accept as an accurate assessment.
What happens to those people left with no money?
Well no-one knows for sure because no-one collects the information. For some it could be good news – they simply don’t need help any more or maybe they have moved from the area? perhaps they got jobs? became homeless? or died? Statistics alone can’t answer those questions – and, it turns out, neither can the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
In response to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request seeking some more information about what happened those local benefit claimants who have been ‘sanctioned’, the DWP said:
“The Act (FoI) does not require the Department to provide opinions or explanations, generate answers to questions, or create or obtain information it does not hold. We can confirm the Department does not hold any recorded information that could address your specific request at these questions. “
Imposed from a national decision, this region was one of those selected as a pilot for the controversial flagship benefit policy, Universal Credit. That change was fully introduced across most of Richmondshire on 29th June this year.
Since that point, all new claims and changes in circumstances for housing benefits for working age people (with some minor exceptions) have been transferred to the DWP to be dealt with as Universal Credits claims.
The district council admits “there have been some teething problems in dealing with claims by the DWP leading to delays by the DWP in addressing claims” and the figures show there’s been a drop in the numbers of people locally receiving housing benefit – down from 2,072 in April to 1,778 in November.
But the changes don’t stop at nationally administered benefits. In order to avoid any potentially unpopular rise in the level of council tax that householders have to pay, the district council reduced the level of subsidy available to people on low incomes to help pay their tax bills. There’s now 2,264 receiving that subsidy compared to 2,333 in April this year. According to councillor Curran, some families found that the increased Universal Credit they were entitled to pushed them into a position where they owed more council tax.
She called for action to ensure that people wouldn’t be faced with higher council tax bills in April while they waited for benefits changes to catch up with the shortfall in October.
The issue is sure to arise again during committee meetings of the council when taxes are set again next year but that still leaves those currently going through the labyrinthian systems with more pressing needs and the food bank operators are looking for help right now.
Rutherford appealed for donations: “We are definitely still looking for donations. Due to the increase of demand, or stock has gone down and a lot of our reserves have been used. We have had a quite a few generous donations recently, but we will continue to need more food to meet the demand over the coming weeks and months. We also accept financial donations – cash or direct debit/bank transfer if people prefer to donate this way.”
* The StoreHouse will be open on Wednesday, December 21st but then remains closed over the Christmas break. It will then reopen Wednesday January 4th, and be open full time again as usual from the 5th. There’s also more information about the food bank, including a list of the items required, at the website here.