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Sticking plasters are not enough

15 March 2024

The Budget lacked long-term measures to help those in poverty, says Jessica Foster


Sixty-nine per cent of people referred to foodbanks experience a disability

Sixty-nine per cent of people referred to foodbanks experience a disability

FOR more than a year, I have worked with people who have needed the support of a foodbank; getting to know them has given me a new perspective. Now, when I am in a roomful of people, I am aware that someone might be facing hunger. When I hear about a school trip, I think about the child who could not afford to go. When I get a surprise bill, I think about the mental-health impact of being unable to afford to pay utility bills. When I sit in church, I wonder how it feels for some people when the collection plate goes around.

It was with this perspective that I read about the Chancellor’s Spring Budget last week, which contains very little support for the people facing the greatest need in the nation (News, 8 March).

There was some relief to hear that the Household Support Fund, which is distributed through local councils, has been extended for six months. Six months is not a long time, however. Having not known whether this fund would be extended, there will be a scramble to administrate it in the short term, followed by more uncertainty.

When it ends, councils and charities will be left trying to fill an even bigger gap. More people are likely to fall into unaffordable debt, be unable to afford essentials, and have no choice but to turn to foodbanks — which are already at breaking point. A six-month extension is ultimately a sticking-plaster response.

Debts are a huge issue for people on Universal Credit, and many people who come to foodbanks are in debt to the Government. In the Budget, the Chancellor announced that the maximum period to repay a budgeting loan would be extended from 12 months to 24 months. This will make debt deductions for some people easier to manage — but it does not go far enough. It is another sticking plaster.

Neither of these measures are substitutes for long-term solutions that address the continued issues of poverty, hunger, and hardship in this country.

STICKING-plaster responses are not going to prevent people falling deeper and deeper into poverty, unable to afford essentials such as heating, food, and clothing. Sticking-plaster responses are not going to protect people such as Mandy, from Staffordshire.

Mandy has four children and 13 grandchildren, one of whom lives with her. She was diagnosed with a bowel condition, so had to stop working. Mandy was on sick pay at first, then lost her job and had to go on to benefits. These did not provide enough income to support Mandy and her granddaughter, and this brought her great suffering.

“Your mental health suffers greatly,” Mandy said. “If you’re sitting at home, and you know that next week you won’t have enough money left to go shopping, that you’ll have to sit in the dark with no heating on for the rest of the month, it’s so hard on your mental health. The effect of worrying about where your next bottle of milk is coming from, worrying about how the children are going to eat, is tremendous. This isn’t living — it can’t be.”

Despite working all of her life, her physical health meant that she was not able to do all that she once did. There are many people in similar situations to Mandy who are also in need of support. Parents, disabled people, and those with caring responsibilities are overrepresented at foodbanks: 69 per cent of people referred to foodbanks experience a disability. For those looking for work or who cannot work, the social-security system is failing to provide enough to cover the essentials.

Fortunately for Mandy, her local foodbank was able to provide her with the support that she needed.

SINCE some of the earliest laws we know of, those in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, it has been a societal expectation to care for people who cannot afford their own food. This was the purpose of the gleaning laws.

Millennia later, we are asking for the same principle to be enshrined in our laws — to ensure that Universal Credit gives people enough money to buy the essentials that they need, rather than driving them deeper and deeper into debt and to the door of a foodbank. Research published by the Trussell Trust last month showed that 55 per cent of people on Universal Credit had run out of food and did not have enough money to buy anything else to eat (News, 1 March).

Dignity is a casualty of poverty. So is relationship. Last summer, we discovered that 25 per cent of people who visit a foodbank have not had a significant conversation with a friend or family member for over a month.

I do not believe that there will be foodbanks in heaven, and, at the Trussell Trust, we are doing all that we can to bring an end to the need for foodbanks. We believe that churches are vital partners in calling for justice, changing divisive narratives, and building communities in which all can belong fully.

Jessica Foster is head of church engagement at the Trussell Trust.

Find out about the charity’s Lent course, A Shared Journey, and other resources, at: trusselltrust.org

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