Featured Image: Bob Naylor/WaterMarx Media
While The Trussell Trust created the first food banks in 2000, under Tony Blair, usage of them rose by a staggering 2,612% during David Cameron’s term as Prime Minister. It didn’t stop him barefacedly posing for a Tweet mucking in with Chipping Norton’s “Chippy Larder.”
Devizes MP Danny Kruger joined the food poverty hypocrisy voting against Marcus Rashford’s campaign to extend free school meals over lockdown. Speaking in defence of ministers’ continuing refusal to U-turn the policy, he reasoned in the Gazette & Herald, “the problem is generous, unconditional, universal benefit entitlements trap people in dependency on the state and rightly enrage people who are working hard for themselves. That’s why I believe in a more flexible, community-led approach to welfare.”
To address local causes of financial hardship, community organiser at Devizes and District Foodbank, Alex Montegriffo, arranged a meeting with Danny Kruger last month, with members of Devizes community, and representatives from local charities; let’s see these “generous, unconditional, universal benefit entitlements,” panning out in the real world, shall we?
One hot topic was people living on houseboats, who’ve not had access to the £400 Energy Bills Support Scheme since it began. Out of the estimated 550 people living in houseboats in Wiltshire, only houseboats with a permanent residential mooring are now able to access the fund, leaving regulations for those in non-residential moorings, like marinas, in the dark, literally.
Danny Kruger agreed to write to the Canal and River Trust about using their database of houseboat license fees to distribute the £400 payment, by taking it off license fees, and potentially using their offices as permanent addresses for those with continuous cruising licenses.
Another topic was the insufficiency and lack of flexibility of the social security system, with benefits like Universal Credit often leaving applicants below destitution level. A member of Devizes community spoke, “every day I see my husband come back from work exhausted. He counts all the bills and has said, if prices rise again, he doesn’t know what to do. He uses some of my disability benefit to pay his bills, and then pays me back when he gets paid. That shouldn’t be right in this day and age.”
If claimants get into debt, even more money is taken away from their Universal Credit allowance, leaving sometimes just £100 a month or less for food and electricity.
Long and complicated application processes, even for small amounts of money or basic support, causes barriers for those who need help but are unable to fill out forms, or feel stigmatised by the process. As a result, there’s £10 million of unclaimed Pension Credit in Wiltshire, a benefit which unlocks Cost of Living Payments. Attendees heard Wiltshire Council are currently in discussion with the community organiser of Devizes and District Foodbank to simplify the application process of one of their support schemes, the Local Welfare Provision, to alleviate this issue.
A couple from Devizes described their frustration at not being encouraged to work, and feeling judged as ‘lesser’ for not being able to work. Volunteering is not counted as work, despite the attendees contributing significantly to their community, spurring a discussion on the topic of the impact of part-time work versus full-time work versus volunteering on benefits, where the taper rate for Universal Credit discourages part-time work, and leaves some people better off not working if they cannot work full-time due to health conditions or disability.
Localising the social security system, so there’s more human contact and agency for recipients, as well as better advertising of support through local trusted individuals, was also discussed. Proposing how schemes such as The Homes and Money Hubs of Barking and Dagenham could be adapted to Devizes, as the Integrated Care Alliance already brings together some departments of Wiltshire Council with social prescribers.
If those with second homes have received their Energy Bills Support Scheme payments, but people living in houseboats are struggling, if people need more support than ever in the current cost-of-living crisis, if people feel they’ve no one to talk to, or are unable to get through on the phone for help with applications, clearly there’s lots of work to do; the food bank isn’t just about giving out tins of beans.
Suggestions were made of a community hub in Devizes, with support for applying for and receiving benefits, or developing the several organisations existing at the St James Centre further. Here’s a group conversing specific topics and looking for solutions to this cost-of-living crisis in Devizes. They meet again on Thursday 30th March, 2:30-3:30pm at the Cheese Hall in Devizes Town Hall to plan and implement a project in Devizes addressing issues raised, which might be adopted in the rest of Wiltshire; if you feel you can assist, please attend.
“It would be great to get more people there to plan a project, and also be consulted on uses of the Community Fridge in the Shambles,” Alex explained, “although Danny agreed to do one action, which I’m not sure has been done or not, we agreed that sometimes it was quicker to do things ourselves.”
Attendees agreed to act, as they can quicker than local authorities and government. Cameron’s defunct socio-political soundbite “big society,” in action during these trying times, I could scoff, but tip my hat to all involved with this, for their enthusiasm and dedication. Not only Alex, but Suzanne Wigmore of Citizens Advice Wiltshire, Richard Oliver of Devizes Opendoors, Graham Martin of Sustainable Devizes, Martin Elliott of Warm Spaces Devizes and Devizes Community Fridge, Kate Brooks, Sarah Cardy and Rachel Clarke of Age UK Wiltshire, and those active members of Devizes community, thank you.
Day-to-day, though, we can all help, supporting Devizes & District Food Bank. Currently supporting an average 220 people per month, over 1,980 meals per month are supplied, which wouldn’t happen without donations. You can download a BanktheFood app to keep up to date with their shortages while shopping, and drop off points for items can be found here.
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