Food bank visitors in Coventry: ‘Compassion has disappeared out of the welfare state’

People at the Trussell Trust's busiest outpost tell Emily Dugan of biting sanctions, rationing meals and living with an empty cupboard

SOCIAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT

It was a muddle with a form that first made Craig, 31, lose his benefits. He had been looking for work in Coventry for nearly a year, diligently going to the jobcentre and trawling through adverts. Then he made a mistake that would leave him hungry for a month.

“I filled out a form saying I was searching for work from Monday to Friday and I was meant to put from Thursday to Thursday. It was just a mistake but I had my benefits sanctioned for four weeks. It was just before Christmas last year and I was panicking about presents for my kids, but the job supervisor said ‘you’re not paid to get presents, you’re paid to look for work’.”

Too proud to go to a food bank, the divorced father of two made it through the month surviving on the last few tins in his cupboard and limiting himself to one meal a day.

Craig suffers from severe depression and lost his job working nights as a courier a year ago because he had missed too many days to the illness. Last month he found out his mother had terminal cancer and his depression worsened. He went to the doctor, who said he was too ill to work and registered him as eligible for the sickness benefit employment support allowance (ESA).

That should have been the start of a time of respite, but bureaucratic delays meant the new benefit never came. Last Friday marked three weeks since he last received any money and Craig finally cracked.

His four- and seven-year-old sons were due for their monthly visit at the weekend and he had nothing to feed them, so he came to his local food bank in Hebron church.

“All I’ve got is a tin of peas in my cupboard and a bit of milk in the fridge,” he says, too embarrassed to make eye contact.

“I last ate yesterday morning and that was a bowl of cornflakes. In the last week I’ve had maybe six meals. I went to a benefit advice centre this morning and they sent me here. I’ve had to swallow my pride because I wanted to have food for my boys.”

Sitting in a cafe behind the church, he is handed five bursting carrier bags of food, including fresh vegetables, tins, pasta and bread. His hands shake as he packs the heavy tins into his rucksack and prepares for a wobbly cycle home with the plastic bags on his handlebars.

Coventry is now the busiest Trussell Trust outpost in the country. In the past year its network of food banks gave 17,658 people emergency food, up 41 per cent on the year before. The city has just opened their 14th distribution centre and a further two will open this year.

Food bank manager Hugh McNeil is a softly spoken churchgoer, and doesn’t look the tubthumping political type. But, when asked about the impact of the Government’s welfare reforms, he struggles to contain his fury. “Compassion has disappeared out of the welfare state,” he says. “There’s none any more. The way these benefits are being administered is just so punitive and nobody seems to be thinking about the children affected either.”

Hebron, an evangelical church in a converted bowling alley in the east of the city, is one of the trust’s newer branches. A mile or so closer to the city centre is The Hope Centre, the busiest of Coventry’s distribution points, which frequently gives food to dozens of families a day.

One woman has come to make sure she has enough food to make it through the school holidays with her son aged 12. She has “practically nothing” left in her cupboards, beyond a couple of tins of beans and the dregs of a milk bottle.

“Being on benefits means that the kids get free school meals so in the holidays that means finding an extra meal a day,” she says. “ I dread the holidays because of it. Not being able to afford to do stuff is a problem too.”

She recently transferred on to ESA after having to appeal against a medical assessment that she was fit to work. “I’ve only just won, and while I was fighting it my income went from £165 a week to £71. I have child benefit and tax credit on top of that but it was still tough.”

After filling out a form and picking up dried and tinned food, she goes to a shipping container in the car park, where fresh produce and hot cross buns are added to five overflowing bags.

In the centre’s cafe, a  distraught mother with a  five-day-old baby waits, hoping for food and nappies. She has five children and the new arrival combined with the start of the Easter holidays has crippled the family’s precarious budget.

Makadi Mulambela, 28, is one of the last to arrive. He has been struggling to feed himself after being hit with a month’s benefit sanction. “They sanctioned me because I made a mistake on the job search form,” he explains.

“The website I’d been using was direct.gov and I wrote that I’d been on direct.jobs, which was wrong. I had been looking on it, I just wrote it down wrong. It’s difficult because when they catch you on something like that you don’t get  a chance to explain, that’s  just it.”

Gavin Kibble, the food bank’s operations director, is adamant that welfare reforms are responsible for much of the rise in need. “ We’re seeing a lot of people coming through the food bank because of benefit sanctions. Around 43 per cent of our cases relate to a DWP issue, whether that’s a benefit change or sanctions. We could chop in half the cases we needed to help with if DWP sorted things out.”

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