Tomorrow I shall be fasting as part of the End Hunger Fast Relay. I pick up the baton from the Bishop of Salisbury tonight and pass it on to a Quaker leader on Sunday as we take part in an act of community solidarity with the thousands of British people who go hungry each day because they cannot afford to buy food.
I must admit to being a little nervous about it. It isn't just that food plays such a central role in my social and work life, or even that I am frightened of hunger (though I don't mind admitting I am). It is just that I get awfully ratty when I don't eat, and I've had a few accidents before when I skipped meals, including a rather messy fainting one on an escalator (don't ask).
When Church Action on Poverty first approached me to take part in this fasting relay I had all of the above on a long list of reasons why it couldn't possibly work. But none of my excuses cut it. My neighbours are hungry. And that should demand a response from me. I know my constituents are skipping meals. They come into my constituency office and tell my staff their stories every day of the week. Some of them no doubt feel faint when they don't eat. Many struggle to be patient with their children when they skip meals so they can feed them first. Some care for relatives in demanding physical ways in spite of lack of food. Others go to work each day on an empty stomach, earning their way but still with inadequate resource to pay for food, rent and heating.
It is a national scandal. And I look at my full fridge and the bags of out of date food which I all too often tip into my green bin on a Saturday morning before I do my weekly shop and feel a real sense of personal shame. I have more than enough to waste and others in homes just a few doors from mine are hungry.
But this is as nothing to the anger I feel about my own Government's wilful indifference to the hunger of its citizens. Much of the desperation my staff and I see in my constituency is caused directly by benefit changes and sanctions. Cuts, caps, and changes to eligibility criteria have all hit people hard and often in cumulative ways, all exacerbated by the new attitude towards claimants, which is driven right from the top. An attitude that presumes each person who claims benefit is scrounging, work shy, or just plain lying about their need for support. An attitude that justifies revoking benefits with no notice and no investigation and delaying correcting the error for months on end.
The stories of inhuman cruelty and anguish this causes for real people should shake everyone's pride in Britain today. Take the young woman from my constituency who had all her benefits revoked last year when six months pregnant and not reinstated until weeks after she had given birth. But her troubles did not end there, as just a few months later, they were revoked again on the same erroneous charge and she had to begin appealing from scratch. Another constituent had her income support and carer's allowance suspended, apparently for failing to turn up to a compliance meeting, which she could not have attended because she was in hospital receiving surgery for a tumour. She has appealed but has been without benefits for three months.
Another with profound mental health problems and learning difficulties has been sanctioned for failing to keep appointments, when it is her very vulnerability which means she is on benefits in the first place. She has been entirely without financial support since November last year. The local replacement for the social fund will not pay out unless you are in receipt of a qualifying benefit so our attempts to find her alternative support have been unsuccessful.
For these vulnerable people, the safety net of the welfare state has been entirely dismantled and removed. The result is profound poverty, hunger, and even complete destitution. Only the food bank stands between them and starvation. For those unfortunate enough to have to contend with the benefits system today it often means shame, fear and degradation with long lasting impacts on physical and mental health.
Taking part in the End Hunger Fast is about standing in solidarity with those who can't afford to pay for food. It is about challenging the shame that is heaped on those in poverty and saying," we, your neighbours, think you deserve better and we want things to change". It simply isn't good enough for political leaders to bury their heads in the sand and accuse others of exaggerating the problem. Please sign up to the fast and take part. It is within the Government's grasp to do something about this. No one should be forced to go hungry in Britain today.
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