UK
05/12/2013 11:09 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Autumn Statement: A View Of George Osborne's Welfare Cuts From A Foodbank

At the same moment that George Osborne strode into the House of Commons, to pronounce that the coalition government had "restored stability in a fiscal crisis", manager Liza Cucco was unlocking the door of Stoke Newington food bank.

One of three in the area, a number set to double by next autumn, the food bank is run by Cucco's team of volunteers, who see around 250 people a month. These are people in crisis for a variety of reasons - sudden joblessness, homelessness, ill health, a benefits mix-up or a domestic upset.

By all accounts, life should be improving for people in Hackney, if the figures in the Autumn Statement are anything to go by.

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The volunteers at Hackney food bank, run by the Trussell Trust

"The forecasts show that growth is up," Osborne told the Commons, as the foodbank volunteers sorted through the tins of food, including a rare treat of chocolate advent calendars, donated for distribution to struggling families.

It is the "largest improvement to current year economic forecasts at any Budget or Autumn Statement for fourteen years," the chancellor said. "Jobs are up and unemployment is down."

The chancellor, however, has yet to visit a food bank. "I think if you were to ask people here if they are feeling the effects of that trickle down, the answer would probably be no," Cucco told Huffington Post UK.

"I had a client in here a while back who was in crisis because his jobseekers allowance had been cut, because he decided to go on a 15-hour a week course to improve his prospects.

"I rang the Job Centre, and there was literally nothing they could suggest that he do. Nothing. There was no other help available."

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Unemployment may be falling, Cucco says, but the vast majority of people she sees at the centres in Hackney are unemployed, or in extremely vulnerable jobs.

Many are long-term sick, and most are in crisis because of some delay in the benefit system, or because they have been sanctioned. Osborne has vowed to get even tougher on benefit fraud, but also tackle "error" in the benefit system, which leaves many in peril.

Sitting with a cup of coffee on the blue plastic chairs, JJ Squires, 39, said she was extremely worried about the employment prospects for her teenage son, and concerned to hear about plans to make things even tougher for young people to access the benefit system.

"Starting in some areas at first, anyone aged 18 to 21 signing on without these basic skills will be required to undertake training from day one or lose their benefits," Osborne had announced moments earlier.

"If they are still unemployed after six months, they will have to start a traineeship, take work experience or do a community work placement – and if they don’t turn up, they will lose their benefits."

"A culture of worklessness becomes entrenched when young people can leave school and go straight onto the dole, with nothing expected in return."

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Joe, a volunteer every Thursday at Hackney food bank, makes cups of tea for clients who come

Squires said she thought the chancellor was being unfair. "It doesn't matter how many courses you go on, the reality I've seen is that places won't take on people who are 16, 17. You have to be 18. So they leave school, and realise they can't get a job. My son has been trying to get a labouring job, and they won't take him until he's older.

"I've tried my whole life to get a decent job, and I've been knocked back, I've not had the right qualifications, or papers, or experience. It's very hard now, much harder than it ever was."

Squires would like to see more investment in policing and community safety. "The police come in for a lot of flack from the government, we should value them more."

Simone Phipps, 31, who lives in a one-bedroom flat, sharing a room with her six-year-old son, was concerned about the cap on welfare, like housing benefit.

She said she was pleased about the plans to regenerate run-down estates, but the key issue, she said, was not whether people could afford to buy a house, or live in a nicer house, but the fact that there are simply not enough homes available to those in poverty.

"The homes they are building in Hackney are not homes for the people of Hackney, they are for people coming, investing money from abroad. When are they going to build more homes, big enough for people to actually live properly in, which people can afford?"

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Volunteers prepare a small meal for those who come to the food bank

Phipps has been off work with severe depression, but missed a medical appointment and had her payments stopped. Now she cannot appeal until 2 January, leaving her with no income over Christmas, apart from child benefit and tax credit, and in massive arrears on her rent. Her situation, she says, is aggravating her illness immensely.

Phipps says she does not completely disagree with a crackdown on what the chancellor has previously called the "something-for-nothing" culture. "People do believe they are better off on benefits," she said. "Sometimes you just want to work, just to say you do work. You get no more money.

"It's not just the money they give you, it's the discounts, discounted phone line, discounts in shops. There should be the same discounts for people on a low wage who are working."

She was horrified, as were many of the others in the church hall, including one current pensioner, that the retirement age would be raised to 70. "It's far too old, when you start working at 16," Phipps said.

Mother-of-three Rosenilia, 40, who lives with her husband in Hackney Downs, said she also believed it was too old to retire. Suffering from postnatal depression after having her one-year-old, she lost her job as a school cook.

In the meantime, her three-year-old has been diagnosed with a brain disorder - after years of doctors dismissing his illness, . She is hoping to access Employment Support Allowance, but is struggling to feed the children and heat the house.

"If he [Osborne] says that life is getting better, why am I here in a food bank? Why is anybody in a food bank?" she said. "Life is more expensive and harder than ever."