Denise Robertson: Polarisation of opinion on food banks is now farcical

A war is waging on social media between those who see food bank users as victims of a cruel government and those who are equally convinced that every food bank client is a beer-swilling, fag-smoking scrounger

David Jones/PA Wire Almost a million adults and children received emergency supplies from food banks in the past year
Almost a million adults and children received emergency supplies from food banks in the past year

A war is waging on social media between those who see food bank users as victims of a cruel government and those who are equally convinced that every food bank client is a beer-swilling, fag-smoking scrounger.

Even the Archbishop of Canterbury went a little over the top, in my opinion, when he equated the suffering of those who lived through genocide in Rwanda with people turning to foodbanks in Britain.

There may be hardship in Britain but we are not yet seeing our loved ones cut to pieces with machetes.

According to the Trussell Trust’s statistics, more than 913,000 people received food from its banks in 2013-14 compared with 347,000 in 2012-13. That is a terrifying increase but the Trust, UK’s biggest provider of food banks, is reportedly investigating after volunteers were filmed admitting that people could take food without checks.

At times the polarisation of opinion becomes farcical. In order to prove most claimants are indeed scroungers, one newspaper sent a reporter to fraudulently claim food and pictured him grinning among his ill-gotten gains.

Another paper showed a picture of a child crying, presumably desperate to be fed. In fact she was crying because her pet earthworm was missing.

And amid the propaganda there are people truly desperate for help. Like the woman I mentioned two weeks ago. She was happy in her job and her relationship.

She paid tax. Then one night she came home to find her partner had gone, taking with him everything in their shared home, even the bed.

She couldn’t afford the rent on her own so she downsized but she had to re-equip. She borrowed from friends. And then she was made redundant.

She was given £131 housing benefit, which covered her rent, and £70 a week jobseeker’s allowance but her housing benefit was cut, reportedly because of her post code, and she had to take £30 from her jobseeker’s to make up her rent.

Then she had to withhold the rent to pay the electricity bill. She’s in debt now and facing eviction. And not one helpline I’ve referred her to can help because they’re snowed under.

In an age of austerity, need increases and donations to agencies which could supply those needs dry up.

If she had been given one of the now-abolished hardship loans when her troubles started she would not need a foodbank now. Except that she doesn’t go to one. She is living on cereal.

Instead of condemning ‘scroungers’ or talking emotively of people weeping with hunger, we should be sorting out the bureaucratic mess that saw a woman sentenced last week for claiming £50,000 in benefits because agoraphobia wouldn’t let her leave her house when, in reality, she was secretly travelling the world, writing travel books.

Or the couple with £170,000 in savings who fraudulently claimed £42,000.

Instead of arguing, let’s sort the benefits system so that it works speedily and well for those in need and only for them.

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Last week a High Court judge found that a social services department had ignored a legal order that seven brothers and sisters should be kept in contact after their parents were sent to jail.

He said “It simply shouldn’t have happened. It is a frankly catastrophic situation.”

The children were given a “goodbye party” and “psychologically prepared” never to see one another again in direct contravention of the judge’s ruling, which had originally been agreed with the local authority. The judge said the council’s failings “almost beggar belief” and accused it of a “flagrant breach” of his order that ensured older children would remain in touch with their siblings who are being adopted.

He also demanded the council write to the children explaining what had happened. “It may now be too late to unscramble the egg on the issue of direct contact and the local authority has most probably created a fait accompli,” he concluded. But I can only say I part from this with a sense of the utmost despair. A terrible thing has happened.”

A spokesman for children’s services said “aspects of the team’s compliance with court orders fell unacceptably short of good practice”.

Now will someone believe that what goes on in the Family Courts isn’t just a bee in my bonnet.

Some brilliant social work goes on in this country, but when judges are using words like ‘catastrophic’ and ‘despair’ something is wrong.

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I’m not a great believer in nationalisation. The old nationalised services put the customer low down the pecking order.

However, I believe fervently in the old adage “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. East Coast Main Line was put into government ownership when the last franchisee failed.

Since then it has become the finest train service in the country with an unbelievably dedicated staff. They are simply superb.

Travel on some of the other services and you’ll see the difference. They even make a profit for the taxpayer.

So why put the franchise up for sale again? Is someone in government asleep on the job?

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The magazine Country Life got worthies like Jeremy Paxman and Jilly Cooper to compile a list of what makes a perfect gentleman.

They concluded that he is always on time, dresses to suit the occasion, makes love on his elbows, occasionally gets drunk, but never disorderly, never wears a pre-tied bow tie, Lycra or fuchsia trousers, never writes with a ballpoint, tweets or... God forbid, plants gladioli.

I’ve shown the list to Him Indoors but there’s no improvement yet.

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