Thursday, 25 July 2013

Tourists flock to sunny Eastbourne but the foodbank still flourishes

“I won’t take what I don’t eat,” says Dave, seemingly putting back as much as had been loaded into three carrier bags for him to take away from the Eastbourne food bank.

A former soldier Dave has hit hard times; he’s unemployed and lost his partner. He has had alcohol problems since leaving the army 10 years ago. This is the second time he has been to the food bank to receive his three days of food supplies. “I’ll only take what I’m going to use, I feel guilty handing it back,” said a slightly embarrassed Dave.

On another chair in the reception area is Maki, who has come for the first time, accompanied by one of his three children. He has had his benefits stopped. “The benefits office sent me here with a voucher,” said Maki, who was previously a driver before the injury made driving impossible. He is waiting for an operation in hospital. “The food I get here will keep us going till Friday, said Maki.

Maki and Dave are just two of the 10,800 people who have visited the Eastbourne food bank since it opened in June 2011. Demand seems to be growing with 730 people coming for food last month – 439 adults, 259 children.

Prior to becoming project director Howard Wardle was a trustee on a debt counselling project. He is also a local pastor. “People were getting into debt but couldn’t buy food – the Church couldn’t just buy food, it was untenable, so we put feelers out as to whether people thought a foodbank would be useful in Eastbourne.”

There was a positive response.

He explains how first the food bank operated from a portakabin, and then the local United Reformed Church offered some premises.

Initially, he thought the building too big but now it is packed out with different foods, particularly soup, pasta and beans.

Part of the Trussell Trust network, Eastbourne was the first town to open a foodbank in the South east. At the time it became the 99th to open, now there are over 325 foodbanks across the country with three new ones opening each week. The number of people being served by food banks has risen from 2,814 in 2005/6, when the Trussell Trust began, to 346,992 for 2012/13.

The Eastbourne food bank opens from Tuesday to Friday every week between 10 and 12 midday. Some 75 different volunteers, mainly from local churches and supportive organisations, come into help out.

On Tuesday each week the food comes in. Two people are on the van going round the town collecting the food. The food is weighed in and recorded when it comes in. 12 people pack up the bags and boxes for those coming in for the food.

The recipient in Eastbourne first enters the reception area, where there are comfortable armchairs and a group of befriending volunteers. There is a rota of three or four people on the welcoming part of the food bank every day. “They are trained how to empathise with people and make them feel at ease,” said Mr Wardle, who explained: “People often come to us quite frightened and confused. Sometimes all people want to do is talk about what is going on.”

In the back room are the stocks of food all carefully categorised on shelves. On the floor today are a load of bags of food, delivered from Our Lady of Ransom Catholic Church.

Upstairs is the office which compiles statistics, deals with vouchers and keeps a record of what is going on. Jan comes in one day a week to send out thanks to those who have supported the work.

The idea is to provide three days of food. The packages are made up of cereal, juice, milk/powder, tea or coffee, pasta, pasta sauce, soup, beans, tomatoes, vegetables, meat, fruit, rice pudding, sugar, sponge pudding biscuits, fish and instant mash. There may also be extras such as snacks, sauces and chocolate.

People don’t just arrive randomly at the food bank but have to be referred with a voucher. Care professionals such as doctors, health visitors, social workers, Citizens Advice Bureau and many other agencies identify people in crisis and issue them with a voucher. Over 100 agencies in Eastbourne hold food vouchers.

There is a limit of four vouchers but the food bank organisers continue to provide food if they see a need. “A lot of people come two or three times and we never see them again,” said Mr Wardle, who explains that the food bank also employs an advocate, Rupert Calkett to help those who don’t seem to be moving on with their lives. He can put them in touch with other services.

The food bank looks out for anyone coming in who maybe playing the system but Mr Wardle estimates that there have been less than five such individuals over the two years.

The foodbank operates 13 collection bins around the town that are emptied three times a week. These are situated in places like supermarkets, churches and colleges. There are lists of what the foodbank needs. “The principle of the foodbank is the community helping the community,” said Mr Wardle, who tells how they distributed 5.5 tonnes of food in June alone.

The top reason that people come to the foodbank is delays in benefits. This accounted for 263 cases in June. The next cause is no income, then benefit changes and finally debt.
“In Eastbourne you can wait up to 20 weeks to change benefits or get onto benefits. That’s a long time. The food we supply for three days doesn’t touch the edges,” said Mr Wardle, who recalls seeing a lot of people coming to the foodbank who are simply stressed out feeling crushed by the system.
It’s a very difficult environment, with little work around. “99.9 per cent of those coming here want work but it is not there,” said Mr Wardle, who endures the frustration of having people who have been helped by the foodbank wanting to come back themselves to volunteer only to then endanger their own benefits. ”People looking for work can be deemed to not be looking hard enough and sanctioned,” said Mr Wardle. Volunteering to help can come into this category – what price the Big Society?

People can be quick to judge but the saying there but for the grace of God go I is a phrase never far from the surface at the foodbank. Mr Wardle recalls one couple that looked far too prosperous for the foodbank. “He was a sales manager who had not been paid for a few months. They got behind with the mortgage. They sort advice and were told to hand the keys in and walk away from the house. The council then said they had made themselves voluntarily homeless. The next day the company the man worked for shut down. They were left sleeping on friend’s couches. He then got a break, getting a job with Comet but then they went bust.” The case shows how easy it is to fall into poverty.

Another woman was self-employed. The business went bust, so she and her partner were taking it in turns to eat: two days eating, two days not. She came and took home some food parcels. With support she then got a job.  

Erroll Smith came to the foodbank for support. He later came back as a volunteer. “It made me feel part of the world, it’s a two way process. I first came a year ago. It really helped, things got sorted, and benefits got sorted. It was a case of what can I give to the foodbank.”

Mr Wardle would like to put himself out of work but does not see food banks going away any time soon. “3,500 children go to bed hungry every night in Eastbourne,” said Mr Wardle, who sees more problems when the universal credit is rolled out, with people receiving one payment to deal with all their needs. “There will be chaos with people getting in a mess,” said Mr Wardle who sees more clients coming the way of the foodbank as a result. It is a scandal that in the fifth largest economy in the world, increasing numbers of people are using food banks. What does seem for sure is that foodbanks are a phenomena that is truly here to stay.


* For more information or to make contact see:

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Tribute to Marie Donovan

2/1/1925 to 11/7/2013

Mum has gone after battling against her final illness. It has been an up and down existence for her over the last few years, with the past 18 months particularly trying.

A period punctuated with illness and hospital visits. She has gone from sleeping upstairs in her own bed with a little care help in the mornings to coming downstairs, receiving constant care and only able to move from bed to commode to chair by hoist.

There has been a steady deterioration in the quality of life, as the world seemed to close in at times. Her eyesight was rendered virtually non-existent by first glaucoma, then macular degeneration. The hearing worsened.

Then there were her legs. Riddled with arthritis, the level of movement reduced seemingly with each month. At night she suffered agony in bed with the legs, often crying out with the pain.

Incontinence was another indignity.

When I asked Mum how she was each morning the regular response was “awful.” Few days went by without the plaintiff call:

“I wish I was dead” or “I hate this life.” She could not see anything getting better. So when she did finally succumb to the latest illness, most of us saw it as a mixed blessing.

Sitting in a house surrounded by Mum’s belongings is a strange experience. Sitting in her chair with a slight whiff of her perfume, remembering how she loved a glass of wine brought back memories.

You knew something was severely wrong if she did not want her wine. Second only to wine was a choc ice. I’d often ask whether she wanted a choc ice after lunch to which the answer was almost always “I’d love one.” Occasionally she refused on the grounds that it would go down her front and make a mess. Difficulties with eating were also causes of irritation to a proud lady. “I eat like a pig,” she would sometimes protest as she spilled something.

I sometimes helped her with the last spoonfulls of a meal. In hospital I’d feed her with all the meal, a strange experience, completing the circle of life, from when she fed me as baby, toddler and child.

It is a truly humbling experience to remember that no matter how strong, fit, intelligent or creative at any point in our lives, at some time the faculties will reduce and we all come back to where it all began.

My Mum was a battler all her life. Her Mum died when she was 10. She was put in the “care” of a governess, who regularly beat her with a rod. The governess was only dismissed when it was found she had been stealing from the neighbours, whilst doing some cleaning for them.  Mum was so traumatised by the experience that years later on a day out at school she fainted upon spotting the former governess in the street.

Mum went to a boarding school, run by nuns, excelling academically and on the hockey field. She was always full of praise for the nuns and what they did for her. The phrase: “We’ll just have to hope now, as Sister Maureen would say” was a constant refrain of Mum’s down the years, never more so than in her recent hospital stays with illness.

At school she made friends with Diana Ebsworth. The two remained firm friends throughout their lives, still in contact right up to Mum’s death. Diana’s parents welcomed Mum into their family.

Another strong support for Mum in the early years was her aunt, who ran the Logan Rock Inn in Cornwall. Mum spent many happy holidays at the pub, working behind the bar as she got older. Among the clientele was Dylan Thomas, a firm favourite with Mum, though her ready memory was how he told her she would not make a great poet.

Mum had a first brush with serious illness, when she caught pneumonia. Then a deadly disease, she was expected to die. However, it was the early days of penicillin and she became one of the first people to try the new medicine. Fortunately it worked.

She went onto become a junior school teacher, first in Portsmouth, then in Newham, east London. Mum taught for more than 30 years at Kensington School in East Ham, Newham. She met my Dad Denis Donovan there, only taking a break to have my brother Andrew and myself in the early 1960s. When she returned to teaching.

The family spent many happy holidays near Rye in east Sussex. The days on the beach at Camber Sands and Hastings live in all the families memory. Picking blackberries (Andrew and my role), making wine (Dad’s role) and drinking wine (Mum’s role). These days were certainly among Mum’s happiest.

Mum and Dad retired, moving to Eastbourne in 1986. Mum had another battle shortly after retirement, when she was diagnosed with cancer. She had surgery and survived.

The school timetable converted into a retirement timetable, one day shopping, another for Dad’s bridge, a day out travelling round the countryside etc. So it all went on until the years began to take their toll.

At the turn of the millennium Dad got dementia, slowly becoming more forgetful. In 2004, this took a sharp turn for the worse. For 18 months, Mum was effectively his carer. A strong willed man at the best of time, where his drives had previously gone in positive directions, the illness made life problemmatic. The next 18 months probably took as much out of Mum as they did Dad. He finally went into a home in late 2005. Mum continued with life, though her sight was beginning to fail.

One of the enduring gifts of my Mum was her constant kindness toward others. She was always considerate of other people and tried to help out where and when she could. She was also a very tolerant, live and let live person.

There was a memory from Mum’s cousin Peggy, who told how she had been like a sister to her down in Cornwall, when no one else would talk to her. Kindness to others was a watch word for my Mum.

She was helped out in the later years by several people at the local church. David and Barbara Hylie were regular visitors, bringing the weekly eucharist. The Hylies helped Mum out in other ways, taking her for hospital visits – when the argument “I’m not going near that place again” could be overcome.

Mum was a convert to Catholicism. She converted when at school. Her faith though took some knocks in the last 10 years of her life, first seeing her husband struck down by Alzheimers, then enduring her own physical distress as seemingly the world closed in. At times she would question, what have I done to deserve this?

However, her life was one of true Christian witness. As a mother, wife and friend, few would be more loved than my Mum. That quiet consideration of others, a desire to never leave a situation worse than she found it. A life of good relationships, bringing harmony and love with them. The world will certainly be a lesser place without Marie Amie Margaret Donovan.

* Funeral - 12 noon on Friday 26 July at Our Lady of Ransom Church, Eastbourne.
See: 30/9/2013 Guardian - 22/9/2013 Catholic Herald - Lives Remembered

Friday, 5 July 2013

The real story is that Britain needs all the migrants it can get

"Net Migration Down by a Third” was the headline accompanying the news that the number of people coming into the UK last year reduced by 80,000. The headline typifies the negative tone of the debate on immigration in Britain today.
The public default position from all of the mainstream parties is that immigration needs to be cut. Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to reduce net migration from the 100,000s to the 10,000s at the last election.
The Labour Party admits it made mistakes on immigration in the past but will not make a positive argument in favour of migrants. The Liberal Democrats too stress immigration controls. Then there is UKIP, which argues that Britain has lost control of its borders due to EU regulations. So if Britain wants to get back control of immigration it must leave the EU.
As a result of the wholly negative discourse dangerous decisions are being made that threaten to further derail the British economy.  The reality is that if Britain wants to remain the fifth largest economy in the world it probably needs all the migrants that it can get.
The population of the UK today is ageing, with people living longer. At the same time fertility rates are falling. Not enough children are being born to replace the current population. Today there are three people of working age for every one over 65, by 2060 the ratio is expected to change to 1:1.
Academic David Blake estimates that for the state pension to remain viable, there need to be 500,000 immigrant workers coming to the UK each year.
“If the next generation is smaller in number than the current generation, the current generation will have some stark choices: it will have to accept a cut in its pension, or save more while in work or work longer and retire later or accept more immigration,” said Rahila Gupta, author of Enslaved.
A further connection between migrants and the elderly is that the former also fill many of the skill gaps required to service an ageing population. So there is much migrant labour working in the NHS, the care sector and social services. Highly skilled migrants fill a gap in the UK economy.
Migration is good for the economy. The government's own figures show, that net migration of 250,000 per year boosts the annual GDP by 0.5% (source: Office for Budget Responsibility). This growth means more jobs, higher tax revenues, more funding for schools and hospitals and a lower deficit.
Despite the populist hysteria about migrants coming here for benefits, the facts tell another story.

The business leaders group Business for New Europe (BNE) found that only 1% of Polish migrants claim income support compared to 4% of the native-born British population. 8% of Polish migrants live in social housing compared to 17% of native born British citizens.
“EU law does not currently give all EU citizens the unconditional right to live freely or claim benefits in the UK. After three months, European citizens have to prove they can support themselves, are in work or are looking for work with a real chance of getting it,” said a spokesperson for BNE.
Migrants also tend to be younger, contributing more in tax revenue than they consume in public services and the majority leave before they get older when they would become more reliant on public services.
A study by University College London in 2009 that looked at the fiscal impact of the migration of recent eastern European migration found that migrants contributed 37% more in taxes than the cost of the public services they consumed.
In recent years, the largest single group of migrants coming to the UK from outside Europe has been international students. A research report for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that from 2011 the estimated the value to the UK economy of international students at over £14 billion per year.
Further education is a booming service industry but threatens to be wrecked by the policies predicated on the need to cut migrant numbers now being slavishely pursued by government.
A less trumpeted fact concerning the recent drop in migrant numbers was that 56,000 of those who did not come here were students, a cost in terms of loss to the economy of some £725 million.
The student intake from India has particularly reduced, with negative messages getting back to that country. There has been a 24% drop in the number of students coming from India in the past year, a loss of £169 million to the British economy, according to the Migration Matters Trust.
The clumsy intervention last year by the UK Borders Agency that removed the licence from the London Metropolitan University to teach and recruit students from beyond the EU no doubt did much to contribute to this negative perception abroad. 
One concern has been the undercutting of rates of pay and conditions due to the arrival of migrant workers. If so it were so then at the lowest level those who are responsible for enforcing the minimum wage have something to answer for.
HMRC must do more to enforce minimum wage requirements to protect British workers. The courts are empowered to prosecute those in breach of the National Minimum Wage Act 2008,” said a spokesperson for the BNE.
Remarkably, there has been just one prosecution for breach of the national minimum wage in the period 2011-2013. The failure to effectively regulate is evident by the fact that between 9% and 13% of direct care workers are currently paid at levels below the requirement. The introduction of the living wage would also help stop undercutting.
So it can be seen there is a very positive story to be told about immigration, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. What is more if people in this country want to continue to prosper then more migrants need to be attracted to these shores, not driven away amid a storm of xenophobic vitriol.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Austerity agenda is all about dumping on the poorest and building division

So the latest pernicious offering from the government on the altar of austerity is to charge immigrants for NHS services. We all know that this measure will probably cost more to implement than it will save, wrapping NHS staff up in ever more bureaucracy – something that on another day the Coalition claims it is trying to cut.
The truth is that austerity is just one big con trick. It is an excuse to attack the poor and scapegoat different groups in society. The idea that it has anything to do with saving money is laughable.
Look at the facts. The Chancellor squeezes another £11 billion out in cuts last week. At the same time it slips out that the High Speed Rail link is running £10 billion over budget.
A few pennies are to be saved by making benefit recipients wait a few more days to receive their money, meantime HMS Customs and Revenue fail to collect £10 billion in VAT for 2010/11. 
This is all a choreographing exercise of distraction from a policy of dumping on the poor and turning people against each other. The sooner we recognise the con and say enough the better.