Destitute and desperate: why we need to fix the benefits system

Question TimeAnglican dioceses in South West England  have been working for some time on the issue of food poverty, and recently organised a Breadline Question Time event. Here is some of what they’ve learned about the causes of hunger in their region.

“I was unemployed, on Job Seekers Allowance. Then I became ill so Job Seekers Allowance stopped and I had to go on sickness benefit and that took eight weeks. The food bank kept me going. It’s great that there are people [who] care. The good news is that I had an interview this morning and I got the job.”

The audience at the Breadline Britain Question Time in Gillingham, Dorset had come to listen. to Gary. Gary doesn’t fit into the caricature of the workshy, the so called scroungers, the alleged freeloaders who are supposedly pleased to take anything that’s free. He’s just an ordinary guy trying to get through some incredibly difficult times. For eight weeks Gary had nothing coming in. He wasn’t sanctioned, he was doing everything possible to find work, but when it mattered most he was left with nothing. There was warm applause when Gary told us he had only found a job just that morning, and his quiet courage comes back to me often.

The group of Social Responsibility Officers for the Anglican dioceses across the South West of England started thinking in 2012 about how to respond to the phenomenal growth of food banks in the region, and the terrifying demand for their services. It was obviously good that so many people, including so many church members, were responding to the needs of people who were going hungry as the economic recession bit, and at a time when changes to the benefits system were coming in. But the rise raised questions about what was going on in what is, after all, one of the wealthiest parts of one of the wealthiest nations on the face of the earth. The event in Gillingham was our latest action exploring those questions – responding to a challenge from Niall Cooper of Church Action on Poverty to really listen to the voices of people who have been made to go hungry.

Sarah spoke next: she worked for the Ministry Of Defence  for 18 years but had to retire due to ill-health. Needing extra support, she moved closer to her daughter through a social housing swap. Unfortunately the rent and council tax on the new property resulted in an increase of £20 in weekly outgoings, which is a lot when you are on benefit support. She was advised to apply for the Personal Independence Payment which takes sixteen weeks to process – so four whole months without any income.

“Only a few months ago I couldn’t have imagined myself in this situation. I had a good job, and now I wouldn’t have got by without the support of the food bank.”

Laura’s story is the most striking. Her husband works a 24 hours-a-week standard contract and takes any overtime. They have two young children of their own, but her husband also had two young children from a previous relationship who lived with their mother. But when she became unable to care for them, the children moved to live with their Dad. But their arrival was deemed to be a change of circumstances that required new applications for all benefits. While these were being processed their current benefits were suspended, and the processing period normally lasts eight weeks.

An ordinary hard-working family heavily penalised for doing the honourable and right thing, suddenly found itself needing the support of their local foodbank.

So don’t just talk about people suffering from poverty – provide a space for them to tell their own tales, and listen! Hearing directly from people about why they needed to turn to a food bank is powerful and transformative. Their stories challenge us to build a compassionate and supportive society where food banks are no longer needed.


If you are interested in running a Question Time event like the one described here, please contact Nick Franklin (0161 236 9321 or

Click here for further information.






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