Hunger in Wirral: the truth behind the tale that made a Tory MP cry

The Guardian - 18 Dec 2017
It was the true story that moved a Tory to tears: Heidi Allen, Conservative MP for South Cambridgeshire, wept after Frank Field, the veteran Labour MP for Birkenhead in Wirral, told parliament of the hungry constituent who said he had had “a lucky week” because his family had been invited to a funeral and so could eat the food left over after the wake.

A few days later, Field was back in Birkenhead, immaculate in a checked shirt and tank top as he surveyed a scene of organised chaos in a sports hall at the Hive youth centre. Around him, volunteers scurried hither and thither to fill Christmas hampers for Wirral’s most needy.

Four years ago, they delivered 70 hampers. “This year we are doing 3,000,” said Ema Wilkes, who runs the Neo community cafe and social supermarket in Rock Ferry, one of the most deprived wards in Wirral. “People look at this and say: ‘Isn’t it brilliant what you’re doing?’ But I get really upset: this project should be getting smaller, not bigger.”

Sixty local taxi drivers have offered their time for free, shuttling the gift-wrapped cartons to their recipients. These were not bundles of luxuries but the basic essentials of life: toilet rolls, sanitary towels, baked beans and toothpaste, with the odd treat thrown in – a bottle of hot sauce donated by a nearby Nando’s, a bashed box of sugary cereal. There were bags with toys, each labelled with the gender and age of the recipient: a doll for a girl aged six, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Sewer Duel for a boy aged four and up.

Much of the food came from FareShare, a charity that redistributes food from retailers that has gone past the best-before date but not the use-by date.

The toys are largely donated by members of the public. Last year, said Wilkes, a present had been dropped off by the man who earlier this month had resorted to feeding his family at the funeral of someone he did not know.

The fact that a man could go from donor to recipient in one year showed how precarious life was for many people now, she said. “The dad was self-employed. He had quite an OK life. Then his van broke and things just began to spiral downwards.”

At the same time, the Department for Work and Pensions stopped the disability living allowance the man had been receiving for the eldest of his three children, who has autism. “They were ‘reassessing’ him,” she said, grimly.

Wilkes thought she had lost the ability to be shocked, but she cried when the man left her social supermarket, where customers “pay what you feel” – unless, like this family, they can pay nothing at all. The man’s young son had chosen a lunchpack of food off the shelf rather than a toy. “I don’t often cry,” she said, “but I was in bits.”

In parliament, Field, who speaks in the perfect grammar of a patrician, had told the Commons it was the first time he had been able to tell the funeral story without crying himself.

“One had thought that there’s nothing now that can shock one and yet this, the scale of it is so huge, isn’t it?” he said, gesturing at the sports hall.

“We’ve had over 10 years of cuts to benefits and then along comes universal credit sweeping along on this economic desert and the results are destitution, not poverty. Some of these things are really personal toiletries and people actually need them.”

Field has been an MP for 38 years. Until five years ago, no one had come to see him complaining of hunger.

“Now, two-thirds of the people who come to my surgery are on the brink of destitution,” he said. “There’s a lot of crying and gnashing of teeth in the surgery. It was totally unheard of before.”

In October, Field spoke in the Commons in another debate about universal credit.

He asked the employment minister, Damian Hinds, for assurances that when the new all-encompassing benefit was rolled out to Birkenhead in mid-November it would not lead to more people going hungry.

Food banks in his area were preparing to handle an additional 15 tonnes of food in 2018, Field said, learning from other areas further down the universal credit line.

Hinds suggested Field was worrying unnecessarily. Universal credit wouldn’t, he hoped, lead to queues outside the 15 food banks that have popped up in Wirral in the past six years.

Yet at one of Birkenhead’s busiest food banks on Friday, a month after the start of the benefit rollout, hungry people arrived, desperate after having their money cut as the government transfers them to the new benefit.

The food bank, at St Emmanuel’s church, was to have its second biggest day, feeding 47 people, just three short of its all-time record. One woman through the door was in her 50s. It was her first visit and she was clearly mortified. But she didn’t know what to do: she had just received a letter saying her benefits were stopping while she was moved on to universal credit. She can’t work because she cares for her disabled daughter and autistic son, and her cupboards were bare.

She had been told she must apply for the new benefit online. But how, when she didn’t even have an email address?

It was a familiar story. Joseph, a 42-year-old crack cocaine addict with a pregnant girlfriend, said his brother had been released from jail that morning and been told by probation he should apply for universal credit online. “He doesn’t have an email address. He hasn’t even got a phone. All these middle-class, computer literate people who make these rules don’t understand that ordinary people don’t have computers,” he said.

Joseph, who has painful ulcers on his legs because of an iron deficiency, plus bipolar disorder, had recently been turned down for the personal independence payment and was struggling to make ends meet on the £240 he received each fortnight in the shape of employment support allowance.


Back at Neo social supermarket, where they had just received a few turkeys they planned to sell for 50p, Wilkes received a typical text. “Hi sorry to bother you,” it began. It was from a mother whose income support had stopped without warning. She had received a letter ordering her to apply for universal credit. “I have literally sat sobbing since 3 this afternoon as I have been told that I will not receive a payment until 27 January and I can’t apply for the advance loan until I get an appointment and I have to wait for an appointment which will take 3-5 working days which means I will not get any money until after Xmas. I literally have nothing and have two very beautiful kids who I have basically failed, don’t have a clue where to turn to as I have tried everything I can think of.”


At the food bank Peter, 55, was also desperate. He had worked as a printer until he collapsed at work eight years ago with obstructive pulmonary disease, a lung disorder which makes it hard to breathe. He had been surviving on toast and was struggling to wash his clothes after the bearings in his washing machine went. He was dreading being transferred to universal credit and couldn’t believe how his life had panned out.

“If you had told me 10 years ago I’d be in a food bank, I’d have said you were having a laugh. Never in a million years did I think this would happen. Then, my only fear was being out of work, not going hungry,” he said.

Field too is in constant disbelief. Had anyone told him in 1979, when he became an MP, that he would be spending the run-up to Christmas packing hampers for constituents who couldn’t even afford toilet paper, he would have disregarded them as mad. “I would have gently had them put in a strait-jacket. I would have taken them to lie down in a dark-filled room.”

Helen Pidd, The Guardian