The MPs touring the country to hear real stories of Britain's food bank misery

Daily Mirror - 12 Feb 2019

Two minutes from Morecambe Bay’s windswept seafront, 60 local people and two MPs are packed into a church community centre which hosts a foodbank.

Some 257 miles from Westminster, St Barnabas Church stands on the corner of Westminster Road in Morecambe’s West End and is two junctions from Parliament Street.

It could not be more different from its famous, powerful namesakes to the south.

Yet it is here the MPs – Independent Frank Field, formerly of Labour , and Conservative Heidi Allen – have come to listen, not talk.

They want to hear the awful, heart-rending stories of how townsfolk have been hit by Government cuts, frustrated by a welfare system rapped in red tape and, in some cases, hammered by sheer bad luck.

The Commons Work and Pensions Committee – which Frank chairs and of which Heidi is a member - is investigating poverty across our land and Morecambe is the latest stop on their grim tour which also takes in Newcastle, Leicester and London.

Meet 25-year-old Daniel Burba.

Daniel stoops above the formica-topped tables bearing cellophane-covered bowls of crisps, chocolate biscuits and Quality Street sweets.

Frequently breaking down and physically supported by a friend, he sniffs away his tears as he reveals how as a teenager he was lured into selling drugs by “big adults” on his estat.

He hoped they were plotting his path out of poverty.

“We were 13, we were kids. They forced you to sell heroin and crack. You’re so afraid of what will happen to you if you don’t do it,” he says.

“There’s nothing else. If all the youth stuff hadn’t been taken away, we wouldn’t have been pulled away to these streets, to these men.

“A few of my mates had to hide guns for them. They pay you, and when you have younger brothers and sisters needing to be fed, it’s stressful trying to make the right decision.

“F****** 13, I shouldn’t have had to put up with it. My mam and dad never knew where we was getting the money from.

“I had a paper round, I pretended it was that.”

Daniel is dismayed by the bureaucracy of central and local government, and the hoops he had to jump through before he could receive help.

He also rails against the box-ticking culture he feels riddles the system.

“Treat me as you would want to be treated; see me as a person, not a number,” he cries.

And he echoes a familiar refrain, accusing the Government of fuelling a race where the “rich get richer and the poor get poorer”.

Heidi wipes away a tear while Frank listens intently, taking notes for their investigation.

Around the room, some guests’ eyes are damp. Others look genuinely angry.

A baby, less than a year old, is desperately trying to force out her first words – innocent hope amid the downcast gloom.

Now meet Karen Wheeler, 51.

Karen is well-spoken, almost posh. Her accent is not local.

She speaks very quietly, almost whispering – a sign of her nerves as she confides the horrifying route to her downfall.

Karen played lacrosse at her private school.

She has a masters degree, a teaching qualification and once briefed Government ministers in Whitehall.

In 1999 she was married, had an “excellent job” and was happy – until she was diagnosed with a neurological condition.

She had breaks from work for health reasons then lost her mother and split from her husband

The housing crisis hit and the family home sold for less than they hoped.

Karen hurt her knee, had five operations and a knee replacement.

Her mental health began to deteriorate and her daughter, Emily, also fell ill .

Karen had to leave her latest job to look after her.

Karen’s situation continued to spiral downhill. She used up her savings.

She began self-harming, carving the words “failure”, “freak” and “waste of space” into her arms, legs and stomach.

She thought about suicide.

“I felt my daughter would be better off without me round,” she admits.

“I stockpiled tablets waiting for the right moment.

“The rent was impossible to pay, every letter and phone call was threatening.

“The debts were racking up at an impossible rate and I was served an eviction notice.”

She visited food banks – the local Trussell Trust outlet fed 674 people last month(JAN), up 27% on January 2018 – and was baffled by the maze of DWP forms that needed completing before she could receive benefits.

She also took personally the blizzard of stereotypes aimed at welfare claimants.

“Every news bulletin seemed to be calling me a ‘scrounger’ or a ‘fraud’ or a ‘cheat’ or ‘scum’,” she says.

“Poverty can happen to anyone, in any position, from any background, at any time.

“All it requires is a chain of unfortunate events.”

Karen’s voice trembles and she reaches for Emily, the strong, redhead teenager who supports her mother.

Emily, who is studying for A-levels, retains her composure as she matter-of-factly explains how she and her mum were often left with just £2-a-week after paying bills.

Once, Emily’s school held a non-uniform day to raise cash for a children’s charity.

Her classmates each donated a quid, but Emily could not afford to contribute.

“People looked at me and I could tell they thought I was selfish by not wanting to part with a pound for a disadvantaged child,” she says.

“No-one knew that might have been me. To them it probably seemed irrelevant but a pound meant milk or bread.”

Another speaker tells of a family with five kids who have been burning wooden pallets as winter bites.

These bleak, desperate and anguished stories do not even shock now.

Calling for “the cuts to stop”, today’s organiser Siobhan Collingwood, a local headmistress, points out: “These are not extreme examples – this is the reality of daily life for far too many people living in our community.”

One common complaint centres on Universal Credit , the Government’s flagship welfare overhaul which rolls six benefit payments into one.

Delays and complications with the shake-up are shattering the Welfare State’s reputation for helping those most in need.

Urging a revamp will form a major part of the MPs’ recommendations.

Frank vows: “The two policies we will be pressing most on will be to scrap the freeze on benefits and to, if possible, make Universal Credit work.”

Heidi adds: “The Universal Credit five week wait for the first payment is utterly dysfunctional.”

Those who bravely told of their personal plights despair of a system where, they believe, strict form-filling and tough regulations trump compassion and common sense.

This is why they are speaking out - to remind the powerful that decisions taken in Westminster eventually ripple out across our country and, for some, can prove disastrous.

Ben Glaze, Daily Mirror