Thursday, 1 May 2014

The Biscuit Fund: an indictment of David Cameron’s premiership

Four years into David Cameron’s premiership and with one more whole year still to go before an election in this fixed term parliament there is still no sign of a coalition collapse, it also appears that the government’s neglect of the poor is seriously beginning to take its toll. Reports published by the Trussell Trust clearly show that the use of food banks has risen by a staggering 163 percent in the last year alone and with no sign of a halt. But how have we allowed this absurd situation to develop is a pondering question I often contemplate.  

Thousands of children in Britain are dying prematurely because of a growing gap between rich and poor, according to new research.

A wealth gap, combined with a lack of targeted health policies to tackle child mortality, means Britain lags behind its Western European counterparts, a study from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) and the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) shows.

Every year, an estimated 2,000 additional children – equivalent to five a day – die in the UK compared to the best performing country, Sweden.

And so, the recent reports have left many of us asking ‘How can one of the world’s largest economies allow for such failure?’ The provision of food after all is above all else one of the most basic of human needs, along with shelter, water and air. Therefore, for a situation to arise where almost one million UK citizens are too poor to even feed themselves is a real humanitarian travesty and a crime of this government, and one which needs to be sorted urgently, requiring immediate action and attention. But will it ever get that attention is another question I often ask myself?

I don’t know what people think of charities, my own feelings are that in a sane and compassionate society we would not have any need for them, however, this is not a sane compassionate society made worse by the austerity policies of Cameron’s administration, and what really amounts to attacks on the poorest sections of our society.  The problem is that everyone is aware of the bitter irony of everything that Cameron stands for: remember his attacks on Jimmy Carr for tax avoidance when we all know his Dad (Cameron’s) made a career of doing precisely that, he and his mates attack the feckless poor when he himself is a shining example of the feckless rich, attacks the socially vulnerable not knowing the first thing about the reality of vulnerability (and never will thanks to his inherited wealth). The man is a sick joke.

A couple of days ago I came across an interesting and must say very moving story in the Daily Mirror, so moved by the story I have decided to reproduce it on this blog as it stands as an indictment and serves to illustrate all which is so bad now that it deserves to be condemned.

The Biscuit Fund: The band of secret strangers giving crumbs of comfort to needy

In February, the police issued photographs of two elderly women who had been brutally attacked and then robbed in their homes in Bristol and Rotherham. A few days later, both women received an anonymous letter.

“We wanted to write to you with a small donation,” the letter said. “Although there are bad apples out there, there are many whose hearts have been touched by your ordeal.”

It was signed: “Please accept our love, thoughts and very best wishes. The Biscuit Fund.”
Last July, John, an unemployed man, sat with his severely ill son 90 miles from home while the boy waited for an operation.

John failed to make his appointment at the Jobcentre and was sanctioned. At the hospital, as weeks passed, John ran out of funds at his boy’s bedside, and stopped eating.
One night, he posted how desperately hungry he was on Facebook. The next day, he received a mysterious message.

“Dear John, we would like to send you some money for food. It’s a gift – with love, The Biscuit Fund.”

Sarah, a mum of three and carer for a disabled child, had missed meals for months and was living on foodbank handouts when she received a supermarket delivery. “Here is food to fill your cupboards,” a note said. “From The Biscuit Fund.”

Philanthropy is often associated with millionaires. The Biscuit Fund is an anonymous army of around 50 ­volunteers who are mainly on low incomes – and have mostly met only through social media.

Many have disabilities and mental health issues, many are themselves going through tough times, all are dedicated to helping people in crisis with what small amounts they can spare.
They call themselves The Biscuit Fund because of the amount spent by ministers on biscuits. Last year, health ministers alone spent £100,000 on tea and biscuits in six months while savaging the NHS with cuts.

A few weeks ago, The Biscuit Fund wrote to me to ask whether they could help someone who had been in the Real Britain column. I asked them to meet me without disclosing their identities.
So, a couple of weeks ago, I found myself waiting by a London Tube station. Two people calling themselves Jemima and Gerald emerged from the escalator. We sat in a cafe in the nearby market.

“In 2011,” Jemima says, “I began noticing people weren’t putting the usual pictures of their dinner and kids on Facebook. Lots of people were posting about how they were struggling.”
Jemima, 34, has fibromyalgia, ME and depression, and lives on basic disability benefits with two children. She is part of several online groups that post about disability and benefits, and having to fight ATOS assessments.

“One day, I saw a desperate post saying, ‘My fridge-freezer has broken and I can’t possibly afford a new one. We’ve lost all the food in our fridge and have nothing to eat’.
“I posted to say, ‘There’s a woman in real trouble here, could anyone spare £10?’ and 20 people said yes. There was such a big response, I ended up sending her £270 for a new fridge.
“I started to realise this was something we could do.”

A year later, the group is a registered charity with 48 agents in places including London, Oxford, Wiltshire, Newcastle, Scotland and Cornwall.

The Biscuit Fund doesn’t receive applications. Agents watch social and traditional media, scouring Facebook and local papers. They agree by majority vote who they are going to help.
“There are no admin costs,” says Gerald, 42. “Every penny goes to people who need it.”
They have prevented suicides, and restored people’s faith in human nature. So far around 100 people have been helped with around £10,000 – some just with £10 to put the electricity back on.
Others include a deposit on a flat for a heavily pregnant woman escaping an abusive partner.
Even though the money is a gift not a loan, some people have paid their money back, or gone on to use the money to help others in need.

Isn’t this David Cameron’s Big Society in action? Jemima and Gerald laugh.“It’s Coalition policies that are pushing people into poverty,” Jemima says.

If anything, The Biscuit Fund represents the small society – modest acts of kindness from neighbour to neighbour, based entirely on trust. A modern-day band of Robin Hoods – they save from their own pockets to help and empower the very poorest.

The fund is a powerful foil to the welfare reform rhetoric of scroungers and skivers.
“When you don’t have money, money is the most important thing in the world,” Jemima says. “You are so powerless and so helpless. But it’s not just about the money, it’s about giving people hope.

“Some of the people we have helped have been so poor they have literally been sitting at home with a bottle of pills in their hand thinking, ‘I can’t do this any more’. We’ve given them the breathing space to fight again.”

Gerald is a graphic designer, a Biscuit Fund agent and Jemima’s partner. One day, Jemima had confided in him that her own boiler was broken but that she didn’t want to ask the fund for help. He sent her the £250 to fix it.
She cooked him a meal to say thank you. “The rest is history,” Jemima says.
Philanthropy is often associated with millionaires, but really it’s just Greek for “Love of Humanity”. Which makes The Biscuit Fund about the purest philanthropy around.

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