First published by The Independent, 21st March 2017

One of the most heartbreaking scenes in Ken Loach’s austerity tear-jerker I, Daniel Blake is where young mum Katie Morgan is forced to use a food bank. She is met by kindness and understanding from the food bank volunteers, a marked difference from the Job Centre staff who sanctioned her for being a few minutes late, in a new city, with two young children to feed. After putting a few items in a bag, Katie tears open a tin of baked beans, scoops them out with her hand and eats them cold, shaking and white-faced. She has been denying herself meals in order to keep her children fed. She is starving.

I, Daniel Blake might be fictional, but it is created from the testimonies of real benefit claimants and those working inside the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). It’s estimated that four million people in the UK are currently going hungry due to low wages, inflated utility prices and punitive welfare sanctions. This figure includes 500,000 young children.

In a recent interview with Vogue, our Prime Minister Theresa May was asked what her superpower would be if she had one. She responded: “I think I’d want to make sure that everyone in the world had access to clean water and sufficient food so that we didn’t see people starving.”

The blatant hypocrisy in May’s answer is staggering. She is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. She doesn’t need a comic book “superpower” to ensure that people have enough food to eat – she could introduce policies that would reverse the effects of Tory austerity that have led to widespread hunger in her own country. She could move to scrap the hated Bedroom Tax and unfair benefit sanctions that are applied to claimants for a myriad of petty offences.

We cannot forget that it is the decision to impose austerity that has caused so much suffering and distress for Britain’s most vulnerable people. Despite what the Conservative government would have us believe, the cuts imposed on welfare and local services were ideological, not inevitable.

Job Centres can strip claimants of their only source of income for weeks on end for being late or missing appointments, even in the case of falling seriously ill and being hospitalised or the death of a loved one. Cruel sanctions are applied to those with learning difficulties for failing to fill out forms correctly or for those an advisor feels “hasn’t done enough to look for work”. Numerous documents have been released detailing how DWP staff are encouraged to sanction a certain quota of people, risking losing out on annual benefits if they do not.

The Trussell Trust is the largest provider of foodbank services in the UK, and states that the primary causes of referrals to their services are benefit delays (27.95 per cent) and low income (23.31 per cent). Other causes include debt, homelessness, domestic violence, sickness and unemployment. In the 2015-16 financial year, the Trussell Trust reported that they distributed more than 1.1 million parcels of food meant to last for three days, and that more than a third of the aid distributed went to children.

The ex-soldier and diabetic David Clapson died hungry and penniless in Stevenage, Herts, in 2014 after having his benefits sanctioned. Mark Wood, a man with complex mental health problems, starved to death four months after his benefits were stopped in Bampton, Oxfordshire in 2013. He was found “fit to work” by the DWP, despite his doctor’s categorical assertion that he was “extremely unwell and absolutely unfit for any work whatsoever”.

It seems grotesque in the extreme that in one of the world’s wealthiest and most developed countries, people are starving on the Government’s watch and due to their policies. Theresa May is arguably the most powerful woman in the UK, and to say “I want to end hunger” in a fashion magazine interview while ignoring the millions of food insecure people in her own country is a grave insult to the people who have died due to DWP decisions and their families.

It’s an insult to those scraping to get by, those who are chronically ill, disabled, struggling to raise children, working more than one job in an effort to make ends meet and still not quite managing it. It’s an insult to the whole of Britain.

You don’t need a superpower, Theresa May. If you really wanted to make sure everyone has enough to eat, you’d be undoing the work of David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith – and fast.

Posted by:harrietpwilliamson

Writer