Saturday, 29 March 2014

End Hunger Fast - Week 4.

This week was my fourth fast for End Hunger Fast, which, felt in some ways easier than others. I had hunger pangs in the morning, and for the last hour, but for most of the day found myself not thinking too much about food. I did, however, feel quite mentally weak; particularly because my day began with a pretty stressful work issue that almost had me in tears before I reached the office. All of which leads me to conclude that most people can get used to anything - if you go hungry often, your body is likely to adjust- but in the long term it's never going to be good for your physical and emotional well being.

For yesterday's fast I chose to remember a man who is only known to campaigners as George from Chesterfield due to this article in 2011. I remembered George, because it is his story that brought Atos and the Work Capability Assessment to my attention, kick-starting the Atos Stories project.  Despite having a heart condition, angina and regular chest pain, Atos found him fit to work, requiring him to be placed on Job Seeker's Allowance and look for a job. Eight months later he won his appeal and was placed in the work related activity group, enabling him to claim Employment Support Allowance.  But due to the constant reassessment required by the DWP, he was soon called in for another medical. He died of a heart attack the day before he was due to attend, his widow convinced the stress killed him.

George did not die of hunger; unlike some of the people I have been remembering in my fasts, his cupboards weren't totally bare.  But, even on £90/week and whatever income his wife brought in, it is likely that food was a struggle. And the fear of that benefit being reduced by £30/week - a  significant reduction for a low income family that would surely have added pressure to their budget - must have contributed to the stress that was a factor in his death.

Since I read George's story, I've lost count of the amount of people who have died from Atos-induced stress, hunger, or fear. Not surprisingly really, the DWP's own figures (before they stopped producing them) suggested that 32 people were dying each week after being placed in work related activity group. It's a national scandal, which is now firmly in the public eye thanks to the brilliant campaigning of Black Triangle, Disabled People Against Cuts, Kaliya Franklin, Sue Marsh and others. In fact the WCA has become so toxic that Atos finally pulled out of the contract this week. Of course that won't stop the cruelty and chaos of the scheme, but it is a start.

And a start is what we need; because despite the progress we've made in campaigning on welfare issues, we've a long way to go. This week, for the first time ever the House of Commons, voted to cap welfare. A move initiated by the government, and disgracefully supported by Labour. By their own admission, this was less about  ideology and more about playing politics. According to my MP's response to my request he rebel,  Labour seems prouder of not falling into the Daily Mail trap they believe Osborne had set up for them, then their lack of positive alternatives to welfare austerity. Sadly, the party that set up the welfare state is still too scared to articulate the strong moral argument for a social security system that takes care of those in need. I can see that they believe appealing to the middle is the only way they're going to win the next election, but we aren't going to end hunger that way. And judging from the latest opinion polls pandering to the right isn't doing them much good either.

For too many years politicians on all sides, have continued to promote the lie that the welfare system is a burden on the taxpayer. A lie that has led to a situation of such dire food poverty that 500,000 people sought the help of food banks last year, whilst 5,500 people were admitted to hospital for malnutrition. If we are to make a change from the toxic politics of WCA, workfare, sanctions, bedroom tax that have caused this mass hunger, it is time we had a changed narrative. One that restores a belief in social security for everyone who loses their job, becomes sick, or ends up a single parent. One that says that in a rich nation, no child should starve, no disabled or sick person should live in fear of medical assessment, no adult  should be anxious about how to pay their bills. Labour, as the main opposition party, is in the perfect position to shape this narrative, yet it cowers in the corner too afraid to speak out. If we want real change in this country it is high time that Labour stops playing politics, ditches its neoliberal shadow chancellor and develops some real balls.

I happened to be in London on Thursday morning, in time to see Tony Benn's funeral cortege. It was moving to see how much he meant to so many, how his commitment to social justice had such an impact. Among the many banners on display, one jumped out at me. It said something to the effect that Benn stood up for the poor, the discriminated against; he was on the side of the people. I hope Ed Miliband and his team saw that sign when he went into church. I hope they recognised that the affection felt for Benn was due to his moral stance on so many issues, and his willingness to speak the truth even when it made him unpopular. And I hope they can begin to see that the only way out of the mess this country is in, is if they stop being scared, and become a party of the people once more. A party that places justice before politics, principle before media sound-bites, and acts on behalf of those most in need.

This week Keith Hebden, Scott Albrecht and Simon Cross passed the halfway point of their 40 day fast for End Hunger Fast. On Friday they are inviting us all to join them as part of a national day of fasting. I'll be fasting for the fifth time, remembering another welfare victim as I do. If it's at all possible, please consider joining us if you can.

#Fast4thApril #EndHungerFast

Saturday, 22 March 2014

End Hunger Fast - Week 3

This week, inspired by the Bishops of Oxford I chose budget day to fast. In the run up to Wednesday, as I read about Osborne's plans for 2014 and beyond, I found myself recalling his first budget in June 2010. At the time of that budget, in the honeymoon period when most people seemed to think the coalition was a good thing, there was an article on the BBC website asking for comments. I signed in to say that his plans made me afraid for the future of public services, and in particular for the future of people with disabilities who I feared would be at the forefront of any cuts. I hoped that I would be proved wrong; sadly I wasn't

Eighteen months after that budget, Helen and Mark Mullins took their lives after struggling to live on £57.50 a week. The reason for their limited income cannot be laid wholly at the coalition's door. They were trapped in a Kafkaesque situation where Helen was deemed not fit to work and therefore unable to claim JSA, but lacked a medical diagnosis for her learning disabilities that would have enabled her to claim incapacity benefit. Helen should have been offered support from Social Services, but somehow fell through the net. Given that all political parties apart from the Greens are wedded to austerity budgets, it is quite possible they'd have had the same experience under a Labour government and made the same choice to die. However, one thing that can't be disputed is that Helen and Mark were victims of an increasingly punitive approach to people claiming benefits. An approach begun by Thatcher, perpetuated by new Labour and accelerated by Cameron, Osborne and Duncan Smith. Nor can it be disputed that Osborne's approach to cutting the deficit is the most vicious of any Chancellor, hitting  sick and disabled people more than any other groups in society. It is also clear that the cause of their suicide - no longer being able to cope with living off a few vegetables donated by the soup kitchen as they huddled for warmth in one room - has become more common place in the last four years.

I spent my day's fast thinking of Mark and Helen, praying as I did so that this year we had a budget with humanity, a budget that recognised the impact of cuts on the poor, a budget that would end hunger today. Unfortunately my prayer was not answered. Instead I was forced to listen to George Osborne boasting of his economic achievements (a tiny recovery spun as growth, a deficit that has increased since 2010). As the evening progressed, I became increasingly angry, the sick feeling in my stomach, partly due to hunger and partly due to disgust at his refusal to acknowledge the needs of the country. The most depressing moment of all was realising that the proposal to cap the benefits bill, was not only going to be made into primary legislation to ensure it continues for the next four years, but will be supported by Labour. In other words, when the money for welfare runs out, as it undoubtedly will, there will be more no more left for those in need. So we will see more queues at the foodbanks, more people go hungry, more suicides, whilst wealthy politicians on all sides of the house stand by and let it happen.

As with last week, the last couple hours of my fast were difficult; I was hungry, I felt sick and I was raging. And then something rather wonderful happened. Grant Shapps tweeted what must rank as one of the most crass political messages ever, celebrating the cut in tax duty "to help hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy."   After a quick check that it wasn't a spoof, Twitter and Facebook was soon full of hilarious parody versions (this was my particular favourite). Suddenly, angry and sick as I was, I began to laugh and laughing felt good. Because four years ago, when I commented on the BBC website, I felt isolated and alone, drowned out by waves of people celebrating attacks on the workshy.  On Wednesday  "Torybingo"  made me realise that, despite the lies of this government, the majority of people know exactly what we are up against. And that's more than a little encouraging.

In the mean time, we can keep doing all we can to raise awareness of these issues. Keith, Simon and Scott are on day 18 of their fast, nearly half way through. I'll be fasting again next week, and everyone is invited to join in the National Day of Fasting on 4th April.

So please help us, by fasting if you can, and if you can't, please help by spreading the word. Together we can End Hunger Fast.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

End Hunger Fast - Week 2

When I was in my mid-twenties, I experienced a period of uncertain employment and very low wages. It happened to coincide with interest rates rising to a staggering 15% that doubled my mortgage within months and left me struggling to pay the bills. I was fortunate to have enough emotional resilience to pull  myself through a difficult time, and a strong network of family and friends to help me out when the going got really tough. Nevertheless, I spent over a year with my outgoings exceeding my income - not because I was profligate - but because I just wasn't earning enough to cater for my basic needs. It wasn't poverty, but it was close and for a long time I teetered on the brink. It was a life of difficult choices - did I pay the electricity bill  or let it go red so I could stock up my meagre food cupboard? Did I buy a travel-card, or cycle the 18 mile round trip to work so I had enough to pay the mortgage? When I eventually landed a job that set me back on track, the debts I incurred took five years to clear, and I was on the credit blacklist for even longer.

I'm grateful for that experience, difficult as it was, for giving me a small insight into the precariousness of life at the bottom end of the salary scale. It's easy when you live comfortably, as we do now, to forget that not everyone is as well off as us. And I guess, the really wealthy - like the coalition ministers who are making decisions about welfare cuts - are so far removed from that life that it is either beyond their imagination, or they just don't care. Either way, they seem to have no understanding of the impact of their policies and the way they affect ordinary people such as Stephanie Bottrill. Stephanie lived with the condition, mysasthenia gravis, an auto-immune disease that weakened the muscles, and required constant medication. In the past, this country recognised that people like Stephanie need support to survive, but under this coalition government, disabled and sick people are bearing the brunt of austerity cuts. Stephanie was one of thousands charged with the bedroom tax, an extra financial demand she simply couldn't afford. In the last few months of her life, she couldn't afford to heat her home, and was cutting back on food so much, all she had in the cupboard was tinned custard. Her life was so desperate, she walked in front of a lorry on the M6; another unnecessary welfare death made even poignant by the news that she should have actually been exempt.

Yesterday, I embarked on my second 24 hour fast for End Hunger Fast, remembering Stephanie as I did so. I was better prepared this week and didn't start feeling hungry till lunchtime. Nevertheless by the afternoon, I was exhausted and nauseous, and a trip to the shops with the children left me feeling stressed and angry. As the evening wore on, all I could think of was food, and when I could break my fast at 10.30. The last two hours were particularly difficult, and I was literally counting down the minutes till I could eat again. Once more I was grateful that I was able to go to bed with a full stomach, conscious that many aren't. And my experience on both fasting days, has provided a little insight into the other difficulties hunger brings - mood swings, lack of tolerance, an inability to make rational choices. No wonder Stephanie Bottrill - cold, hungry and faced with indefinite poverty - was in such despair she took her on life

David Cameron recently reminded us that Britain is a wealthy country, and that money should be no object when faced with the terrible consequences of flooding. A comment that puts the lie to the rhetoric of the last four years that austerity is necessary, that cuts are necessary and that welfare reform is necessary. It is time that he and his government step out from their comfortable, food-filled homes and walked amongst people who have nothing. It is time that money should be no object in addressing the needs of the poor.  It is time for a return to the welfare safety net, work that pays and a restriction on rising food prices.

As part of End Hunger Fast, I will be fasting once a week, but Keith Hebden, Simon Cross and Scott Albrecht are fasting for the forty days of Lent. That's a pretty daunting prospect, so please do offer them your support on Twitter and Facebook. And on 4th April there will be a national day of fasting for anyone who wants to be part of this campaign.

Please join us if you can.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

End Hunger Fast - Week 1

When I first heard about End Hunger Fast, I thought long and hard about joining Keith Hebden and Simon Cross in fasting for forty days and nights. Like many people I am horrified that so many individuals and families are struggling to put food on the table, due to the coalition government's appalling welfare policies. So I was immediately attracted to the idea of fasting in solidarity with people who are hungry, to raise awareness of the issues. But, after careful consideration, I realised that a) I am not mentally and physically prepared for it and b) my life is too busy to fast safely. Instead, I decided that along with a friend from church, I will join the fast once a week. And, after a further conversation with Rick from the WOW Petition - and in keeping with the original intention of this blog - I have decided to remember a victim of welfare cuts each time I do so.

I was planning to begin on Friday. But on Ash Wednesday I realised since were we going away for the weekend it would be better to start immediately. This was not the wisest move. I have never fasted before, and I was not prepared at all. By mid-morning my stomach was rumbling, by lunch-time the smell of food from the work kitchen was agonisingly tempting and when I returned home from the school run, it took a supreme effort not to stuff down all the food that in my kitchen cupboards. Cooking tea was equally hard, and I thought of how many mothers must be doing this on a regular basis, skipping meals to make sure their kids are fed. As the evening wore on, I became increasingly grumpy and miserable. In fact, the only thing that kept me going was seeing how well the EHF launch had gone and knowing that I could eat soon (whereas for Simon and Keith this was just the beginning). At 11pm, I decided to break my fast. I hadn't eaten for 24 hours, and it just felt masochistic to go to bed hungry. Though, as I chomped on my two slices of toast, I reflected that many in food poverty do not have the luxury.

One person who didn't have such luxury was Mark Wood who lived in Bampton,  Oxfordshire (in the Prime Minister's Witney constituency). Mark had mental health needs; when Atos found him fit to work, he was left with £40/week to live on, and was unable to pay his rent or utilities bills. Last August he starved to death. According to his doctor, “He was an extremely fragile individual who was coping with life.Something pushed him or affected him in the time before he died and the only thing I can put my finger on is the pressure he felt when his benefits were removed.” In other words, the welfare "reforms" of David Cameron's government were  a significant factor in the death of one of his constituents.

Unlike Mark, I am one of society's lucky people. I have my health, my home and enough money to feed myself and my family. Joining End Hunger Fast is my way of expressing my outrage about what happened to him, and is happening to too many other people.  Wednesday was hard, and I am not looking forward to my next fasting day. But as long as people are starving  or struggling with the stress of constant hunger, it is beholden on we lucky ones to do what we can. For if we don't, who will?

For further information on End Hunger Fast and to sign up to the national day of fasting on the 4th April please check out their website.

If you'd like to find out more about Keith and Simon's fasts you can read about them here and here.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Moving on

As I posted last week, we are winning the argument against the Work Capability Assessment. When we started out back in 2011, not many people knew about Atos Healthcare. Now, it is a household name and not for good reasons. In fact - thanks to brilliant campaigning from Black Triangle, DPAC, Spartacus, Kaliya Franklin, Sue Marsh, Where's the Benefit? Mark Thomas and many more - it's become so toxic, it is pulling out of its DWP contract early. So it feels like this is the right time to be ending the Atos Stories project.

Since we wrote our plays  they (or sections of them) have been performed in many places:

A tube train opposite the Olympics Stadium 
A Leeds Uncut demo
Recorded as a podcast by My Life My Choice
Been banned by Newham Council
In a variety of places and ways as part of a Mass Read
And wonderfully performed by Act Up! Newham as part of an event celebrating the legacy of the Paralympics and more recently for the launch of Newham CCG.

We're proud we helped to get the message out about Atos, and we're proud of what the campaign achieved. We're glad to have played our small part, and now it's time to bow out and move on to other things.

So the title of the blog is changing to Write to Protest and I will be using it to write about other campaigns I'm committed to. Starting with End Hunger Fast.  I will be fasting one day a week throughout Lent and blogging about the experience, particularly remembering the victims of welfare reform who go hungry every day.

In the meantime we would like to say a huge thank you to the amazing people who shared their stories with us. We hope we did justice to them:

David, Aletheia, Mary, Tim, Kate, Yvonne, Adam, Nelson, Elizabeth, Sam,Vincent, Karen Sherlock, John, Adrian, Martin & all the fabulous people who took part in our Facebook and Twitter games.

Huge thanks go to Yvonne Brouwers, Sterre Ploeger and everyone at Act Up! Newham who did a fantastic job on making the play accessible and getting it performed.

We would also like to thank the following for their help:

Amelia Gentleman, The Guardian
Patrick Collins
James Ivens, Flood Theatre
John McArdle Black Triangle

Linda Burnip & everyone at DPAC
Jon Peace News
Kaliya Franklin  Benefit Scrounging Scum
Sue Marsh Diary of a Benefit Scrounger
Nelson  DWP Examinations
John Moffatt

Liz Crow
Rick and Jane and everyone at the WOW Petition

Everyone who took part in the Mass Read
And everyone who has tweeted, facebooked and generally promoted our work

And finally, thanks to Lisa Chalkley the other half of the Collective, without which none of this would have been possible.

Judith Cole