Great Britain
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Voices: Food banks for NHS staff? The Tories are taking us back to Victorian Britain

The revelation that NHS hospitals are now beginning to open food banks and community kitchens, and to offer their staff hardship loans or travel to work subsidies, is reminiscent of a Victorian social satire.

Perhaps we need a new version of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, a fresh deconstruction of the greed and corruption that underpins a political culture that leads us here.

It’s a stark image: skilled, essential workers, whose expertise and dedication has kept the nation functioning through two years of a pandemic, forced to seek support from a benign employer just to survive. Not just hospital porters, orderlies and lower-grade administration staff on the lowest salaries, but nurses too – degree-qualified healthcare workers being forced to live on handouts because the salaries our government has decided they deserve can no longer meet the rising cost of living.

Poverty experts have warned since the beginning of the austerity movement in 2010 that changes made to the benefits system amounted to a deconstruction of the welfare state, an end to the security that had improved the lives of the British population since the post-war years.

True to their predictions, we now have a situation where the majority of people claiming benefits are in some form of work. For those receiving universal credit, 40 per cent are employed, as of July 2021. Benefits do not support the poorest to live a self-determining and fulfilled life, but trap them in desperate cycles of poverty. Increasing numbers of people claiming universal credit are now living in so-called “deep poverty”, living on less than 50 per cent of the average household income. They require emergency measures – food banks, crisis loans, subsidised public transport – just to exist.

Those policy experts were often derided by this government as if they were inventing or exaggerating the evidence for destitution in the UK, rather than working hard each day to understand and fight the causes of extreme poverty in a wealthy nation. Even if the end of social welfare wasn’t, as some would argue, the goal, the result is that its proximity is shortening.

We are left with something Dickensian: a system of patronage in which those who work for good employers – major organisations with a public ethos, like an NHS hospital trust – are supported through this dangerous economic era. Where they are unable to make any structural change to benefit their workers (for example, to salary bands set nationally), they find alternative ways to help.

Cost of living: how to get help

The Independent has asked experts to explain small ways you can stretch your money, including managing debt and obtaining items for free.

  • If you need to access a food bank, find your local council’s website using and then use the local authority’s site to locate your nearest centre. The Trussell Trust, which runs many foodbanks, has a similar tool.
  • Citizens Advice provides free help to people in need. The organisation can help you find grants or benefits, or advise on rent, debt and budgeting.
  • If you are experiencing feelings of distress and isolation, or are struggling to cope, The Samaritans offers support; you can speak to someone for free over the phone, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email [email protected], or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch.

They appreciate their staff, understand their economic and social value, and treat them like they matter. Not just that their work matters, but their worlds matter – their spouses, their children, their rent books, their frightening gas bills left unpaid, and their mental health.

In the Victorian era, employers led by entrepreneurs who were committed to social justice stepped in where the state could not. Confectioners John Cadbury and Joseph Rowntree, both Quakers, were both famed for housing their staff well, and providing community activities and support.

Bata had a similar system in place in the early 20th century: in the UK, a job with the world-renowned shoemaker wasn’t just rewarded with a salary but a modernist apartment close to the factory in East Tilbury, and every social need – from tea dances to newspaper delivery – was taken care of.

A good employer made sure every employee existed in conditions that allowed him (and it was, then) to thrive and their lucky staff could boast security in both job and life. The unlucky ones – that is, statistically, the majority – had neither.

The welfare state was designed to remove this lottery of life; that proximity to a good, benevolent commercial or state organisation, and the ability to secure work at that one site, could once mean the difference between flourishing and falling into the abyss.

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Now we’re heading backwards. With austerity having dismantled much of that promised “safety net”, employers are stepping up to protect their staff. It’s recreating the tropes of the deserving and undeserving poor, too – a British obsession never far from the surface while politicians trot out rhetoric about “hard working families”.

The revelation that nurses face supplementing a grocery shop with goods from a private hospital-run food bank after a day caring for vulnerable, unwell people carries with it a shock factor. It is literary in its illustration of the economic peril a rising proportion of the country are living in.

Most of all, it should act as a reminder of the people that this story doesn’t feature: the breadline benefit claimants who work full time for bosses who take no interest in them aside from per-hour productivity; the fixed-term and zero hours contract workers who have no stability of income and no relationship with an organisation that values their time and efforts.

If we continue dismantling the state and forcing reliance on philanthropy, they will be abandoned. And we’ll tell them it’s because they don’t deserve help.