Stef Benstead, a trustee of Church Action on Poverty, has written a book which has been described as a "definitive account of the austerity decade".

This review of Stef’s book first appeared on the Disability News Service website:

The government is continuing to breach disabled people’s rights despite repeated exposure by the United Nations, according to a new book that provides a “definitive” account of the harm caused by a decade of cuts and reforms.

In Second Class Citizens, disabled researcher Stef Benstead looks at the conclusions of various UN investigations that have examined the UK’s provision for disabled people and how it has changed and have concluded that the government has been “gravely breaching disabled people’s rights”.

In contrast, says Benstead, the UK government “remains confident that it is a world leader in disability rights, and that in recent years it has improved its provision through better targeting of resources and more support to help disabled people get and stay in work”.

Her book, published by the Centre for Welfare Reform, includes a series of examples describing how government cuts and reforms have impacted on individual disabled people.

It has been described as “essential reading” by the disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell.

Professor Peter Beresford, co-chair of Shaping Our Lives, said it provided “the definitive verdict on government welfare reform, the UK’s shame”. He said: 

“It’s a policy against the evidence, against human rights and most of all against disabled people. Here the truth gap is filled with the real voices of disabled people.”

Niall Cooper, director of Church Action on Poverty, described the book as “a benchmark study of the treatment of disabled people under austerity”. He said:

“It is illuminated by numerous powerful personal stories illustrating the human impact of austerity, and a devastating critique of the shift from a positive vision of social security to today’s welfare system based on a culture of blame and the myth of dependency.”

Benstead has previously worked with the Spartacus online network, which produced a string of influential research reports on cuts to disabled people’s support between 2012 and 2017, and the thinktank Ekklesia.

She is currently working with the user-led Chronic Illness Inclusion Project and Church Action on Poverty.

Her book presents evidence on the impact of policy changes that have affected disabled people since 2010.

But she also looks at the history of how disabled people have been treated by society and the state, and examines the development of the welfare state and post-war campaigns for a more inclusive society, and the Thatcherite policies of the 1980s and the “gradual erosion of the welfare state”.

Benstead describes how politicians began to frame benefit recipients as “scroungers and frauds and the benefit system as a costly mistake”, before extending this argument to recipients of out-of-work sickness and disability benefits.

She then begins to examine the impact of the austerity policies introduced by successive Tory-led governments from 2010, including cuts to social care and employment and support allowance, growing claims by ministers that work should be seen as a health outcome, and substantial increases in the use of conditionality and benefit sanctions imposed on sick and disabled people.

Benstead also examines the introduction of Universal Credit, which she says is “a mess, deliberately designed to fail to cope with reality” and has left people “trapped in unsuitable homes without enough money to cover their rent, the support they need or their food and bills”.

Her book – which includes many personal stories that illustrate the dehumanising impact of austerity – concludes that sick and disabled people are being failed by the government, which is “failing both to provide the opportunity to work for those who can, and an adequate alternative income for those who can’t work”.

Since 2010, says Benstead, governments have “caused substantial harm to sick and disabled people’s health, living standards and social inclusion”.

She says they have done so “without any moral or economic justification”, failing to uphold one of governments’ “most fundamental reasons to exist: to ensure and improve the access to basic rights of its most vulnerable citizens”.

She adds: “Sick and disabled people in the UK today are treated as second-class citizens, and until this situation is rectified the UK Government will continue to be violating international law by its ongoing breach of disabled people’s rights.”

Second Class Citizens – powerful new book about disability and austerity

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield’s 11th annual Pilgrimage

What will it take to end hunger in the UK?

Father Bill Rooke RIP

Learn how you can use our resources to put faith into action

Transforming unjust structures: how not to become stuck in the mud

Second Class Citizens – powerful new book about disability and austerity

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield’s 11th annual Pilgrimage

What will it take to end hunger in the UK?

At the event, a Sheffield MP urged faith communities to help society set new caring priorities. Here's a report from our local group who organised the Pilgrimage.

Sheffield Central Labour MP Paul Blomfield has urged faith communities to play a major part in setting new priorities for society that would make Britain a more caring and inclusive country.

Mr Blomfield was speaking at the end of the annual Sheffield Church Action on Poverty Pilgrimage, which saw a record number of 40 people from different faith communities visit initiatives aimed at reducing poverty in the city.

This year’s pilgrimage focused on initiatives, mostly located within his constituency, based at Anglican and Methodist Churches, the Madina Mosque and Heeley City Farm as well as St Vincent’s Furniture Store and St Wilfrid’s Centre, established by Sheffield’s Roman Catholic community.

Participants in the 2019 Sheffield Church Action on Poverty Annual Pilgrimage show their support for the End Hunger UK campaign by 40 national charities, frontline organisations, faith groups, academics and individuals working to end hunger and poverty in the UK before setting off to visit initiatives aimed at reducing poverty in the city.

Mr Blomfield told those taking part in the Pilgrimage that there was a need to re-establish the post-war cross-party consensus on the need for taxation to provide services for all and tackle inequality:

“When I was a child, Budgets were about putting 1p on this and 1p on that to maintain public resources and create the kind of society we wanted to live in.

More recently, politicians have been measured by how effective they are in cutting taxation, but that has a consequence.”

The Government’s austerity programme had shifted responsibility for cuts from Westminster to local councils and had led to the most disadvantaged areas facing the deepest cuts.

“We need to reverse the narrative about austerity. We need to challenge the consensus around taxation and spending. We need to recognise that we can’t have Swedish style public services on American style taxes.

We need a cross-party, societal agreement. Faith communities have a hugely important role in taking that debate forward and helping to shift that debate.

This year’s Pilgrimage began at Highfield Methodist Church, which is currently undergoing a major refurbishment to enhance its place as a community asset and is also a base for worship for the local Liberian community who came to Sheffield as refugees in 2004.

Pilgrims went on to visit:

  • Madina Mosque, which annually feeds around 5,000 people of different faiths during Ramadan in addition to making major contributions to city food banks and other charities.
  • Heeley Parish Church, where £310,000 is being spent on creating flexible space for the community, in addition to its Cafe Care initiative, which provides food and assistance for disadvantaged people. The church also hosts services for worshipers from the local Ethiopian Orthodox and Nepalese refugee communities.
  • Heeley City Farm, which provides ‘Health Holiday’ breakfasts and activity sessions during school holidays for children who might otherwise go hungry, in addition to supplying more than 13 tonnes of fresh produce to food banks and other city initiatives and providing advice and support to help people with difficulty funding their energy bills. through its Energy Centre.
  • St Vincent’s Furniture Store, which prevents around 120 tonnes of good quality furniture and other household goods from going to landfill by recycling and distributing it free of charge to people in need, supplying special ‘starter packs’ for those moving into unfurnished homes.
  • St Wilfrid’s Centre, which provides a safe space, food, activities and personal development opportunities for people who include rough sleepers, sufferers of domestic violence and mental health problems, asylum seekers whose cases have been rejected and people who have been trafficked, many of them from other British towns and cities. Two years ago the Centre opened St Wilfrid’s Place, creating 20 self-contained apartments for adults with a history of homelessness.

Participants in the 2019 Sheffield Church Action on Poverty Annual Pilgrimage show their support for the End Hunger UK campaign by 40 national charities, frontline organisations, faith groups, academics and individuals working to end hunger and poverty in the UK before setting off to visit initiatives aimed at reducing poverty in the city.

Second Class Citizens – powerful new book about disability and austerity

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield’s 11th annual Pilgrimage

What will it take to end hunger in the UK?

Father Bill Rooke RIP

Learn how you can use our resources to put faith into action

Transforming unjust structures: how not to become stuck in the mud

SPARK newsletter autumn 2019

Forgotten People, Forgotten Places

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield 11th annual Pilgrimage, 12 October 2019

Vacancy: Programme Manager

Strengthening the local safety net

Transforming structural injustice

Dear Mr Johnson: Here’s how we can end poverty and hunger

Workshop registration open: Transforming injustice in UK austerity & poverty

Second Class Citizens – powerful new book about disability and austerity

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield’s 11th annual Pilgrimage

What will it take to end hunger in the UK?

Did any of us ever expect the re-emergence of hunger as a social reality in twenty-first century Britain?   

Emma’s story of life in food poverty in Cambridge is typical of many:  

“I am a single mum of three and have used food banks three times since November 2017. It felt really awful to be in that position; I went from a £30,000-a-year job in HR to ending up there in six months. Following my husband and I separating, he left me with a lot of debt and I couldn’t sustain living costs and childcare on my own so I had to give up my job and claim income support.

It’s really hard to go to the food bank when you are used to doing your own shopping and supporting yourself. The volunteers were really good and didn’t judge but I still got upset, and they were comforting. At the time, I hadn’t realised you’re limited to how many time you can use food banks per year and I found that concept quite bizarre. It’s there to help people when they are in need but you can’t dictate when and how many times they will be in need – everyone’s circumstances are different.”

Every story of food poverty is different, but every story is one story too many.  Yet with up to eight million households experiencing some level of ‘household food insecurity’, this is the painful truth for far too many people in communities the length and breadth of the UK. 

As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation have painstakingly documented, we are now living in a decade of destitution, of squeezed incomes, rising living costs, and households trapped with rising levels of debt and little or no savings to fall back on, and in many cases literally nothing left in the cupboard.  This leaves families with little resilience against even the smallest shocks to their income.

According to research by the Social Market Foundation, four in ten individuals with a household income of £10,000 or less reported that groceries were a strain on finances. A quarter of individuals said that healthy and nutritious food was unaffordable in the UK.  One in ten said that they had cut back on their own level of food consumption so that others in their family (such as children) can eat.

However, food poverty in the UK is not fundamentally an issue of a shortage of food, but a shortage of income.  This fact has been extensively researched and documented in recent years, in various reports including from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Food Poverty/Feeding Britain and most recently the Childrens’ Future Food Inquiry which reported in April.

The good news is that literally thousands of local faith and community groups have stepped up to the plate in recent years, not just through the estimated 2,000 food banks across the UK, but a huge array of other community food projects, community cafes, growing schemes, social supermarkets and the like.  On the one hand this demonstrates the immense power of local groups to act for the common good, but on the other it highlights the increasing inability (or unwillingness) of the state to ensure access to the basic necessities of life.

This poses a key challenge for charities and local communities: Are we willing to accept that we can’t solve the problem of food poverty and hunger on our own? 

It is clear that End Hunger UK’s vision of a UK in which everyone has access to good food and no one needs to go to bed hungry can only be realised if Government also steps up to the plate.  Only central Government has the power to mobilise the resources, policies and legislative power to end UK hunger. 

The good news is that in signing up to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the UK Government has already committed to achieving zero hunger in the UK by 2030.  But to deliver on this goal will require Government to develop a clear roadmap, coordinating the efforts of multiple Government departments, local councils, faith and community groups and many others. 

The End Hunger UK campaign is therefore calling on the UK Government – and all political parties – to affirm their commitment to the goal of ending UK hunger by 2030 – and to developing a concrete plan to halve the numbers of people in household food insecurity by 2025 as a stepping stone towards this goal.  Most importantly, the plan will need to focus on tackling the underlying factors which are sweeping far too many households into household food insecurity in the first place.

Our task is to build the popular pressure and political will to make the goal of ending hunger in the UK a priority for politicians and parties from across the political spectrum. 

In the sixth wealthiest country on the planet, that should not be too much to ask. 

Niall Cooper is Director of Church Action on Poverty and chair of the End Hunger UK campaign.

Second Class Citizens – powerful new book about disability and austerity

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield’s 11th annual Pilgrimage

What will it take to end hunger in the UK?

Father Bill Rooke RIP

Learn how you can use our resources to put faith into action

Transforming unjust structures: how not to become stuck in the mud

SPARK newsletter autumn 2019

Forgotten People, Forgotten Places

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield 11th annual Pilgrimage, 12 October 2019

Vacancy: Programme Manager

Strengthening the local safety net

Transforming structural injustice

Second Class Citizens – powerful new book about disability and austerity

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield’s 11th annual Pilgrimage

What will it take to end hunger in the UK?

It was with great sadness that members of Church Action on Poverty heard of the death of one our members, Father Bill Rooke. He died on 3 October, which happened to be on the 49th anniversary of his ordination to the Priesthood. He was 73 years old.

After his ordination, Bill stayed in Rome for further studies. From 1971 to 1983, Bill was a curate, in Newcastle and then in Hebburn in South Tyneside. It was during this time that Bill was involved with the Charismatic Renewal Movement. Many people across the diocese and beyond got to know Bill through this movement. Bill then spent six years working in Kenya. On returning to the diocese Bill was parish priest in Stockton and then Gateshead. In 2002 Bill was appointed as Parish Priest to St Vincent’s and St Laurence’s in Byker, where he lived in part of the famous ‘Byker Wall’. This part of Newcastle has much deprivation and poverty. In 2005 Bill became involved with Church Action on Poverty North East, with Bill kindly hosting the monthly meetings at the church hall in Byker.

Alongside one of the local head teachers, St Josefa, Bill was a big influence on the ‘Images for Change’ campaign. Bill also  saw the important value of Credit Unions, working to promote Credit Unions across the North East. For many years he was Chair of  Gateshead Credit Union, going on  to become a board member of NEFirst Credit Union.

Bill was a clear, strong and independent thinker. He was never afraid to go against the majority view, always willing to challenge lazy thinking or common assumptions. His wisdom often brought fresh insight and he made you think more carefully about what was the right and just thing to do.

I will remember a man who was often making ‘roll up’ cigarettes, whose joy, faith, deep wisdom and care for others had a profound impact on those who encountered him. He will be greatly missed.

His body will be received into St Vincent’s Byker on 15 October with his Requiem Mass on 16 October at St Mary’s Cathedral at 12 noon. He will be interred at Heaton Cemetery.

Father Chris Hughes is a member of Church Action on Poverty North East

Second Class Citizens – powerful new book about disability and austerity

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield’s 11th annual Pilgrimage

What will it take to end hunger in the UK?

Father Bill Rooke RIP

Learn how you can use our resources to put faith into action

Transforming unjust structures: how not to become stuck in the mud

Second Class Citizens – powerful new book about disability and austerity

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield’s 11th annual Pilgrimage

What will it take to end hunger in the UK?

You are invited to a training day, to learn how you can use Church Action on Poverty's new 'Poverty, Faith and Justice' workshops in your church or diocese.

Friday 15 November
11am-4pm
Church Action on Poverty, 28 Sandpiper Court, Water’s Edge Business Park. Modwen Road, Salford M5 3EZ

‘Poverty, Faith and Justice’ is a series of five workshops, designed to help people to explore the relationship between their faith and action for justice. The sessions make use of a variety of content including factual information, real experiences, videos, biblical reflection and church teaching from different traditions.

The training day is for people who want to run the workshops for their own church or group. It will equip you with the skills and confidence to deliver the workshops, and answer any questions you may have about what is involved.  

Originally designed for Leeds Justice & Peace Commission, the workshops have been piloted across Leeds Diocese with great success – see the comments from participants on the right.

The cost of the training day is £20. Please contact us if a bursary place is required.

Great balance of content - informative, practical and theological.

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How to take action. It was simplified and made action seem accessible and possible.

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I really enjoyed the mixture of activities: icebreakers, videos, discussion, information, slides, etc.

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Practical, bitesize, manageable approach to social justice issues.

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Second Class Citizens – powerful new book about disability and austerity

Church Action on Poverty in Sheffield’s 11th annual Pilgrimage

What will it take to end hunger in the UK?