Shine A Light

This is Britain: TV celebrities meet people who can't afford to eat

As banks, energy companies and loan sharks feed off the poor, TV celebrities try to find out what poverty means in a BBC documentary series for Sport Relief.

Alison Whyte
28 March 2014
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Rachel Johnson, Theo Paphitis, Jamie Laing and Cheryl Fergison "help UK families find a way out of food poverty" (BBC)

“I can see her pain” said a clearly emotional Theo Paphitis, as the multi-millionaire talked about Aida’s daily struggle to survive, in the documentary Famous, Rich and Hungry on BBC1. We too could see the pain in Aida’s beautiful, careworn face. 

Aida was forced to flee from Ethiopia in the 1980s, and though she was granted asylum in the UK, we are now failing to protect this hard-working mother from the banks that are robbing her of her tiny earnings.  In the last year alone, 10 per cent of her income has gone in bank charges. Theo dug a pile of mail addressed to Aida from behind the radiator.  “A new type of filing system”, he joked. “Barclays bank. Barclays bank. Barclays bank” said a tearful Aida, who can no longer bear to open the letters.

The bootleg cigarette Dee was clutching trembled in her hand. She had been patiently listening to a lecture from the journalist Rachel Johnson (sister of Boris, London's mayor) about how she should be doing more to provide a healthy, balanced diet for her two teenage daughters.   

Dee had welcomed Rachel into her home in Deptford, south east London, to observe how it feels to be poor. After drawing up a list of Dee’s income and expenditure Rachel couldn’t understand why Dee only had £21 to feed her family for the week. Dee had ‘forgotten’ to tell her that every Friday night a loan shark knocks on the door and forces her to hand over £60 in interest for a debt that she will never be able to repay. “I’m beginning to get it,” said Rachel.

EastEnders actress Cheryl Fergison bounded into Paul’s living room with a bag of out-of-date bread, rolls and hot cross buns she had liberated from a supermarket bin. Cheryl thought Paul would be pleased. Instead Paul bursts into tears. He felt shame and embarrassment.  

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Paul lives on £50.50 a week (BBC)Cheryl wanted to know how a man who worked hard for 30 years, now has no hot water and can only afford to heat one room. Paul showed her the pre-payment meter that the electricity company installed when he ran into debt. He explained that he has to feed £25 into the meter each week before he even begins to pay for any heating. That week he had spent £48 just to heat the living room.

Prepayment meters, often installed in homes of the poorest people, are the most expensive way to pay for energy.  According to Citizens Advice, energy companies are supposed to check whether a person is vulnerable before forcing them to have a prepayment meter.  This clearly did not happen in Paul’s case. 

Loan sharks illegally target poor and desperate families and sometimes resort to threats and violence.  Some have tried to charge as much as 719,000 per cent interest.  Why are they still at large?

Only a few weeks ago it was reported that Barclays has awarded £32 million in shares to its top managers. Skip McGee, a member of the executive committee, alone pocketed £8.8 million. Of that, £505 came from Aida.

The people who took part in Sport Relief have raised money for breakfast clubs and the growing number of food banks — estimated at 400 — which provide a lifeline to families who would otherwise go hungry.

But while Rachel Johnson is once again ensconced in her Notting Hill mansion, Dee still can’t afford to buy mince in Iceland.  If Paul ripped the pre-payment meter off his wall that would be called a crime, but forcing an emaciated man to stare daily into an empty fridge is not called a crime. 

Every day loan sharks, banks and utility companies are fleecing the poorest people of every penny they have.  Why do we put up with this? Perhaps everyone who took part in Sport Relief should march to Downing Street and refuse to leave until the government acts to put an end to this injustice. 

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