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Coronavirus: ‘We go hungry so we can feed our children’

Amie Smith

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Amie Smith

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“I don’t think I have ever set foot in a Waitrose” – Amie Smith, with her family

Many families are struggling to put food on the table as the coronavirus lockdown robs them of their income. A report by food bank charities points to an alarming rise in the number of people in need of essential supplies. How are they coping and what more can be done to help?

“We have gone without meals so the children can eat. It isn’t nice when you are feeling hungry and you open the cupboard and there is nothing in there for you.”

Amie Smith and her partner Marcus were just about getting by before the coronavirus lockdown. Now they have had to give up their zero hours contract jobs and are relying on universal credit payments, food vouchers from the government and the occasional food parcel from local schools.

Their biggest daily struggle is finding enough food in the shops for their four children, aged two to 13.

The family is getting by on a weekly food budget of about £30. The children are entitled to free school meals, which translate into food vouchers during lockdown, but they can’t find anywhere to spend them. Amie says she has about £200 worth of vouchers, from the government’s free school meal voucher scheme.

But none of them is for stores in her south London neighbourhood and she is unable to use public transport during the pandemic for health reasons. She is frustrated by the offer of vouchers from what she sees as upmarket stores like Marks & Spencer and Waitrose.

“I don’t think I have ever set foot in a Waitrose in my life,” she said.

‘Becoming expensive’

Their car has broken down, so they find themselves using local convenience stores – which charge higher prices.

“It’s becoming very expensive. I just paid £5 for 30 eggs. That was the cheapest we could find.”

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Amie Smith

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Reid-Angel, two, and Bree, 11, are learning to cope with life in lockdown

Labour is calling on the government to “expand which shops are able to accept free school meal vouchers to include those supermarkets most present in our poorest communities”.

Under the current scheme, run by private contractor Edenred, every eligible child is entitled to £15 a week in vouchers for food from a selection of supermarkets: Aldi, McColl’s, Morrisons, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Waitrose and M&S.

‘Tidal wave’

The government says it recognises it may not be convenient for some families to visit one of these shops. It is “working to see if additional supermarkets can be added to this list”. In the meantime, it is advising schools to prepare food parcels for pupils on free meals.

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People are seeking help from food banks in record numbers

Many families – who may not have children on free school meals – are turning to food banks for essential supplies. This is putting an enormous strain on charities that provide them.

A new report by the UK’s biggest food bank network, the Trussell Trust, said it handed out 81% more emergency food parcels in the last two weeks of March, than at the same time last year. People struggling with the amount of income they were receiving from working or benefits was the main reason for the increase, the trust said.

“Like a tidal wave gathering pace, an economic crisis is sweeping towards us, but we don’t all have lifeboats,” said chief executive Emma Revie.

‘Fresh faces’

Sonya Johnson, who runs Ediblelinks, an independent food bank in Warwickshire, has noticed a big increase in families with previously comfortable incomes seeking help.

“There are fresh faces coming through the door,” she said. “People who really don’t want to be here, who have never used a food bank but suddenly find themselves at a point of crisis.”

These new clients tend to be small-business owners, or sole traders, such a hairdressers or cafe proprietors. They are waiting for universal credit payments or money from the government’s business loan scheme. The food bank has experienced a 20% increase in demand week-on-week since coronavirus took hold.

What can be done?

Extreme financial hardship exists even outside a global pandemic. Debt charity Christians Against Poverty says one in 10 of its clients live without a bed or mattress, or skip meals on a daily basis. It, and others in the sector, fear coronavirus will mean more people living like this – perhaps for the first time.

Payment “holidays” put off, rather than cancel, regular bills such as rent or council tax. There is concern people are simply piling up unmanageable debt for the future.

But there is support. Credit unions can offer low-cost loans for small amounts. People are also donating generously in this crisis and some of that money is given in grants so those in crippling hardship can put food on the table.

Charity Turn2us has a search tool to check eligibility for these non-repayable grants. The Child Poverty Action Group has also launched a tool to help people find support during the pandemic.

No government has had to cope with a crisis on this scale in peacetime and poverty campaigners have welcomed actions to help those in most need, through the benefits system. But a group of charities, including the Trussell Trust, is calling now for a coronavirus emergency income support scheme.

They say many families need money urgently, to prevent them being from being “swept into destitution”.

‘Grateful’

A government spokesman said it was “committed to supporting all those affected… through these unprecedented times”.

“We’ve implemented an enormous package of measures to do so, including income protection schemes and mortgage holidays For those in most need, we’ve injected more than £6.5bn into the welfare system, including an increase to universal credit of up to £1,040 a year. No-one has to wait five weeks for money as urgent payments are available.”

Amie and Marcus are just about managing to feed their children each day. But they are worried what the future holds, if they can’t get back to work soon.

“There have been times when we have had nothing but maybe beans on toast to give them,” says Amie. “We have to remind ourselves that there are people out there with absolutely nothing. We should be grateful for what we have.”

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Mads Bech Sorensen: AFC Wimbledon sign Brentford centre-back on loan

Mads Bech Sorensen has made two senior appearances for Brentford so far this season

AFC Wimbledon have signed centre-back Mads Bech Sorensen on loan from Championship side Brentford until the end of the season.

The 21-year-old has also signed a new long-term deal with the Bees until the summer of 2023.

“He’s a Danish Under-21 international, so hopefully he comes in and adds something,” said Dons boss Glyn Hodges.

“Mads is a good footballer and he’s been in the Brentford first-team squad, so we are quite fortunate to get him.”

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Rail fares rise by 2.7%, hitting millions of commuters

King's Cross station in London in 2014

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Millions of commuters will have to pay an average of 2.7% more for train tickets from today.

The rise, announced by industry body the Rail Delivery Group in November, is lower than the 3.1% increase at the start of last year.

Train companies say it is the third year in a row that average fares have been held below RPI – the inflation measure on which rises are based.

But many commuters face an increase of more than £100 for annual passes.

In Wales, fares have bucked the trend of rising prices in England and Scotland, with an average fall of 1% this year.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the government was committed to “putting passengers first”, by funding trials for flexible fares, for example.

He said he planned to tackle the “fragmented” system and had begun the process to end the franchise for Northern Rail, whose performance was “completely unacceptable”.

“You can judge me on this at the end of the year,” he told BBC Breakfast. “These changes are going to take time but I think people will see things moving in the right direction.”

But Labour’s shadow transport secretary, Andy McDonald, said the rise showed passengers were “once again paying more for less under the Tories”.

Independent watchdog Transport Focus says fewer than half of train journeys (47%) are rated as satisfactory value for money by passengers.

The watchdog’s director, David Sidebottom, said: “After a year of pretty poor performance in some areas, passengers just want a consistent day-to-day service they can rely on and a better chance of getting a seat.”

He encouraged passengers to claim compensation for eligible delays in order to “offset” the cost of fare rises.

Passengers at a mainline railway station

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Season ticket rises

Some annual passes go up by more than £100

  • £132Reading to London. Total £4,736

  • £118Gloucester to Birmingham. Total £4,356

  • £116Glasgow to Edinburgh. Total £4,200

However, Robert Nisbet, director of nations and regions for Rail Delivery Group, said rail companies were investing in improving journeys while holding fare increases below inflation.

He said 2020 will see 1,000 extra weekly services and 1,000 more carriages added to Britain’s rail fleet.

“There is a record level of investment going into the railway at the moment,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“For people who do suffer from poor punctuality in areas of the country, that could be for a variety of different reasons, we apologise. We are looking at trying to make punctuality much better across the board,” he said.

Official statistics show that just over one in three trains failed to arrive on time in July, August and September 2019, although that figure was an improvement on the previous year.

Passenger complaints

About 40% of annual rail price rises are regulated by governments in England, Scotland and Wales. They are pegged to the Retail Prices Index (RPI) inflation measure for the previous July. Other fare rises are decided by train companies.

RPI inflation was 2.8% last year.

But RPI inflation is generally higher than the most widely watched measure of inflation, the Consumer Prices Index (CPI).

Passenger groups have repeatedly called for the system to be changed since RPI inflation was abandoned by the UK Statistics Authority as a national statistic in 2013.

Emily Yates, a freelance writer from Brighton who co-founded the Association of British Commuters, said the annual rises feel like “Groundhog Day” and a “complete charade”.

“Every year, we ask for a fares freeze, the government says no, and the rail industry defends the decision,” she said.

Protests will be held against the fare increase on Thursday, including a demonstration outside London King’s Cross station.

The rallies come as the Trades Union Congress (TUC) releases research suggesting fares have risen by twice as much as wages in the last 10 years.

The TUC said someone earning an average salary in the UK would have to spend 16% of their wages for a season ticket from Chelmsford to London (£511 a month), but similar commutes would cost 2% of the average salary in France, and 4% in Germany and Belgium.

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Second man charged over fatal stabbings in Barnet and Elstree

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The two victims were found on 19 and 20 December

A second man has been charged in connection with the fatal stabbing of two men within hours of each other.

The first victim was found in the boot of a car near Scratchwood Park, Barnet, on 19 December, while a second man was discovered by officers in Hogg Lane, Elstree on 20 December.

On Christmas Day, Besnik Berisha, 42, of Martock Gardens, Friern Barnet, was charged with two counts of murder.

Kaziku Tuwisana, 31, of no fixed address, faces the same charges.

Mr Berisha is due before Willesden Magistrates’ Court on Thursday.

The Met Police has asked drivers who “may have caught something that could prove massively important” on dash-cam footage to contact them.

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The victims were found within five miles of each other

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Tate Modern balcony push boy ‘begins to speak’

Tate Modern

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The boy was thrown five floors in the attack

A six-year-old boy who was thrown off the 10th floor of the Tate Modern has started to speak again, his family has revealed.

The French national, who had been visiting London when he was attacked on 4 August, suffered a “deep” bleed to the brain in the fall.

His family wrote on their fundraising page: “Our little knight begins to speak.”

Jonty Bravery, 18, admitted attempted murder on 6 December.

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The boy’s family said the six-year-old was making “wonderful progress”

The boy sustained a fractured spine, along with leg and arm fractures, when he fell five floors from a 10th floor viewing platform.

His injuries have been described as life-changing but his family said he was making “wonderful progress”.

“He pronounces one syllable after another, not all of them, and most of the time we have to guess what he means but it’s better and better,” they wrote on their GoFundMe page, which has raised more than €169,000 (£143,500).

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Jonty Bravery said he carried out the attack because he wanted to be on TV news

They also said he was now able to move his arms and legs but it meant “he feels more pain” as he regains sensation in his body.

“It is very difficult to see… but he is very courageous and we stay strong for him.”

Bravery, from Ealing, told police he carried out the attack because he wanted to be on TV news to highlight his autism treatment.

He will be sentenced at the Old Bailey in February.

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General Election 2019: Polls open across London

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Voting is under way to decide who will represent London’s 73 parliamentary seats.

Londoners will decide the fate of hundreds of parliamentary candidates including the prime minister and leader of the Labour Party.

Registered voters will be able to cast their ballots from 07:00 to 22:00 GMT.

Labour represented 46 seats in the city going into the 2019 General Election. The Conservative had 20 London MPs while Liberal Democrats had four.

The BBC, like other broadcasters, is not allowed to report details of campaigning while the polls are open. More details around electoral law and our BBC code of practice is explained here.

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London minicab qualifications from private schools banned

Minicab

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Minicab drivers must sit mandatory exams to get a licence from Transport for London

Minicab drivers in London will only be able to gain required qualifications at official centres after a cheating scandal was exposed by the BBC.

Drivers could previously sit mandatory exams at Transport for London (TfL) centres or authorised private schools and colleges to get a licence.

However the investigation found some colleges cheated the required tests.

TfL said all licences gained from colleges where cheating occurred had been revoked.

‘Urgent review’

As part of the cab application process, drivers must sit a topographical exam and an English test at one of eight official TfL testing centres.

Evidence of these exams can also be accepted via other qualifications including BTecs, which are usually taken at numerous private colleges and centres around the UK.

Some employees at one of these colleges – Vista Training Solutions in Newham, east London – offered to take the tests for several BBC researchers for £500 per BTec.

After the cheating was exposed, TfL carried out an “urgent review” of every licence gained through qualifications passed at private colleges.

It has now revoked those of 143 drivers who had gained them through Vista Training Solutions while another 209 licence applications made by people who passed their qualifications through the college have also been rejected.

The transport authority added that no evidence of “fraudulent activity” had been found at any other private colleges but from February, qualifications will only be allowed to be gained from one of TfL’s eight testing centres.

“The most robust and relevant topographical tests are our own assessments,” said Helen Chapman, TfL’s director of licensing, regulation and charging.

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Media captionGerti Qamili, a manager at Vista, was challenged after the secret filming

In a statement Ofqual, which regulates tests taken at private colleges, said it took “all allegations of qualifications fraud extremely seriously”.

Vista Training Solutions previously said it was “devastated to learn that such malpractice took place” and apologised “unreservedly”.

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Nuno Espirito Santo is a potential replacement if Arsenal sack Unai Emery

Unai Emery’s Arsenal are eight points adrift of the top four in the Premier League

Arsenal have identified Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo as a potential replacement for Unai Emery if the Gunners decide to sack the Spaniard.

Head coach Emery is under pressure after a winless run of six matches across all competitions.

Arsenal have only won four of 13 Premier League games this season.

BBC Sport understands that if Emery is sacked and Nuno is allowed to speak to Arsenal, then the Portuguese would be a strong contender to take over.

Nuno said it would be “disrespectful” to talk about being linked with Arsenal when asked in a news conference before his side’s Europa League tie against Braga on Thursday.

“I wouldn’t ever mention an issue which is not a reality,” he said. “Speaking about a job which has a manager would be disrespectful and I will not do so.”

My focus is on today and tomorrow – Emery

Emery said he still has the full support of the club, having been warned results must improve while being offered public backing by the Arsenal hierarchy earlier this month.

“Really the club is supporting me,” he said. “I feel the club, everyone responsible in that area, is backing me. Really I appreciate it a lot.

“I feel strong with that support and know my responsibility to come back and change that situation.”

The former Sevilla and Paris St-Germain boss added he is only focused on “today and tomorrow” as he prepares for his side’s Europa League match at home to Eintracht Frankfurt on Thursday.

“My job is to prepare for the match, to show the best performance in front of our supporters,” he said.

Arsenal go into Thursday’s game top of Group F, four points clear of both their German opponents and Standard Liege.

On Sunday, a number of Arsenal fan groups called for “urgent action” over the “state of things” at the club.

“My focus is only today and tomorrow, to do all the things that we have worked on here at the training ground,” Emery added.

“We know our supporters were disappointed by the draw against Southampton, but we have the perfect chance to reconnect with our supporters.

“Our wish is that every supporter tomorrow helps the team, we need them.”

Arsenal are also eight points adrift of the top four and 19 points behind Premier League leaders Liverpool.

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General election 2019: ‘We’re just represented by white people’

Young people from black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds (BAME) have described how they feel the 2019 general election has failed so far to take on their views or represent them.

Students at London’s Westminster Kingsway College talked about the issues they care about and the changes they would like to see in politics.

Video by Jamie Moreland

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London Underground: Victoria Line staff to strike

Victoria station

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Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union will walk out for 24 hours from 22:00 on 27 November

Train drivers on the Victoria Line are to go on strike following a falling out with London Underground (LU) for “breaking promises”.

Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union will walk out for 24 hours from 22:00 on 27 November.

The line is one of the busiest on the Tube network, carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers a day.

The union warned it would consider further strikes in December if the dispute was not resolved.

RMT general secretary Mick Cash accused LU management of reneging on agreements reached during talks.

‘Childish behaviour’

Abuses of procedures, pay arrangements and constant harassment of staff were also were at the heart of the dispute, he added.

“It is extraordinary that LU seriously believed that they could get away with mugging off drivers on the Victoria Line by making promises and then pulling them away the moment that they step out into the daylight.

“LU’s actions are deliberately provocative and the announcement of action later this month is solely down to their childish behaviour.

“I have informed LU that the union remains available for talks to resolve this matter, but such talks have to be genuine, honest and based on mutual respect and trust.”

Transport for London has been approached for comment.

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