All in it together? A Girl Called Jack and #22mealsforacoffee

I’ve blogged previously about the amazing Jack Monroe, the blogger from Southend who talks more than a hell of a lot of sense when it comes to cooking, poverty and the politics of food on her blog, A Girl Called Jack.

She is absolutely bloody right when she writes:

 “to tackle food poverty and a culture of ping-ping meals, cooking at home needs to be less glossy, less sexy, less fancy kitchen equipment, less intimidating – and more accessible, more about what you can make from what’s in the cupboard, to spend less, reduce waste, and not spending all day tarting about in the kitchen or scouring shelves for asfoedita and artichokes.”

Anyway, Jack’s been at it again with the brilliant #22mealsforacoffee.

Her challenge?

Skip one latte, cappuccino or double espresso (whatever your morning poison, basically), average cost £3, and buy someone enough food for 22 meals. Buy low cost basics (she gives suggestions) and donate them to a food bank.

Yes, a foodbank – that criminal travesty of social justice that has arisen because as a society we seem to be too damn incapable of looking after each other. The Trussell Trust calculates a 170% increase in the number of people turning to foodbanks in the last 12 months:

“Trussell Trust foodbanks have seen the biggest rise in numbers given emergency food since the charity began in 2000. Almost 350,000 people have received at least three days emergency food from Trussell Trust foodbanks during the last 12 months, nearly 100,000 more than anticipated and close to triple the number helped in 2011-12.”

The Trussell Trust is the UK’s largest provider of emergency food packs but there are of course lots of smaller, local providers, often church initiatives, as well as work done by organisations like the Salvation Army. That means those figures from the Trussell Trust are the tip of an uncomfortably large iceberg.

For those who find their take on life is disadvantaged by the cynicism gene, the sort who simply think this is about people scrounging dinner for free, just pause for a moment. After you’ve grown up, think about the indignity of having to go and ask for food to feed yourself and your family because you can’t afford to buy it. I don’t think food banks are an easy option – but they are essential if some of those who are struggling the most are to have food on their plates.

I’m not going to tell you how to put a useful food pack together here on this blog. Jack deserves the traffic on her site, so click through to #22mealsforacoffee for suggestions. If, for whatever reason, this is beyond you, text FBUK13 £3 to 70070 to donate £3 to the Trussell Trust.

Jack’s posts are a constant source of inspiration and a rallying call to action for all those who are concerned about the politics of food. Which, when you think about it, should be all of us.

It is no good relying on politicians to sort this out. It requires all of us to change the way we look at food, its costs, production, social, economic and environmental impact. Start by swapping your £3 for 22 meals and may be we might just start to begin to understand the politics and economics of food poverty.

We are often told we are all in it together. That should be a social reality, not political vacuity. We should all be looking out for each other better than we do at the moment.

Thank goodness for the Jacks of this world for giving us a sharp kick up the arse.

A Girl Called Jack – food for thought in every sense

I was going to say I came across A Girl Called Jack on one of my regular trawls of the Internet.

I didn’t.

It probably isn’t the sort of thing that would leap out of the search engine at me when I am looking for astronomy, Forteana, weird art, gaming or ordinary politics. It was recommended to me by someone who does pay more attention to the realities of life – and particularly the realities of other people’s lives.

Living in Southend, Jack brings the reality of living on the breadline very close to home. It makes for sobering reading – as well as prompting a long and hard think about the way we use (and abuse) food.

As usual in our cynical age, there are plenty of people, even in the hallowed forums of The Guardian, no doubt liberally-minded sorts comfortable in their middle-class family homes, who are quick to pour scorn and deride. I think that probably says more about them than her, failing to recognise that circumstances change and that you can lose a standard of living, as well as improve it.

Her recipes are obviously to be commended, especially if you are on a tight budget. Her post, Hunger Hurts, is a blistering read. It should be required reading for anyone engaged in politics – in any party and none.

Chequeing up on the Payments Council

A couple of weeks ago I decided to write to the Payments Council regarding the future of payment options for those such as voluntary organisations and the less well-off. It was not my best-written email, despite its brevity, but it is a correspondence that speaks for itself and so I am publishing it here. Please feel free to offer your comments.


Dear Sir/Madam,

I would be grateful if you could let me know what work you are aware is being done in either the public or private sector on the issue of cheque replacement, especially for 1.) families on lower incomes and 2.) for those who are uncomfortable and resistant to a technology-based solution.

Yours sincerely,

Ben Williams

The Payments Council

Mr Williams

Thank you very much for taking the time to write to the Payments Council to register your concern about the decision to set a target date for the closure of cheque clearing in 2018.  Firstly I must apologise for not responding to you earlier but it is taking me longer than I’d expected to answer all the emails and letters that we have received.  There have been over 450 of them and I want to ensure that I respond to as many points raised as possible so that we understand people’s different issues.

One thing I’d like to stress from the outset is that in the short term this means no change to how we use cheques, as 2018 remains eight years away.  We have made very clear commitments that the Board will only decide to go through with closure in 2018 if, by 2016, suitable alternatives are in place and being successfully used.  Obviously removing cheque books now would not be feasible as so many people rely on them but that is not what was agreed.  Importantly we completely recognise that as things stand there are not enough easily accessible alternatives to cheques for a range of individuals (as well as charities, small businesses and schools).  That’s one of the reasons that the target date is enough of a way off to ensure that the necessary work is done on alternatives, that they are bedded in and that they meet everybody’s needs.

The Payments Council first started looking at the future of cheques two years ago and undertook a public consultation but felt that more information was required before making any decision on this issue in 2008.  All parties that we have consulted recognise that the number of cheques we use is in terminal decline: cheque use has declined 40% in five years and only half of the cheques written in the UK are personal cheques with businesses writing the other half.  In many ways we really had no choice but to completely review the future of cheques taking into account the changing pattern of use by individuals, businesses and retailers.  Without us putting a plan in place for the future, we could see a number of banks moving away from cheques and customers suffering but there being no work to develop an industry alternative.  This way there will be a concerted effort to ensure that alternatives exist.

Since the publicity over the decision, a number of representative groups that we have not discussed this with so far have got in touch to refer their specific issues to us.  These range from the impact that stopping cheques will have on the level of donations amongst the myriad of small clubs and societies that exist, through the impact on those people that group represents to the need to provide dual signature authorisation for existing transactions.  In the latter case, there are online solutions available and we would expect banks to explore other alternatives to those functions that cheques currently offer.  This year we want to concentrate on this area and we will be arranging a series of workshops to explore solutions with the voluntary sector.

One aspect that has proven useful over the last couple of months is that a number of people have got in touch to highlight the key areas where alternatives to cheques will be really required.  You won’t be surprised that these mirror the issues that you mention.  Obviously there are some alternatives already in existence – not all of these, however, suit everybody and there is certainly more work that can be done by the Payments Council to demonstrate what options suit which type of existing cheque use.

A number of people have asked what they would use instead of cheques for small gifts and personal payments and an alternative will need to exist if the proposal to close the cheque clearing is to go ahead.  One option that will be reviewed is whether a paper voucher – that can be electronically processed – would be practicable.

I can see how paying sole tradesmen is a concern but there are alternatives already and with some additional work, these issues can be tackled by banks.  Mobile card machines are easily available although they may not be priced as attractively as they need to be to encourage their use, but they are increasingly used by very small outlets.  One of the problems with cheques for small tradesmen is that they have to pay them in to the bank and wait for them to clear so they can get their money.  In all cases, electronic transfers and card payments are quicker; and we expect to see more use of direct electronic transfers not just between individuals but between small businesses too.  Increasingly people use the Faster Payments service to transfer money between individuals or to pay small service providers – actually that’s how I paid a recent bill from the plumber.

We completely understand the concerns this proposal may cause some who are older themselves or have elderly relatives and I would like to reassure you that we are not trying to force people who feel uncomfortable banking online down that route.

I appreciate that my comments may not assuage your overall concern but I would like to re-assure you that we’re talking about gradual change and helping people understand what options exist rather than suddenly finding in 7-8 years time that cheques aren’t accepted.  The Payments Council was set up to look at what type of payments we need overall as a country for the kind of business (as individuals and businesses) we all do and the payments we make.  It is not a purely banking industry body: to that end, there are four independent Directors sitting on the Board and I’ll ensure that they receive a copy of your correspondence.  Three of the independent Directors chair the User Forums covering consumer, corporate and small business interests and have been discussing the issues on cheque use for some time.

You may have no interest in reading how we came to this decision but we have published a report The Future of Cheques in the UK on our website along with two fact sheets for consumers and small businesses  If you would prefer a paper copy, please let me know and I’d be happy to send on a copy (my telephone number is at the bottom of this email).  As alternatives to cheques for different types of use become clearer, we will be updating the fact sheets and ensuring we communicate as widely as possible about any developments.

I hope you don’t mind me writing such a detailed response but obviously you raise important issues that we need to take into account.

Again thanks for writing and apologies again for my dilatory response.

Kind regards

Sandra Quinn

Director of Communications

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PAVIS, Basildon Council and The Institute of Fundraising – cheque it out #cheques #fundraising #poverty

Jane Lutton’s comment to my previous article on cheques has prompted me to write another little piece.

Jane works for PAVIS Foundation for Visually Impaired People, a small registered  charity set up in 1998 that provides a tremendous range of services for those with sight difficulties. Jane’s concern is that it is this sort of charity – and I think that there must be hundreds around the United Kingdom – that will be disadvantaged by the removal of cheques, as proposed by the Payments Council [see this summary note for a reminder of the plans].  If PAVIS cannot identify the resources to invest in direct debit facilities to manage donations, then I presume that, if it can no longer raise the necessary funds, then this is a charity whose very existence could be determined by the usability and cost-effectiveness of any cheque replacement.

It is the threat to vulnerable individuals that concerns me most.

For instance, the Conservative administration at Basildon Council has decided that it is no longer cost-effective to provide housing benefit by cheque and so has announced it is to withdraw that option. The Cabinet member with responsibilities for resources, Cllr Phil Turner, claims it costs £10 to process each cheque, making it too expensive. In a further telling comment, he explains that it is more convenient for the claimant. It is refreshing to see that for all of Cameron’s Conservatives’ pretence at reinvention and identification with modern Britain, its members remain as patronisingly paternal in their treatment of those less fortunate than themselves. They, it would seem, are not entitled to decide what is the most convenient way for them to be paid.

For those who are might be defined as vulnerable, the threat is two-fold.

Firstly, the interplay between the continuing “electronification” of financial services will lead to a particular form of financial exclusion amongst those unwilling or unable to adapt to new technologies. If you think this is a small number of people, Lavinia Mitton’s 2008 study for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, entitled Financial Inclusion in the UK: Review of Policy and Practice, will shock you with its reporting of a 2003 review in Scotland that showed that a third of disabled people in Scotland did not even have a current account with a cheque book. (There are two other superb studies on the JRT website, both ten years old, that look at financial exclusion: Understanding and combating ‘financial exclusion’ and Family finances in the electronic economy. Both highlight some of the issues that are coming to light in the current debate around cheques.) Andrew Harrop, for Age Concern, was similarly concerned:

“Many older people rely on cheques as their main form of payment and will be very worried about how they will manage if they are withdrawn.

“Our fear is that setting a date will give the green light to banks and retailers to withdraw cheques even earlier than 2018‚ as some already have.  It is vital that before cheques are phased out‚ the Payments Council ensures there is a practical‚ safe‚ paper-based alternative in place which serves the needs of this group.

“Chip and pin is problematic for many older and housebound people and we know 6.4 million over 65’s have never used the internet. Without cheques‚ we are very concerned people will be forced to keep large amounts of cash in their home‚ leaving them vulnerable to theft and financial abuse.

“We are being asked to take on trust that the banking industry will create an alternative people can use‚ but new forms of payment can take a long time to develop and no action has been taken to date.”

Secondly, as Jane’s example shows, there is a very real threat to the plethora of voluntary support services that provide assistance to the vulnerable.

By way of representative organisations, Jane mentions the Institute of Fundraising. In its own words:

“The Institute of Fundraising is the professional membership body for UK fundraising. Its mission is to support fundraisers, through leadership, representation, standards-setting and education, and it champions and promotes fundraising as a career choice.”

Sadly, in their list of top stories in fundraising, the issue of cheques doesn’t feature. This is a significant omission as, whilst it is unlikely that this decision can be reversed, development of a suitable alternative needs to be championed by an organisation that can represent the broad range of interests in fundraising – not just the corporate donors. If you are interested in raising this issue, even to establish their opinion, you can contact the Institute of Fundraising here.

Finally, the Lib Dems have started a group on their new social networking site ACT, which is dedicated to saving the cheque. You don’t have to be a party member to join ACT and the group is called Save The Cheque Campaign.


By way of a small distraction, Cllr Turner’s eagerness to refuse to pay by cheque is not matched by his readiness to refuse payment. Enter “cheque” into the Basildon Council Website  search facility and you produce 41 results (including the press release linked above). If you require reports from planning services, you are instructed to pay by cheque. If you are disabled and eligible for aid, you are instructed to pay the builder by cheque. If you want to get a season ticket you are to fill in a form – and pay by cheque. Paying fines? Cheque is an option. Rebate on your council tax? Basildon can pay this by cheque. I do not know if Cllr Turner is planning to cancel all these facilities shortly or if these cheques are somehow cheaper to process.  If I were less generous, I might think that he is starting with desperate people who will go through whatever Council hoops are forced on them in order to keep a roof over their heads (the comments on the Echo story linked in the main piece suggest that housing benefit claimants are not particularly popular and therefore an easy target for a Council wanting to save some money). Thoughts would of course be appreciated, together with suggestions for questions that should be asked.

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Chequeing Out

Sometimes something can simply not feel right.

Remember the phasing out of Morse Code? It just didn’t sit comfortably.  You can’t argue the case, because the “experts” tell you that it’s been superseded by technology. You feel foolish when it’a pointed out how antiquated it all is. The tech “expert” is the conversational equivalent of the l33t gamer and trying to tell them how to play is going to get you pwnd like a n00b.

Yet, deep inside, the armchair captain in you still knows that when the the computer, the radio and the satellite link-up have failed, you would take more comfort from knowing you could still communicate at a distance with a flash light than from the extremely-expensive-but-now-useless box of WEEE now adorning the bridge. Finally, and long after you’ve been laughed out of the room, a story like that of the MN Rocknes pops up and reminds you that sometimes the old ways of doing things have a flexible benefit all the clever tech in the world can’t beat: Filipinos communicating with Norwegians through the hull of a capsized ship in Morse Code. Now it is the turn of the 350-year-old cheque to be unceremoniously phased out in favour of as yet undeveloped alternatives.

When the Payments Council tried this last year, it found itself facing a less than positive response from small businesses who agreed cheques were inconvenient, but pointed out there wasn’t really a well-developed alternative. It would seem the “experts” in the Payments Council are giving “customer forces” a little nudge in their preferred direction, because, let’s face it, there really isn’t any alternative to a cheque, is there?

Aha, the technorati cry, there are plenty of alternatives! E-mail money transfers! Online payment systems! We can even use our mobiles as alternatives to cheques!

And so this time around, the Forum for Private Business has rolled over.

Nuts. Big fat ones.

Thales is a company that knows a thing or two about electronic communications and financial transactions. They’ve been doing fancy things with MasterCard and something called Advanced Authentication for Chip. Their strategy manager is a chap called Steve Brunswick. It is clear from his blog that even people like Steve haven’t got a clue how they are going to solve this one, really. He makes the brilliantly insightful observation that “Repaying a friend or paying a plumber or gardener for example will be problematic without cheques.”

Whoa! I’d not thought of that! (I’d say your cheque is in the post for Insightful Blog Post Of The Week, but hey, it’s a weak gag.)

What we have here is a familiarly depressing example of how very different groups of people – with very different needs and expectations – participate in the same discussion, but to very different ends. Our “experts” talk in the language of Module Based ID Encryption and “P2P mobile payment solutions” (see Steve’s blog link again for that one). Meanwhile, Mrs Trellis of North Wales doesn’t want to send cash through the post, only has a basic mobile, doesn’t use the internet, but does want to pay that nice chap on the market to frame her pictures and does want to send little Berthog £10 for her birthday. (Berthog is a Welsh name that means “wealthy”. And it is a “her”.)

What does she choose? A cheque.

In the meantime, the Payments Council forces the pace of the getting-rid of a method of payment that is a better leveller of the means of financial exchange than anything other than cash.

I had hoped to point out the finer distinctions between Mrs Trellis and the characters that make up the Board of the Payment Council. Easy enough, I thought.

Mrs Trellis is a single female pensioner and therefore more likely than any other pensioner to be on a low income. Department for Work and Pensions research shows that in 2007-08, the average single female pensioner has just £185 a week left after housing costs. As Mrs Trellis must be almost 80, she will be the wrong side of that average.

By contrast, the Board of the Payments Council is a very different kettle of fish. Curiously, for an organisation which is concerned with all things paymenty, they are very coy about what they are paid.

It is probably a voluntary organisation.

It currently has no Chairman.

So next on the list, by unhappy alphabetical accident, is Michael Alexander, one of the Payment Council’s independent directors. Michael is also Chairman of the Association of Train Operating Companies, Chairman of TGE Marine AG, Non-Executive Director of Costain Plc, and a member of the European Advisory Board for Landis and Gyr. After several hours of looking, I’ve pretty much given up trying to establish Michael’s weekly take-home pay. Like the Payment Council, there is a general coyness around the sums of money involved. Perhaps they are all voluntary positions. However, deep inside (!) I can’t help feeling that it is probably a little more than £185. Something tells me, too, that it’ll probably be equally hard to obtain the figures for the rest of his colleagues. (My apologies to Michael Alexander – I am just attempting to make a point about the different worlds in which this same conversation is taking place.)

None of this rambling post is meant as an attack on business or somehow a criticism of companies that I am sure will all play a key role in the UK’s recovery from recession. It is, however, trying to point out that the needs of a commercial world that trades in bits and bytes is very different from that of an impoverished pensioner in a part of the country where she may still be struggling to get Channel 5.

The cheque, physical, simple and technologically challenged, is trusted almost as much as cash by those who live simpler, ordinary lives.

And when the cheque goes?

Perhaps it is time to reinvigorate the Postal Order for the 21st Century. For those who are prepared to make the leap to the web, the Postal Order could provide a secure vehicle for non-cash transactions, requiring the sharing of bank/card details with a single provider: the Post Office. Those not comfortable dealing electronically could purchase them from the Post Office, perhaps through little dispensers (like parking ticket machines only rather more pleasant). Properly coded it could place little strain on the banks, provide an approximate solution for those who fear the increasingly virtual nature of our money, and reinvigorate a failing Post Office network at a time when rural and urban  communities alike are looking for a stable community focus.

Finally, late as it is, and prone to conspiracy theories as I am, I will simply remark on the curiosity of discovering what a small world it is. I began this piece knowing nothing about Thales or ATOC. It was only in the writing that I noticed that the former – specialists in cashless, virtual transactions – and the latter, which shares its Chairman of the Board with the Payments Council, have already done a deal of business together. National Rail Enquiries, which is run by ATOC, awarded Thale the contract to design, build and operate DARWIN, the National Real Time Database (NRTD).

I am still learning about how the world of business works.

P.S. Some interesting stuff about cheques:

  1. The world’s largest cheque was probably this one from Zimbabwe.
  2. What is probably the world’s oldest surviving cheque is dated February 16th, 1659 and is made out to a Mr Delboe for £400.
  3. What is probably the world’s smallest cheque at 1.1mm by 1.8mm was presented by Queensland State Minister John Mickell to Griffith University in Brisbane in 2007 – value $6,000,000.

P.P.S. In a further vindication of older technologies, you might recall the story about the Australian museum that staged a run off between an old-school Morse Code telegraph operator and a mobile-phone-using teenage texter?

Go on… You know who won!

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