Foodbanks Cannot Fix Fundamental Flaws In Universal Credit

The Facebook memories feature seems designed to mostly make us cringe at embarrassing statuses we wrote in the past or photos we posted way back when. Sometimes it jogs our memory about something useful, though. Last week it reminded me that at the end of October 2012, I posted on Facebook that my local foodbank had fed over 150 people in that month alone. I remember being amazed at how many local people were facing crises that led to them being referred to us for emergency food. It was hard to imagine where these 150 people would have turned if we hadn’t opened our doors six months earlier.

Fast forward to almost exactly five years later: on Friday we fed 142 people in one day. Where once we felt overwhelmed by helping 150 people in a month, now that seems like a drop in the ocean.

While Friday was a really busy day for us in Hastings, sadly it’s becoming increasingly common to have days when we are rushed off our feet. We’ve seen an 82% increase in referrals since Universal Credit began to be rolled out in Hastings on 14 December last year.

The statistics are shocking, but this isn’t about numbers. It’s about people.

Last week a couple came to us for help. They told us they have recently taken on full-time responsibility for their grandchildren, who would’ve otherwise gone into care. At significant cost to themselves, they’ve stepped up (and, as an aside, in doing so they’re saving the Government the thousands of pounds it would cost if the children had gone into care). In order to look after their grandkids, the grandmother has reduced her hours at work. The change in their circumstances has led to problems with their benefits under the Universal Credit system. While they wait for their delayed benefits to come through, they have no money to feed themselves or their grandchildren. So they were referred to us.

In the fifth richest country in the world, this cannot be right.

Another woman, in her late 20s or early 30s, said that she was receiving disability premium payments and has now lost these in the transition to Universal Credit, meaning that though her disability has remained the same, her income has halved. So she was given a voucher for the foodbank.

In a country that has in the past taken great pride in not letting vulnerable people fall by the wayside, this cannot be right.

A pregnant woman told us that she was receiving in-work benefits. She’s just gone on maternity leave, meaning her Universal Credit has been stopped, even though she won’t receive any of her maternity pay until December. So this mother with a newborn baby is relying on the foodbank to fill the gap. In a country that calls itself civilised and developed, surely this cannot be right?

Through my work at Jubilee+, a national Christian charity helping churches to support the poorest and most vulnerable in their communities, I have heard story after story of people being pushed further into poverty during the transition to Universal Credit.

It amazes me that the Government has ignored calls from Citizens’ Advice, Trussell Trust, Christians Against Poverty, Jubilee+ and other charities to pause the rollout of Universal Credit. When politicians on both sides of the aisle started to urge the Government to pause too, I was certain they would rethink.

Sadly this has not yet been the case and, if I’m honest, I’m losing hope that even the latest figures from Trussell Trust (released today) will cause them to sit up and listen. Foodbanks across the country are seeing big increases in demand – 30% where Universal Credit has been rolled out for six months, compared to 12% where it hasn’t. Our 82% in Hastings is higher than most, but we’re not alone. The Guardian reported in October that a Croydon foodbank had seen a 97% increase, while from Taunton in the south-west to Hartlepool in the north-east, several other places have seen sharp increases too.

But foodbanks cannot fix a fundamental flaw in the system. We’re picking up the pieces as much as we can, but many places are seeing demand rocket while food donations stay at the same level. With the increases we’re witnessing, it’s clearly evident that foodbanks are a sticking plaster on a crack that is growing into a canyon.

As far as I’m aware, no one is calling for the Government to scrap Universal Credit entirely. Certainly most of the Christian charities that are at the frontline of helping the most vulnerable in our communities think that streamlining the benefits system and making it easier to navigate are good things.

All we are asking is for the Government to immediately pause the rollout and fix the six-week gap. What we’re really asking is for our politicians to remember that people need to be prioritised over policy. This six-week gap is causing utter misery for thousands. It’s not uncommon to hear people say that if it wasn’t for their local foodbank, they’d turn to crime, loan sharks or even suicide. Some will live with the debt accrued during the waiting period for many months to come, if not years.

This cannot be right. It isn’t right.

Whether the six-week gap was intentionally built into the system or is an unintended consequence is immaterial at this point. It simply needs to be fixed, and fast.

Natalie Williams is the co-author of The Myth of the Undeserving Poor (2014) and A Church for the Poor (2017). Heads up communications at the national Christian charity Jubilee+ and oversees social action at King’s Church Hastings, home of Hastings Foodbank