Jean Kilshaw on behalf of Feeding Camden.
Criticism of the new benefits system, Universal Credit – and deep concern about the effects of its rollout – continues to gather momentum. MPs are reporting a profound impact on their constituents, local authorities in affected areas are struggling to cope with the changes and experience with people seeking help has led Citizens Advice bureaus to call for a pause in the rollout. Referring to the findings of the biggest study of foodbanks in Britain, The Trussell Trust has also called for a pause. The study found that the majority of people referred to foodbanks were at the time supported by working age benefits and most were experiencing considerable deprivation. Some 78% had skipped meals and had gone without food sometimes for days at a time. According to the Trussell Trust, foodbanks in areas of full Universal Credit rollout saw an average increase in referrals of about 17% last year, more than double the national average of about 7%. The Trust revealed that some people have waited up to 13 weeks to receive their first Universal Credit payment.
An outspoken opponent of Universal Credit is Frank Field MP, the Commons Work and Pensions Committee Chairman. Having noted the long delays in receiving benefits, he didn’t mince his words about the impact. Field claims that vulnerable people are being driven into destitution because of major flaws in the benefits system (ref 4), which is resulting in foodbank referrals soaring. He has highlighted the need for forward planning at foodbanks to meet growing needs. In his Birkenhead constituency alone, he predicts that foodbanks “will require an extra 150 tons of supplies” to tide people over while waiting for their benefits.
And it’s not only the poor and unemployed who are suffering. Many families with low incomes are also on the breadline. It is heartrending to hear and read about people who are desperate and see no light at the end of the tunnel. Foodbanks are clearly a lifeline but people do not like to be put in the position of acknowledging that they need them. The experience of a single mum with three children working on a zero hours contract is salutary: “People say Universal Credit is supposed to put you back in control of your money, but how can you be in control of your money if you don’t know how much money you’ll be getting each month? People say you’re better off if you’re in work, but even though I am working, we’re still suffering with Universal Credit. If the foodbank hadn’t been there, I just don’t know what we would’ve done. I do know one thing though – I should never have needed their help in the first place.”
On 22 September 2017 the Trussell Trust warned that “If universal credit rollout continues like this, foodbanks won’t be able to catch everyone who falls.” In the borough of Camden, there are currently almost 1,000 claimants on Universal Credit and the rollout for all new claimants is planned for September 2018.