Jean Kilshaw on behalf of Feeding Camden.
Universal credit rollout fuels soaring demand for foodbanks
The latest annual report from the Trussell Trust, the UK’s biggest food bank network, showed a record 13% increase in foodbank use in the year April 2017- March 2018 compared with the previous year. More than 1.3 million emergency parcels with three days’ worth of food were distributed with more than one-third of the parcels going to children. The unprecedented rise in demand is, according to the Trust, linked to the rollout of universal credit. The Trust found that, in areas where universal credit had been in place for a year or more, demand was four times higher than it had been, with an average 52% increase in demand in the 12 months after the full rollout date in the relevant area. In the months preceding the publication of the Trussell Trust report, experience from across the UK showed foodbanks struggling to cope with the level of food poverty. The following narrative provides background information relating to that period, including an indication of the devastating impact of food poverty on individuals, independent insights into the factors involved, and attempts to highlight and tackle the level of social hardship associated with the inability of people to afford sufficient food.
In recent months hunger in the UK and the demands on food banks have been the subject of a number of troubling reports. The scale of the problem and the increasing demands for help make depressing reading. However, on the positive side it appears that there is considerable momentum to quantify hunger in the UK, to identify the factors contributing to this persistent and growing problem and to address them through various initiatives. Significantly, the initiatives include engaging parliament and government in the issues and attempts to introduce new legislation to support the less well off. The challenges are considerable as hunger affects the most vulnerable in our society and especially children, as recent reports highlight, and the controversial roll out of Universal Credit continues throughout the whole of 2018. In a harrowing report of food bank use in the Wirral just before Christmas 2017 Frank Field, the local MP, is quoted. He does not mince his words on the subject: “We’ve had over 10 years of cuts to benefits and then along comes universal credit sweeping along on this economic desert and the results are destitution, not poverty.”
The ‘shame’ of foodbank use
The media has been playing an active part in drawing attention to the introduction of Universal Credit and the impact on individual lives. Towards the end of 2017 there was a considerable amount of coverage given to this topic including the experiences of the busiest food bank in the UK. A co-founder of Newcastle’s West End Foodbank, Michael Nixon, said “the numbers of users are rising due to the introduction of Universal Credit, increased food costs and pay packets rarely rising with the rate of inflation.”. On average the bank supports 1,000 people each week. They do this with the help of over 60 volunteers and considerable help from the local football club and donations from its supporters among others. It is difficult to summarise the wide range of individual circumstances that bring people to foodbanks but the plight of users is profound across the country. For many going to a foodbank is an admission of failure. People feel mortified and ashamed and cannot believe it is happening to them. One 55–year-old-man in the Wirral said: “If you had told me 10 years ago I’d be in a foodbank, I’d have said you were having a laugh. Never in a million years did I think this would happen. Then, my only fear was being out of work, not going hungry.”
Deepest benefit cuts in years from April 2018
On 11 March 2018 the Observer newspaper highlighted new research by the Resolution Foundation thinktank relating to a further public spending squeeze from April 2018. These cuts will affect around 11 million families, including five million of the struggling families that the prime minister vowed previously to help i.e. “the just about managing” families. The new analysis suggests that the squeeze will affect low- and middle-income families with an average loss of £190.00 this year alone. Some will be far worse off. The Observer also reported that 400,000 families with children will be affected by the withdrawal of the family element of support for new tax and universal credit claims. This will cost families up to £545.
A “bleak future” for many including women
The Resolution Foundation research echoes the findings of a study published in November 2017 by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) which reported that the poorest households faced a “bleak future”. David Isaac, the EHRC chairman, said: “The government can’t claim to be working for everyone if its policies actually make the most disadvantaged people in society financially worse off.” The EHRC reported that women, the disabled and ethnic minority households have been hardest hit as a result of tax and benefit changes in seven years of austerity. Women are more dependent than men on benefits and tax credits which have seen huge cuts since 2010.
Chancellor remains upbeat about the economy
The chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, delivered his spring statement on 13 March 2018. Despite the negative forecasts from authoritative sources, he was upbeat about the state of the economy stating that falling public debt represents “a turning-point in the nation’s recovery from the financial crisis of a decade ago.”He also said he could see “light at the end of the tunnel” but hastened to add “we are still in the tunnel.”He also said that the Government continues to provide support to hard-working families through lower taxes.
The Trussell Trust says the economy works for some but not all
The Trussell Trust which, with more than 400 foodbanks in Britain, is at the coal face of dealing with the reality of poverty and hunger, responded promptly: “The Chancellor’s Spring Statement today offers an economy that works for some, but not all. The evidence from foodbanks is clear – for people who could struggle to find or cannot manage full time employment, the economy isn’t working. Disabled people and those with health issues are over-represented in foodbanks, along with families with children – especially single parents.”The Trust urged the Chancellor to address the issues in the budget later in 2018. Reversing cuts to disability benefits and improving financial support for people with disabilities on Universal Credit will also help “ensure fewer people need a foodbank referral in the future.” The Economist has taken a similar view by stating that “Cuts to the working-age welfare bill are expected to trim the real incomes of some of the country’s poorest by over 5% in the next few years.”
Britain is “nowhere near out of austerity”
The situation has been succinctly summarised by Paul Johnson, Head of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, who has warned that we are ‘nowhere near’ out of austerity.
Disability, health, and hunger are linked
The Trussell Trust’s latest research includes the impact of disability on hunger.
Recent findings from foodbanks in the Trussell Trust network show that mental ill-health is one of the biggest concerns they have about people referred to them. Almost a quarter ofrespondents noted a significant increase in the number of people referred whilst experiencing mental health problems in the last 12 months. The Trust has highlighted causes: “Stress and anxiety caused by benefit changes, delays and appeals contribute to mental ill-health, alongside other pressures such as cost of utilities.” Other factors include social isolation, debt, low income and homelessness.
Lack of welfare advice cannot continue
The Trust highlights the limitations of foodbanks in dealing with the causes. The fact is that foodbanks do not always have the capacity or expertise to properly support people with mental health conditions and the report notes a severe lack of accessible welfare advice and non-financial support for people affected. The Trust says that this cannot continue. In the meantime it is increasingly working with charities and specialists to build networks to support people.
Mental health welfare cuts in Camden hit the most vulnerable
Given the recent findings of the relationship between disability, health and hunger it is not surprising that the news that the NHS in Camden is making significant cuts to the mental health care provided to people with complex health needs has been reported to have caused a ‘storm’ of protest.” As from 1 April 2018 the Focus Homeless Outreach team is having its budget slashed by 42% resulting in job losses amongst the team’s professionals. The service is regarded as a model of good practice and according to an article in the Observer 11 March 2018 local GPs, pysychiatrists, homeless charities and managers of hostels have all voiced their concerns. These cuts are planned despite the fact that Camden had the third highest rate of rough sleepers in England in 2017.
Hidden hunger in Britain – skipping meals is common
A report of a survey of 2032 adults carried out in January 2018 has revealed the extent of hidden hunger across Britain. The results published on 19 March 2018 show that:
- 16% of adults skipped or saw someone in their household skipping meals
- 14% worrying about having enough food to eat, and
- 8% going a whole day without eating because of lack of money in the last 12 months
Importantly, parents with primary school children (aged 5-11) fared worst with 27% either skipping meals or seeing someone in their household skipping meals to make ends meet in the last 12 months. Perhaps not surprisingly people not in work fared badly – 36% of unemployed people had skipped a meal.
Foodbank usage high among families with children
Families with children make up over half of foodbank users in the Trussell Trust’s network according to an analysis published on 23 March 2018 by the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Sheffield with single parent households particularly at risk. The report also investigated skipping meals. Over 80% of families with children at foodbanks were classified as severely food insecure (meaning that they had skipped meals and gone without eating sometimes for days at a time) in the past 12 months because of a lack of money. Importantly “employment did not adequately protect households from needing a foodbank.”
Call for child benefits squeeze to be lifted
The findings of the Sheffield report have led to The Trussell Trust calling for the government to unfreeze working age benefits. The new Chief Executive, Emma Revie, has said that “There should be no higher priority than ensuring all UK families can afford to put food on the table when their children are hungry.”
New Bill on food insecurity
An attempt to establish the scale of food poverty is underway in parliament. Emma Lewell-Buck, MP for South Shields, is the author of a bill on measuring household food insecurity. The first reading was on 29 November 2017. The second reading was due in February 2018 but because of time constraints it will now be on 26 October 2018. There are said to be more than 100 cross-party MPs calling for this measurement.
Hunger in the school holidays “beggars belief”
Holidays from school should be something that parents and children look forward to. However, for millions they are anything but a welcome prospect. The scale of deprivation is staggering. Three million children are at risk of being hungry during their school holidays. As Rosie Boycott, Chair of the London Food Board and Trustee of Feeding Britain, has put it “Beggars belief, doesn’t it?” Her words are in an introduction to a Feeding Britain report “Ending Hunger in the Holidays” published in December 2017 in which she called for support for a new Private Member’s Bill designed to address the issue.
New bill on hunger in the school holidays
The new bill’s sponsor is Frank Field, well known for his work on social issues, and Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger in the Westminster Parliament. The Group published their report “Hungry Holidays” on 25 April 2017. The Bill “School Holidays (Meals and Activities) Bill 2017-2019” was presented to Parliament on 5 September 2017 and received its second reading on 19 January 2018. Unfortunately, the debate was interrupted but is scheduled to resume soon i.e. on 27 April 2018. The Bill requires local authorities to facilitate the delivery of programmes that provide free meals and activities for children during school holidays; and connected purposes. The loss of free school meals during the holidays is said to cost a family £30-£40 per week. The government is reluctant to support the bill in its entirety but says it is committed to work with stakeholders to help the most disadvantaged pupils to access healthy meals and activities over the holidays.
New Parliamentary Group on Foodbanks
In another important development a new All-Party Parliamentary Group on Foodbanks has been set up by Neil Coyle MP for Bermondsey & Old Southwark. The initiative was welcomed by the Trussell Trust. The Group has been set up in response to the national scandal of increasing dependence on food banks.
Universal Credit Roll out in Camden
Universal Credit continues to be rolled out across the whole of the UK.1In Camden it was due to be implemented in September 2018, but a new schedule published in March 2018 shows that Camden is one of the last boroughs in the rollout with completion scheduled for December 2018. After completion of the roll out process the DWP will then begin moving all remaining existing benefit claimants to the Universal Credit full service starting in 2019.