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Why we need to Fix Universal Credit: a story from Axminster

July 12, 2018

At the launch of our campaign to Fix Universal Credit on 11 July, Aynsley Jones of the independent Axminster Food Bank gave this powerful speech about the impact of Universal Credit and other recent changes on her community. 

We would be mistaken to think food shortage is the issue. Food aid is the very last resort in a very long list of things which are not within a person’s control. Food is easy to fix providing food banks exist. However, the long-term social isolation and mental health impacts are irreparable for generations to come. No one ever talks about the excruciating anxiety walking into a food bank causes. Unless you have received food or work day in, day out within a food bank, you cannot come to understand how broken our system is and how some parts of society have fallen. This is no longer political – it’s moral.

I’m here today to talk about a rural East Devon town called Axminster. It has 1,484 homes – population just under 6,000. It sounds idyllic, situated only 5 miles from Lyme Regis… where over 40% of housing stands empty for half the year forcing our private rents up… Yet over 22% of households in Axminster have used our food bank in the last 5 years – 701 people and rising. Here is a snapshot of our fight against community isolation and food poverty… and sadly we are just like many rural towns across the UK. The following people are not unique and it occurs on a weekly basis if not daily.

In 2012 we started our food bank and in April 2013 Axminster Carpets, our biggest local employer, went into administration. We fed 143 people weekly for a minimum of 6 weeks. Most knew nothing about the difficulties of claiming benefits as they were not computer literate. We have people walking three and a half miles to get to our food bank and three and a half miles back carrying shopping. Why? There is only one bus in and one bus out once a week from a local village… that’s if they could afford it. Many of the people over 50 are still unemployed, some have lost their houses, and most are still in debt. Work-experienced people retiring to Devon are applying for the low-skilled part-time jobs for spending money.

Then jobs fell…

There are no hostels in our area and the one homeless shelter in Exeter (25 miles away) has a six-week waiting list. So, I cry in despair as a vulnerable 17-year-old boy was put out into the pouring rain in minus temperatures. He was somebody’s son. He was finally sectioned with mental health issues. At least he was safe, warm and fed. Until… he was released early at 18 due to cuts. He was last seen living on the streets of Exeter. It’s a nine-month waiting list for mental health referrals to the NHS.

In 2014, Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments were introduced…

A disabled lady deemed fit for work had her car removed, remained housebound and was finally hospitalised with malnutrition. It was overturned six months later – she now suffers from severe panic attacks in her own home. I challenge any person to be disabled in the countryside without a car. Over 85% of denied PIP assessments undertaken at our centre were overturned. We currently have cancer patients receiving food bank parcels.

In 2014 our hardship grants were stopped due to a lack of funding by East Devon District Council.

We no longer had money for people to get to interviews, medicine, washing their clothes, buying a suit for their partner’s funeral, money to get to their DWP appointments, or to outpatients appointments … People were left sick, sanctioned and distressed.

Then in 2015 our hospital was taken, and many people couldn’t afford the public transport…

A young woman missed a series of appointments and decided to return to addiction. Our addiction charity is at breaking point, with a predicted one in five people with addiction in East Devon. She abandoned her children in reception. Our two social workers for the whole of East Devon said it would be quicker to phone the police. All of her children were taken away. There are currently over 80 children waiting to be adopted in Devon alone.

Then the next wave came – Universal Credit arrived…

I listened in hopelessness as the mother from across the borders could not put petrol in her car due to Universal Credit delays and lost her job. She continues to struggle… She struggled so hard that the kids didn’t get bathed for two weeks because they didn’t have electricity to heat the water. The washing stayed unwashed and the kids were bullied at school for looking dirty. They sat in three layers of dirty clothes in a freezing house. She didn’t have money to cook. Her friend gave her a lift to our food bank because she couldn’t stomach being recognised in her own town. Eight months on, she is still struggling with mental health problems and addiction – Universal Credit is being rolled out as we speak in Axminster and we’ve had six phone calls this week alone.

And yet the community responded to all of these needs. We have applied for grants, found transport, clothes, sleeping bags, got people to interviews, to hospital, signposted to other charitable agencies, paid household bills, offered a free counselling service and started adult literacy programmes. We are always offering a helping hand up but yet our clients still come. Therefore, to call us just ‘food aid’ is a grave understatement, when a system like Universal Credit is designed to enforce more hardship through delays and work sanctions. Sanctions never motivate people to work. It has a major impact on a community and its social structure. Independent food banks have unknowingly taken on the role of emergency community support.

  • Without access to affordable social housing and a living wage, we create a lack of aspiration.
  • Without immediate programmes for mental health, addiction, job retraining and social interaction groups, we create desperation.
  • Without long-term rural community visions supported by policy-makers, we create exclusion and a cycle of poverty which is entrenched in Axminster.

The 211 children in my town who accessed our food bank, or the 28% of children on free school meals, are not wrong in the decisions they make, neither are over half a million children nationwide in the last six months. Over 60% of their parents were forced into this situation by benefit delays. We as a nation have got this terribly wrong when even one child is starving. Food banks should not be an integral part of our policy-making or society. Without change there will be severe health, economic, social and criminal impacts for every community across the UK for years to come.

Aynsley Jones is manager of Axminster Food Bank, a member of the Independent Food Aid Network

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