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The Universal Credit Crisis Facing Britain’s Foodbanks

September 26, 2017

The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest food bank provider, has called for a pause on Universal Credit. Garry Lemon, the Trussell Trust’s Head of Media and External Affairs, writes that if the problems aren’t fixed before  further roll-out, then food banks won’t be able to catch everyone who falls.

Last year The Trussell Trust provided 1.2 million emergency three-day emergency food supplies. We recently released the biggest study into foodbank use in Britain to date. We found that the majority of people referred to our foodbanks were at the time supported by working-age benefits. Yet the average income for households was just £319 in the month before they were referred to us.

It’s no surprise that trying to live off so little for an entire month can lead to destitution and hunger. Most households had been unable to afford heating, toiletries or suitable shoes or clothes for the weather. 78% had skipped meals and gone without eating – sometimes for days at a time, often multiple times a year.

The stark conclusion from this is that our current system of benefits is letting some of the most vulnerable people in our country down. Against this backdrop, you might expect The Trussell Trust to welcome the biggest reform to the welfare state in generations. Yet we are instead calling for a pause in the roll-out of Universal Credit.

Universal Credit has the potential to be transformative. Its twin goals – to simplify a complicated system and ensure that moving into work pays – are sensible. In theory, people will no longer struggle with multiple agencies administering multiple benefits, while those who are able to work should find they can keep more of each pound they earn as they transition into employment. In theory, it should ensure people have the support they need to be able to buy the basics, put food on the table and get back on their feet.

That’s the theory. In reality, our foodbanks are finding the opposite is true for many:

“We are being squeezed at both ends, less disposable income for the givers leading to reduced donations and more demand at the other end. Our food reserves are down from 40 tons to just over 14 tons. We have had part roll-out [of Universal Credit] but it’s not yet complete in the outer parts of the city so we expect things to get rapidly worse.”

These are the words of Michael, a foodbank manager in Newcastle. His foodbank is one of the 51 in The Trussell Trust network that are already experiencing the roll-out of ‘full’ Universal Credit to single people, couples and families. His experience of increased demand and dwindling food stocks are being repeated up and down the country. Last year, foodbanks in areas of full Universal Credit roll-out have seen a 16.85% average increase in referrals for emergency food, more than double the national average of 6.64%.

This is primarily because of a six-week wait that must be endured before you can claim the money to which you are entitled. Designed to get people used to ‘normal’ working patterns, Universal Credit is payed monthly, in arrears. On top of this month’s wait, most new claimants must get through a week of ‘waiting days’ before the assessment period of four weeks even begins, and then wait a further seven days before any money is finally paid into their account.

Inevitably, trying to survive without money for such a long period is going to be a struggle for people without savings in place or access to other support. Managers and volunteers in foodbanks in areas of Universal Credit roll-out are clear that this delay is the main cause of financial crisis and hunger in people referred to our network of foodbanks. Recent research by Citizens Advice (who have also called for a pause in roll-out, and call Universal Credit ‘a disaster waiting to happen’) backs this up. It shows that lack of funds during this six-week wait can cause or exacerbate debt problems.

But it is not just the way Universal Credit has been designed that is leaving people in crisis. We are also seeing serious issues in its implementation. Due to poor administration and IT issues, we are seeing reports of people waiting 11, 12 and even 13 weeks to receive their first Universal Credit payment.

On top of this, winter is coming. Due to a number of factors, such as cold weather and high energy bills, particularly for customers on prepayment meters; or foodbanks and referral agencies ensuring that people who are likely to hit crisis have food ahead of Christmas Day, we traditionally see a huge spike in demand. Yet it is over this critical period that we will see Universal Credit roll-out accelerate significantly from 51 of our foodbanks to cover over a quarter of our entire network.

We fear this combination of factors will leave our network of foodbanks struggling to cope. And in light of this we have no option but to call for the Universal Credit roll-out to be paused.

So what can be done? In the immediate term, work to amend Universal Credit’s design and tackle poor administration in the system is needed before it can be rolled out without causing more hunger and destitution: reducing the six-week wait for a first payment and providing more support through programmes like Universal Support would make a real difference to people navigating the new system.

We also know there are some areas where Universal Credit hasn’t led to huge increases in the number of people needing foodbanks and we want to find out why – is it that budgeting loans are being offered and people are getting the support they need, or is it that their Local Welfare Assistance Scheme is working well and people aren’t falling into crisis? Finding out the positive stories of good partnership working is crucial to making sure Universal Credit works well.

We will continue to monitor the situation closely, and have good links to the DWP to share the experiences of foodbanks in our network as they deal with this reform on the ground. The Trussell Trust supports the principles that underpin Universal Credit – this is an opportunity to fix a benefits system that is currently leaving far too many people in crisis.

But what we must not become is a charity safety net that catches people because our benefits system is fundamentally flawed. Not just for moral or ethical reasons, but because all of the evidence on Universal Credit leads us to believe that even with the enormous generosity of our donors and the hard work and sacrifice of our volunteers and staff, we will simply not be able to catch everybody who falls.

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