Food banks issue a stark warning to Theresa May over her government’s Universal Credit roll-out

Theresa May Universal Credit
Emily Apple

The Trussell Trust, which runs 400 food banks across the country, has issued a stark warning to Theresa May’s government: stop the rollout of Universal Credit (UC) because it “will leave our network of foodbanks struggling to cope”.

The roll-out

Universal Credit is due to be rolled out into about 50 areas in November and December. Over the summer, 31 MPs wrote to the government to express their concerns. The letter stated:

There is a real worry that the introduction of UC at this time will cause extreme hardship for many people in vulnerable situations, exacerbated by the financial burdens of the festive period.

And it ended by calling for a delay in implementing the new benefit:

We urge David Gauke, secretary of state for work and pensions, to instruct his department not to roll this system out in November and December, but look to a date later in 2018.

The Trussell Trust

This call has now been taken up by the Trussell Trust. Its figures show that the majority of food banks users are “supported by working age benefits”. And their average monthly income is only £319 a month.

According to Garry Lemon, Head of Media & External Affairs, it is a bleak picture:

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.

And he points to various factors as to why UC is so problematic. It is paid in arrears, so people have to wait six weeks before they can claim. But the benefit has also been dogged with IT problems that have led to delays of up to 13 weeks for payment.

Happy Christmas

The figures are stark. In areas where UC has been fully implemented, there has been an average 16.85% increase in food bank use. But on top this, as highlighted by both the Trussell Trust and the letter to MPs, rolling out the benefit just before Christmas creates additional problems. Lemon states:

Due to a number of factors, such as cold weather and high energy bills, particularly for customers on pre-payment 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.

And Lemon concludes that:

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.

But isn’t it all “rather uplifting”?

Wannabe Tory leader Jacob Rees-Mogg made headlines recently when he claimed that food banks are “rather uplifting” and that they prove “what a good compassionate country we are”.

But this couldn’t be further from the truth. As Lemon points out:

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.

The government urgently needs to listen to what MPs and organisations such as the Trussell Trust are saying. It’s time to admit that UC is an expensive failure. Rolling out the scheme to thousands of people who are already struggling, just when money is tightest, is cruel to the extreme. The whole scheme needs scrapping before more families are forced further into debt and poverty.

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Featured image via David Mirzoeff

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