For four years in Hastings, my hometown, the need for our foodbank was fairly static. Then Universal Credit arrived here, and the number of referrals began to rise immediately. In January 2016 we had seen 106 referrals. In January 2017 – the first full month of UC here – we received 302 referrals. The next month it went up again. And so on.
Two years later, we’ve seen a staggering 106% rise in the need for our foodbank. We’re now giving out well over a tonne of food every week. At particularly busy times, we give out a tonne of food in a two-hour session.
We’ve been telling anyone who will listen that while UC may not be solely responsible for the huge rise in food poverty in Hastings, it is without doubt the major reason we’re seeing so many more people in need. It’s what the statistics tell us. It’s what the people who come to the foodbank tell us. It’s what the agencies who refer to us tell us.
As well as writing about it for the HuffPost and being interviewed on TV and radio about it regularly, behind the scenes we’ve been talking to our local MP, Amber Rudd, who also happens to be the work and pensions secretary. We have shown her the numbers and we have told her the stories. We’ve worked hard to persuade her that the Government’s welfare reforms, while conceptually good, are literally pushing people into, or deeper into, poverty and hardship by the way they are being rolled out.
On Monday, for the first time, she agreed with us. Every one of her predecessors as works and pensions secretary has denied that there is any link between UC and the rising need for foodbanks across the country.
So I was astonished when I heard Amber Rudd admit yesterday that the flaws in the design of UC “could” be the cause of increasing food insecurity. Astonished and pleased to have a Government minister publicly own up to the fact that there is a connection between their policies and poverty feels hugely significant for us.
The first step in addressing any problem is admitting it exists. But what happens next will be more important than what was said yesterday. Our hope is that this new openness about the impact of UC will lead to concrete, wide-ranging changes to fix the flaws that were designed into the system.
For a start, the national charity I work for, Jubilee+, is supporting the Trussell Trust foodbank network’s campaign against the five-week wait. For many, it’s this minimum five-week period between claiming UC and receiving any money that is causing the most problems. I know that if I suddenly had to go without any income for five weeks, I would struggle. The same is true for many people, who just don’t have the savings or the support network around them to tide them over during this wait.
The sad thing is that the five-week wait is a deliberate part of UC – it was an intentional design feature to make benefits ‘mimic work’. One of the problems with that notion is that many people in my seaside town have seasonal jobs that don’t pay monthly.
Amber Rudd said on Monday that the Government has made changes to UC to help with the five-week wait. That’s true, but they aren’t sufficient. Encouraging people to get into debt by taking an advance is not helpful. Some don’t want to get into debt – I know I wouldn’t – and many go on to struggle to repay their advance over the next 12 months. I recently heard a JobCentre work coach explain to a claimant that he would have to repay over £100 per month from his £317 UC payments, which obviously was going to leave him with nowhere near enough to live on.
We’re seeing increasingly desperate people come to our foodbank. We’re seeing more and more people who are in work and in poverty. We’ve sat with people who are choosing between turning the lights on or eating, paying rent or eating, feeding their kids or eating. We’ve sat with people who tell us through sobs that they feel suicidal.
Admitting there’s a problem with UC is step one. It takes a lot to do that, especially in our current political climate. But it’s what happens next that will make the difference to those facing poverty. I hope that Ms Rudd will follow her frank comments in the House of Commons yesterday with swift action to tackle the fundamental flaws in UC. It looks like she might just be the work and pensions secretary who will.