The rising demand at foodbanks since Universal Credit began is well documented. At my own foodbank, in Hastings, we have just about stopped reeling from the 87% increase in referrals we received in the first year of Universal Credit (UC) rolling out here.
UC arrived in Hastings 11 days before Christmas, on 14 December 2016. We went from a steady four years (2013-2016) of providing around 40,000 meals per annum to local people facing crisis, to a whopping 85,000 in 2017. We’re on course to hit about the same number again this year. These days, instead of dreaming that we’ll be able to close sometime soon, we just hope that our numbers will stay static.
Even that seems unrealistic. So far in Hastings 8,800 people receive UC. These are new claimants or those who have needed to change their benefits claim in the last 21 months or so. Under managed migration, which is due to bring everyone else on benefits across to UC starting from July 2019, we have been informed that there are another 14,000 people in Hastings yet to be transferred over to Universal Credit.
Calls for the Government to pause the rollout of UC are increasingly ubiquitous. At the start of last week, conservative Times columnist Clare Foges asked the Government to delay managed migration until the flaws in the system that are pushing people further into poverty can be fixed. While organisations such as the Trussell Trust foodbank network, Citizens’ Advice, and the Child Poverty Action Group are calling on the Government to make sure that no one is pushed into crisis as a result of the managed migration process.
Here at Jubilee+ we support the requests above, and would additionally like the Government to fix two specific problems with Universal Credit before it continues with the rollout. I presented these suggestions to the DWP Permanent Secretary in August, when he visited the foodbank in Hastings:
When an error is made by someone at the Job Centre, the claimant should not be penalised
This seems obvious, yet it is currently the case that if a claimant does not adhere to the requirements placed on them, they are penalised, and when a member of staff at the Job Centre makes a mistake, it is still the claimant who is penalised.
Take the case of a care home worker who came to Hastings Foodbank after picking up two shifts. She informed her work coach that she had worked for 16 hours. Her UC should have been adjusted accordingly, but it was accidentally closed. This meant she had to start a new claim, waiting a further five weeks (minimum) before she would receive any further income.
This is not a one-off incident, but is repeated time and time again across the country.
One of the key aims of UC is to ‘make work pay’. But when mistakes like this happen, it’s a disincentive to take work opportunities when they arise, because there’s a risk you’ll end up struggling to get by.
It’s clearly not right, fair or just for the claimant to lose out when the mistake is made by someone at the Job Centre. Not only that, but a friend of mine who works at the Job Centre speaks of the incredible pressure and stress on colleagues when things like this happen. Imagine how you’d feel if you made a simple mistake and knew that someone wouldn’t be able to feed their family for the next few weeks as a result, but the system was set up in such a way that there was nothing you could do to rectify it.
Provide help and support for the most vulnerable people due to come over to UC before their migration begins, not during
Again this seems obvious, but it isn’t currently the plan. Yes, there is support available, such as budgeting courses and CV advice, but these don’t kick in until someone applies for UC. Seeing as the DWP and Job Centres already know who will be coming over to UC under managed migration (because they’re already on other benefits), there’s no need to delay the help and support that is available.
It makes sense to offer advice and skills coaching two or three months before a claimant’s transition to UC begins, not at the same time. The time when you’re facing a reduced income and all of the uncertainty that comes with changing benefits is not the time to try to learn how to handle your money differently.
For the most vulnerable, in particular, the support available needs to happen before the transition phase.
Jubilee+ is broadly in support of the aims of Universal Credit: we want work to pay and a streamlined benefits system should be a positive development. However, what we’re seeing in our communities, through church-based projects such as foodbanks, debt centres and soup kitchens, is people being plunged deeper into poverty, misery and suffering.
We urge the Government to take on board the two suggestions above. We hope they won’t stop there. Other organisations have called for recommendations that we support too. But these are the two further ideas we presented to the DWP Permanent Secretary and now call upon the Government to fix.
Volunteer at King’s Church Hastings, home of Hastings Foodbank