Universal Credit Has Left Thousands In Poverty And In Misery – Here's What Needs To Change In 2019

I work with people struggling under the policy, but we never expected to see so much brokenness in people’s eyes, so much stress and anxiety

Over the 12 days of Christmas, HuffPost UK will host a series of blogs from individuals at the centre of some of 2018′s biggest news stories. Today, charity worker and Hastings foodbank volunteer Natalie Williams writes on how Universal Credit has blighted thousands she works with, and what they need in 2019. To find out more, follow our hashtag #HuffPost12Days

When Universal Credit arrived in Hastings two years ago, 11 days before Christmas 2016, we anticipated that foodbank referrals would go up. What we didn’t expect was that they would spiral to the point where we would find ourselves often giving out more than a tonne of food per two-hour session.

We didn’t expect that we would see an 106% increase in foodbank use during these two years of Universal Credit, compared to the two years before it came to Hastings.

We didn’t expect to give out over 170,000 meals in these last two years.

We didn’t expect to see such a huge increase in people in work needing the foodbank. It’s shocked us to see care workers, builders, teaching assistants and nurses referred to us.

We didn’t expect so many people falling behind on their rent, getting into debt, or genuinely choosing between feeding their children or themselves.

We didn’t expect to see so much brokenness in people’s eyes, so much stress and anxiety, such an increase in mental health problems.

We didn’t expect for it to become normal to us to be giving food to people who tell us we are their last hope and, in a small number of cases, all that’s standing between them and suicide.

The toll this takes on volunteers, let alone those we help, is huge. It’s not unusual for volunteers to be reduced to tears at the end of a session. It has become common for us to hear people say, “I never expected that I’d end up needing the foodbank.” Some of the desperation we see and the stories we hear stay with us long after we’ve closed our doors for the day.

What worries us most as we go into 2019 is that we still have thousands of people in Hastings yet to come onto Universal Credit – almost 14,000 in total, about half of whom are currently on Employment Support Allowance, which is given to people who are have an illness or disability that affects their ability to work.

So far only those who are new benefits claimants or who have had a change in their circumstances in the last two years have gone onto UC. Many of the most vulnerable are yet to come onto the new benefits system. That’s not just the case in Hastings, but across the country.

That is why we’re pleased to hear our MP Amber Rudd, the recently appointed work and pensions secretary, say she wants to make UC work for each individual, rather than meet the timetable she inherited for its rollout.

The national charity I work for, Jubilee+, has been campaigning and lobbying politicians for over a year now for a pause in the rollout of UC. I met with Amber Rudd in mid-December for a candid, constructive conversation about the impact of Universal Credit not just locally, but nationally. Not just on the most vulnerable, but on those in work who can no longer make ends meet as the cost of living rises and wages stagnate.

On behalf of Jubilee+ I asked her to consider a number of changes that would improve Universal Credit, such as ensuring the Government measures not just UC’s effectiveness at getting people into work, but also whether it causes a significant number of claimants to experience greater hardship.

We would like her to go further than this and adopt a new measure of poverty in general, such as the one put forward recently by the Social Metrics Commission, which has been formulated by charities and think-tanks across the political spectrum and therefore has a good chance of achieving cross-party support.

This would mean politicians could stop arguing about how we measure poverty and start thinking seriously about how to tackle it. If the Government wants to demonstrate that it cares about people who are struggling, it simply must measure whether more people are becoming poor.

The aim of UC is to get people into work – based on the belief that work is the best route out of poverty. But so far, according to the Centre for Social Justice, Universal Credit has only seen a 7% increase in getting people into work within six months compared to the previous benefits system. What’s more, that includes people who have only picked up a shift here and there within that six months.

Insisting that claimants should take zero-hour contracts to avoid being sanctioned may push up the numbers in terms of people ‘finding work’ within six months of being on UC, but it won’t alleviate poverty. Employment figures continue to rise, which is good, but the number of working people in poverty is rising even faster, which is shocking.

If UC gets people into work but leaves them in poverty, that surely cannot be defined as success.

We would like to see significant reforms of Universal Credit in 2019. The work and pensions secretary has admitted it requires more than just “tinkering”. What we need now is a pause while the flaws in the system are fixed, and quickly.

This won’t help the thousands of people already on Universal Credit, but it might mean that the most vulnerable yet to come onto it are spared the misery that we’ve seen at foodbanks and other church-based projects across the country over the last couple of years.

Before You Go