Do we need to fix Universal Credit?
An opinion piece, by Tom Sefton
It is simply not right that so many people are unable to access good food and go to bed hungry. As a compassionate and just society, we need to make sure that people are protected when times get tough.
Across the country, food banks are doing an amazing job, helping people in crisis. In London Diocese alone, there are now 39 Trussell Trust foodbank centres and at least 15 independent food banks, mostly run by volunteers. Last year, Trussell Trust foodbanks in the diocese distributed 52,539 three-day emergency food supplies.
But most food bank managers I speak to would much prefer if food banks were no longer needed, because people could afford to feed themselves.
One of the drivers of the recent growth in food banks is problems with Universal Credit, the government’s new system of benefits for working and non-working families. In areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out for more than a year, the number of emergency food parcels distributed has gone up by an average of 52%, compared to 13% in other areas.
Fi Budden, the community chaplain for All Souls Hounslow, has seen this first hand.
Five years ago, she helped to set up a small food bank outlet on the Ivy Bridge estate, linked to the much larger Richmond Foodbank. This was only meant to be a short-term response to the recession, but has become a long-term necessity.
Fi says that demand for food parcels has increased sharply in the last year, since the rollout of Universal Credit in her area. They used to see around 4-5 families a week, but are now regularly seeing 8-9 families. Looking through the pile of food bank vouchers, as we spoke, she said that at least half were for people struggling with their Universal Credit claim.
She gave the example of an older working age man who came to the food bank recently and was “absolutely clueless” about Universal Credit. He didn’t have a computer at home or a smart phone, so they helped him through the whole process, including the online application form.
Other food bank guests have been affected by payment errors and discrepancies in their housing support, which can be critical for families who are trying to manage on a low income. The initial waiting period has also been a major issue for many people, most of whom do not have savings to tide them over:
“To expect anyone to survive without any income is madness.”
There is nothing wrong with the basic aims and principles behind Universal Credit, but there are significant problems with the way it is being implemented in practice, causing severe hardship for many people, especially the most vulnerable claimants. Instead of protecting people, the system is pushing people deeper into poverty and debt. It needn’t be this way.
That is why the Church of England is supporting the End Hunger UK campaign, calling for specific improvements to Universal Credit before it is rolled out much more widely. At least 32 Bishops have signed a national petition to this effect, and both Archbishops have spoken out publicly about this in the last month.
Among other changes, we are calling for a reduction in the waiting period before the first payment from 5 weeks to 2 weeks and for better access to free debt advice. We would also like a long-term commitment to ensuring that Universal Credit provides people with an adequate income, so that families can afford healthy food on a regular basis. Further detail on these recommendations and the evidence underpinning them is available on the End Hunger UK website.
The Government recently announced that the next stage of the rollout – when existing claimants of old-style benefits will be ‘migrated’ onto Universal Credit – is to be postponed by six months. Around one million people are already receiving Universal Credit, but another 6 million people will be moved onto it over the next five years. For the sake of all these families, it is vital that we use this window of opportunity to fix Universal Credit before it is too late.
As Christians, we are called to feed the hungry, but we are also called to tackle social injustice – to work towards a world where people have enough to support themselves without the indignity of relying on charitable handouts.
If you, too, would like to support the End Hunger UK campaign, then please sign the online petition and share it with friends and colleagues: