Universal Credit Failure Leaves Thousands Hungry
"John has had a long-term issue with anxiety and depression. He was put on Universal Credit in January and told he would be paid the next month. He then found out they had lost his claim and he had to resubmit his forms. He did this and the night he submitted them, he tried to commit suicide with an overdose and was hospitalised for three days, and had his stomach pumped.
I saw John the following week at a foodbank and he looked grey and withdrawn. I tried talking to him about his claim but he was so depressed, he didn’t even want to talk. Through his suicide attempt, his girlfriend couldn’t cope with his anxiety anymore and left him. John stopped taking his meds because he no longer cared. He couldn’t afford to eat when he took his pills which gave him stomach ache and various other physical symptoms so he stopped taking the medication – this led to a second suicide attempt.
Last time I saw John was in mid-April, he still hadn’t had a Universal Credit payment and he hadn't received a penny four months after applying."
Unfortunately, stories like John's are all too familiar. In End Hunger UK's recent report many cases such as John's highlight that too many people risk getting swept into worse poverty by tides that they have little control over because of failings of the current system. At present the Department for Work and Pensions takes no responsibility for the prevention of people falling into destitution.
It has become a cliché to ask politicians how much it costs for a pint of milk. However the question many families on low wages and receiving Universal Credit ask is where can you get a pint of milk cheapest? With benefits having fallen behind wages, and sanctions and delays leaving people with less income, budgeting isn’t just going to the cheapest supermarket; it’s between going to the cheapest supermarkets and going without.
A recent End Hunger UK /Yougov survey found that 1 in 4 parents are going without food so their children can eat. On the front line these stories are all too familiar. For example Lianne from Sheffield told Voices from the Margins:
“I am always going without so the kids can eat. We went to Lidl and I had promised the kids a pound, and I only had a fiver left, but I let them have their pounds. I only really eat porridge, and I went without buying that.”
Against this background the government is currently rolling out one of the most complex changes to the way benefits are delivered in a generation.
A coalition of charities, churches, food providers, and experts who work to tackle food poverty surveyed food aid providers to see what the Universal Credit role out looks like on the front line. They found that foodbanks saw a surge in use as a result of the Universal Credit roll out.
We are at a serious risk of emergency food aid such as foodbanks becoming a regular part of the welfare architecture. We need a stronger, more compassionate society - the welfare system should support all of us and charities should be there for emergency use only.
As a result of this, End Hunger UK has launched a report and petition calling for the government to fix Universal Credit. This is based on the work by those on the front line of the new welfare system, both those receiving benefits and the charities and food aid providers who are picking up the pieces.
By fixing Universal Credit we could go a long way to supporting people like John. The government must make welfare rights and debt advice part of front line staff training and allow for flexibility with sanctions i.e. to bring in a yellow card system so people aren’t sanctioned immediately.
In the medium term, the design of Universal Credit must be changed so It’s less likely to cause destitution. The wait for the first payment must be reduced from 5 weeks to 2 weeks immediately and the level of advanced loan repayments must be reduced from 40% to 10%.
In the long term, recommendations of the report are aimed at making benefit levels adequate by bringing Universal Credit in line with the actual cost of living and restoring payments to disabled people to pre April 2017 levels.
Unless these critical changes to Universal Credit occur right now, experiences like that of John and Lianne will only continue to become more commonplace.
Joshua Fenton-Glynn is Campaign Manager at End Hunger UK