Universal Credit has been in the news since it was first introduced in 2010 and has caused problems for thousands of people on benefits. 12 months after the roll out of the Government’s controversial welfare reform food banks have seen a 52% increase in demand, but is Universal Credit to blame?
Unite the Union has published a survey of more than 1,100 people who have moved onto the new benefit, which shows many have been forced to use food banks to survive and have resorted to borrowing money from friends and family.
The government claims Universal Credit will make things better for claimants, but where it has already been rolled out it’s been plagued with problems that are pushing people into poverty.
It has caused thousands of people to fall into debt, rent arrears, and to become reliant on food banks
Matthew Storey, Labour Councillor for Central Middlesbrough said: “I think it is disgraceful that people need to use food banks.
“We’re one of the fifth richest countries in the world and people still need to use them.
“One of the main problems with Universal Credit is that people need to wait up to seven weeks to get paid and also they get paid monthly when they used to be pay weekly.
“This is supposed to imitate how people get paid at work but some people cannot handle monthly payments, especially people that have mental health problems or disabilities.”
From January 2019 the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions) has started transferring people from their old benefits on to Universal Credit.
This will be done in small numbers at first, but eventually, several million people are set to be migrated over to Universal Credit.
Universal credit is a benefit for working-age people, replacing six benefits and merging them into one payment:
- income support
- income-based job seeker’s allowance
- income-related employment and support allowance
- housing benefit
- child tax credit
- working tax credit
Public health researchers found overwhelmingly negative experiences among claimants, including high levels of anxiety and depression, as well as physical problems and social isolation exacerbated by hunger and destitution.
Christine Forster, 57, works two jobs but needs Universal Credit to help pay her rent.
She said: “‘I’m on Universal Credit because I don’t earn enough money. I’ve got two jobs and I live in a privately rented house so it is a top up to help pay my rent.”
“When you work extra hours they just take the extra money off you, you work your socks off and you work overtime to make more money and they just take it off you and you end up having to put more money towards your rent.”
“I had seven weeks without money when I first went on it, I had loads of debt because nothing got paid.
“I had nothing to eat for weeks on end, there was one point I even had to go to my sister just to get something to eat because I hadn’t eaten anything for a week.
“It makes a lot of people depressed because they have got so much debt, you can’t pay any bills or anything, and you can’t get any food in, pay gas or electric.”
Universal credit cannot be solely blamed for the rise in food bank use in areas where the benefit is being rolled out, the Minister for Employment has said.
Alok Sharma MP, has been been visiting job centres around the UK, said: “There are absolutely brilliant people in DWP working as work coaches and they tell me that for the first time in their lives they are doing what they came in to do, which is to provide that one-to-one support which wasn’t available under the legacy system, and that’s a message I get from claimants when I talk to them.”
There are currently 30 food banks in County Durham.
Stuart Hall, Manager of County Durham food banks , said: “We have seen an increase in food bank usage, we can’t blame everything on Universal Credit but certainly part of it is down to that.”
” It’s not just a food bank issue it is a socio-economic issue because it has a knock on effect with everything else, with debt and rent arrears.
“We know that private landlords are not very keen on the Universal Credit system especially for housing benefit.”
Claimants can get an advanced payment while they wait for their claim to go through, however they will start paying it back as soon as they receive their first payment.
Stuart said: “They can get an advance payment which many do but not all realise it is for rent, council tax and all your priority debts so a lot of that is spent on food, energy costs and sometimes people don’t pay their rent, don’t pay their Council Tax and the big knock on effect is when they come out the other side.”
The Trussel Trust foundation work on voucher system in their food banks, where people can get up to three vouchers in a six month period and they will receive food that will last them up to three days.
However, the foundation also offers help with debt advice, housing advice or even just a place where people can talk to someone about what is happening.
Stuart said: “Feedback from the clients is they tend to find when they come along and they are not being judged, we’re not telling them what to do, what they have to do, we sit and listen to their situation over a cup of tea, just having a good chat.”
“We can also sign people up to get further help and within some of our food banks we have other services available, we have debt advice, we also have housing advice, health and well-being advice, energy advice so its a bit of a one-stop shop.”
Paul James, who came to the food bank and is on Universal Credit, said: “I was new to the area and had no one to help me when I was universal credit and I started coming to the food bank.
“The food bank helped ease the problems as I nearly got evicted from my home.”
With the government planning to have everyone switched onto Universal Credit by 2023, who knows what the future holds for low-income families in Britain.