“I lost my job in October and have been relying on money from friends and family to survive, but that is no longer possible. I haven’t eaten for five days and will not get Universal Credit for six weeks, so went to the council in desperation – they gave me a foodbank voucher. Thank you to the foodbank.”
This is just one of the many stories gathered by Trussell Trust foodbank volunteers and staff that we passed on to the Work & Pensions Select Committee inquiry into Universal Credit, publicised through press and social media, and I’ve had the opportunity to share directly with people at all levels of DWP ahead of the 2017 Budget.
It’s a credit to the people that run foodbanks in our network that alongside distributing a record 584,000 food parcels in the six months since April this year, they have also been able to gather and share such powerful evidence. Their careful counting and filing of foodbank referral vouchers also revealed how much more quickly foodbank demand is rising in areas where Universal Credit has seen full roll-out.
We were just one organisation amongst many calling for urgent reform and investment into Universal Credit, the most radical change to our welfare system for at least a generation. But I’m convinced that the evidence from foodbanks, including those not in The Trussell Trust network, was important in helping to secure £1.5bn to ‘ease the roll-out’ of Universal Credit in the Budget. Indeed, in the first of a recent series of Commons debates on Universal Credit, foodbanks were mentioned by dozens of MPs.
For a long time, many foodbanks have been doing a lot more than just the crucial work of distributing emergency food to people in crisis. Wednesday’s concessions by the Chancellor are, at least in small part, testament to that desire to campaign against the structural issues that drive people into poverty, hunger and through the doors of their local foodbank.
We of course welcomed the reforms to Universal Credit announced in the Budget. Shortening the six-week wait, allowing Housing Benefit to run on and easing repayment of benefit advances make the system better and, when implemented, will likely save thousands of people from misery and destitution as they transition onto the new benefit. Slowing its roll-out will also help.
But this is not a time for celebration.
Despite this investment, Universal Credit is not fixed. Five weeks is better than six, but that’s still going to be too long for many people without savings or other support to endure before they receive the money to which they are entitled. Benefit advances are still loans that must be repaid. Amongst a host of other recommended reforms the Resolution Foundation call for a more generous work allowance, and the JRF point out that the ongoing four-year benefit freeze will leave vulnerable groups, including single parents with children, worse off than before.
And though £1.5bn is an enormous sum, it is dwarfed by the scale of cuts to the welfare safety net in recent years. Alongside the benefit freeze mentioned above, tens of billions of pounds have been taken out of the welfare safety net in recent years. Little wonder, then, that Trussell Trust foodbanks are seeing increasing demand. In recent years issues with benefits have always been the main reason referrers send people to foodbanks.
And recent independent research by the University of Oxford into households referred to foodbanks (with data taken before Universal Credit had rolled out very far) painted a picture of a population already struggling financially to get by, vulnerable to the slightest income shock or unexpected expense. It found the majority of people coming to foodbanks were at the time supported by working-age benefits, and that groups that have been hardest hit by cuts were overrepresented in our foodbanks – including disabled people, single parents, single people and families with more than two children.
And worse, inflation – particularly food price inflation – is beginning to rise. How are families and individuals going to cope if we know so many are already vulnerable to unexpected expenses? Employment rates are currently at a record high – what would happen if an economic shock put that welcome trend into reverse? And looming over everything, what effect will Brexit have on the UK’s economy?
We at The Trussell Trust, people in the wider foodbank movement, and those who we proudly stand beside in the End Hunger UK campaign group, other organisations in the charity sector and beyond will keep on campaigning to tackle the issues that lead to poverty and hunger. But I fear that this winter will be a very difficult one for thousands of people across the UK. I have no doubt that come April next year The Trussell Trust will yet again announce record numbers have been referred to us for emergency food in 2017-18.
But to not end on too gloomy a note, this Budget and its significant concessions on welfare are something new. Government has listened to the many voices calling for a reverse to cuts and it has put its money where its mouth is. After many years and subsequent administrations have weakened the safety net that is meant to protect us from destitution and hunger, this is a substantial step in the right direction.
So let’s keep gathering evidence. Let’s keep sharing it with Government. Let’s keep campaigning. This Budget is proof that it can and does work.