Yes, Universal Credit should make work pay – but the benefits system must protect us all from hunger

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Garry Lemon, Head of External Affairs at The Trussell Trust:

Since its inception we have supported – and still support – the key principles of Universal Credit. We agree that a simplified benefits system that is easier to navigate would help millions of people across the UK. We agree that work should always pay for those supported by this new benefit.

But there is a third principle that must underpin our entire welfare state: it must provide enough money for those who need it to afford the basics – at the very least, food and shelter. As a nation, we expect no one should be left hungry or destitute. Illness, disability, family breakdown or the loss of a job can happen to any of us. We owe it to ourselves to ensure sufficient financial support is there when we need it most.

Yet figures and research we release today reveal that for more and more people, financial support from benefits is not enough for them to make ends meet. Instead of being helped back onto their feet, or being able to live a dignified life, people who need support are locked into debt, hunger, destitution and misery.

Last year The Trussell Trust distributed a record 1.33million emergency food packages to people referred to our foodbanks, an increase of 13% compared to the year before. Where Universal Credit – the future of our benefits system – has seen full roll-out, demand for emergency food is rising even more sharply.

Data gathered by our foodbank volunteers shows this acceleration in demand for emergency food is being driven by people who are not currently earning, and are meant to be supported by benefits. A survey of hundreds of people in foodbanks claiming Universal Credit shows that only 8% found their cost of living covered. For people with a disability, that number drops to just 5%.

We collected stories of a stroke victim left with nothing when discharged from hospital as their benefits were stopped, a woman whose husband suffers PTSD with no money for the electric meter, a diabetic with no money to eat, even a mother who considered giving up her own two children while she waited for her Universal Credit to come in so that they could finally get some food.

Tens of billions of pounds have been taken out of our welfare system in recent years and this process shows no sign of stopping. This year will see the biggest benefit cuts since 2012 with the ongoing benefit freeze, a two child limit for benefit claims, cuts to tax credits and rollout of Universal Credit which has lower entitlements for long term sick people and working families in particular.

We see the consequences of these policy decisions every day in our foodbanks up and down the UK. Three quarters of households using foodbanks have someone with a health condition or disability. Families with children, especially single parents, are overrepresented – exactly the groups of people that are more likely to need the protection of an effective benefits safety net.

With hundreds of thousands of men, women and children needing emergency food last year, the scale of this problem might seem insurmountable. But it was in large part policy decisions that got us into this situation, and it will be policy decisions that will be the driving force behind getting us out.

In the last Autumn Budget the Chancellor announced £1.5billion was to be put back into the Universal Credit system to shorten waiting times and ease repayment of benefit advances. Recently it was announced that 18 to 21-year-olds would again be able to claim housing benefit.  Though not a silver bullet, these decisions from government will make a real difference to thousands of people who might otherwise have fallen into poverty and hunger.

But we must go further.  Like any other vital emergency service, we need a benefit system that can be relied upon when we need it. There are actions that can be taken to move us towards that, starting with an end to the ongoing benefit freeze and better support for people claiming Universal Credit, which too often leaves people in deep financial crisis through poor administration and inadequate communication and support for claimants.

Yes, Universal Credit should make work pay. Yes, the system should be simplified. But we must never lose sight of that third principle – a welfare state that protects everyone from poverty and hunger.