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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.

 

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We smile, offer a cuppa and have a wee chat: what’s it actually like inside a foodbank?

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If you’ve caught any news over the past few years, you’ve probably heard a fair bit about the rise in foodbank use.

But it’s hard to imagine what a foodbank is actually like if you’ve never been inside one.

I run Hamilton District Foodbank. We work across Hamilton and Blantyre in South Lanarkshire, and have been giving emergency food to people referred to us since 2013 – in 2016-17 we provided 4,015 food supplies to local people. But like so many other foodbanks in The Trussell Trust’s network, we offer a lot more than emergency food.

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As the cold weather bites, how do we ensure everyone has enough money for fuel?

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“I am constantly writing letters and making phone calls to see what help or advice I can get. I am at breaking point, as each day there is something else to contend with. I feel helpless, mentally exhausted and so low. I really don’t know what I am going to do. I cannot get by month to month. It’s hard enough doing it week to week on a low income. I can’t afford to use my heating, even though it is so cold and my son suffers with his chest and lungs. No doubt he will end up in hospital during this cold period.”

This Fuel Poverty Awareness Day, we want to want to raise awareness not only of fuel poverty, but also the responses, both amongst local communities and through policy, that can stem the tide.

Foodbanks in The Trussell Trust’s network don’t currently measure how many people come through their doors facing fuel poverty. The University of Oxford research however, found that half of people at foodbanks can’t afford to heat their homes and households referred to foodbanks had, on average, £319 of income in the month preceding their referral and 1/5 of people still needing to pay housing costs over and above this. Even with housing benefit added in, this falls well below low income thresholds, and far below median income. Half of people at foodbanks were disabled, and 75% had a health condition, all making it more difficult to keep up with energy costs.

We asked foodbanks in our network how they were tackling this issue, and the results were both inspiring and heart-breaking. Inspiring, because it shows the sheer strength in communities coming together to help protect local people. Heart-breaking, because they highlight how people are restrained by the lack of help available, locked into a cycle of low incomes and high bills.

At least a quarter of Trussell Trust foodbanks were offering some help to make sure people weren’t left scrimping to keep the lights on, or having to sit in cold homes: from providing fuel vouchers, warm clothes and hot water bottles, to redistributing donated Winter Fuel Allowance funds, supporting communications with energy suppliers, providing signposting and advice, and even creating oil purchasing cooperatives.

We know there is good help out there – each energy provider has their own scheme to help people who are vulnerable or fuel-poor, and local authorities have schemes to help people struggling with energy costs. The Fuel Bank, our partnership with npower, has provided over 120,000 people on pre-payment meters help with their fuel costs, and has made a measurable difference in the lives of people who hit crisis. Yet, only 60% of foodbanks identified some sort of support being provided by their local authority, and much of this was not easy to access, nor long-term. And all the while, people are still referred to foodbanks up and down the country having not eaten a hot meal, or taken a hot shower in weeks.

We need to fix this, now.

This week, The Trussell Trust has submitted its response to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s consultation on fuel poverty, in support of an amendment to legislation which would allow data companies to receive information about people’s benefit status, in order to place them on a safeguard tariff automatically. We know that people often don’t access the help available because it isn’t targeted to them, or they are simply hiding in plain sight – skipping meals or sitting in the dark. This would go a long way to solve that.

This Fuel Poverty Awareness Day, we’re calling for:

  • ‘Data matching’ between public authorities and energy companies, as proposed in the Government’s latest BEI consultation on fuel poverty measures
  • Maintaining safeguard tariffs or ‘price caps’ per unit of energy
  • Simplifying access to Warm Home Discounts to help vulnerable groups who may be disengaged
  • A standardised or comparable measure of fuel poverty across the UK
  • More targeted financial support for people facing fuel poverty to avoid ‘self-disconnection’
  • Increased statutory provision of energy efficiency measures to fuel poor households
  • Increased coordination, and improved accessibility, of energy and debt advice from local authorities and Jobcentres for vulnerable or hard to reach groups
  • A review of the impact of the Fuel Poverty and Health Booster Fund

You can read our Parliamentary briefing here.

Abby Jitendra, Senior Policy & Press Officer 

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Putting food on the table: the human right to eat in the fifth richest country in the world

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As a society, we believe in justice and compassion. That, as we grow up, we should have the same chance to get on and succeed in life – whether we’re from the Cheshire countryside, or the potteries of Stoke-on-Trent.

For most of us, this starts with having enough to eat, proper clothing, and a safe place to call home. But what happens when we can’t put enough food on the table? Who can – and should – step in to help?

 

Food poverty exists in Britain.

Here in Britain, one in five children suffer from what UNICEF call ‘food insecurity.’ This means that their families lack secure access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food. More than eight million British adults struggle to get enough to eat, and almost five million of us have gone whole days without eating.

These are quite shocking figures. But the most surprising thing about them is the indifference that they have inspired in our government’s welfare policy. Despite our uncertain access to the most basic resources we need to survive, the government today are taking support away, rather than giving more out. Last year it was confirmed that working age benefits would stay frozen until 2020. It is estimated that this will reduce the overall welfare budget by about £13bn in real terms, just at the time when our country needs it the most.

 

We have a human right to food.

But in the last few years, more and more members of the legal community have started to question the legality of these cuts. While a democratically elected government can and should enact the laws that they please, once these policies start to impact people’s ability to access adequate and healthy food for themselves and their families, this becomes an issue of rights more than policy.

Under international law, the government have an obligation to put in place the infrastructure to provide food for those who cannot provide it for themselves and if the policies of this current government are failing to do this, then they are affecting our ability to enjoy our human right to food.

 

What is the human right to food?

In 1976, Britain ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).  This means that our Government legally recognises “the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger” (Article 11).

This also means that our Government must act to secure the human right that:

“Whenever individuals or groups are unable, for reasons beyond their control, to enjoy the right to food by the means at their disposal, States have the obligation to fulfil (provide) it, for example by providing food assistance or ensuring social safety nets for the most deprived.”

Jonathan Butterworth, an advisor to the British Institute of Human Rights, explains this commitment in incredibly plain terms. He says that “the Government is legally required by the ICESCR to secure the human right to adequate food for everyone in the UK”.

But the government are failing to do this. Cuts in welfare allowances and the lengthy waiting times associated with Universal Credit have all but stripped our country of its ‘social safety net’. While the government would have you believe that this is an issue of policy and economics, it is also an issue of the law. The government have made these obligations, and they are legally bound to fulfil them.

 

The recession

The government’s justification, though, is the trade deficit. They say that the country’s finances are so dire that there are no other options but to cut back on welfare and that the rise in food insecurity is an unfortunate side-effect of our budget deficit. But even when our country needs to tighten its belt, our human right to food must still legally be met. As Professor Geraldine van Bueren says

“Where a State faces severe resource constraints caused by a process of economic adjustment or recession, measures should be undertaken to ensure that the right to adequate food is especially fulfilled for vulnerable population groups and individuals.”

In Britain today though, statistics show that it is organisations like The Trussell Trust that have stepped in to help these vulnerable individuals. But while food banks are doing a fantastic job, they should not be the ones plugging the holes left by the welfare state. To solve hunger, the government are required to recognise and adhere to their responsibilities under international law.

 

The Government needs to act.

Our human right to food means that the Government needs to act. Right now, there are millions of people in this country who do not enjoy their human right to food, as described by the UN and ratified by the UK.

This is more than an issue of policy. It’s an issue of human rights and human decency. As a society, we have a moral responsibility to make sure that everyone has enough to eat. And as a signatory to ICESCR, our Government has a legal one.

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Why working with Asda & FareShare will help bring us closer to ending the need for foodbanks

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It’s simply not acceptable that so many people in the UK face hunger, and we won’t sit by whilst increasing numbers of people are expected to hit crisis and need a foodbank’s help.

We’re committed to creating long term change, challenging the structural issues that lock people into poverty and seeing an end to the need for foodbanks. Whilst we work on this, we’re also committed to ensuring everyone referred to a foodbank in our network receives the best possible support.

That’s why we’re pleased to announce a new partnership between Asda, FareShare and The Trussell Trust in a three-year programme that will help to tackle hunger in the UK in a number of ways.

Firstly, it will provide grant opportunities directly to foodbanks in our network, helping projects to access more training, volunteer resources, support and funding to provide not only emergency food to people referred, but even wider support to move out of crisis.

Crucially, the funding will also help us to enhance our More Than Food projects, offering more support to people at the point of crisis and helping rebuild community and dignity for people locked into hunger and poverty. Projects like our six week budget cookery course and holiday clubs provide more holistic support, and more funding for training volunteers will mean people can get targeted advice when they need it most.

We’re excited that the partnership will support the development of a fresh food delivery structure with food redistribution charity FareShare, giving more foodbanks in our network the opportunity to offer fresh food alongside the standard emergency food parcel to people referred.

Whilst all of this additional support will make a real difference to people at foodbanks in the immediate future, we will continue to unwaveringly speak truth to power, gathering robust evidence and raising awareness of the lived experience of people in poverty, so we can tackle the root causes of hunger in the long term. Over the last two years, our landmark research into hunger and poverty has already started to shed a light on why so many people are unable to afford food, and we’re pleased that this funding will support our research into the drivers of food insecurity and foodbank use over the next three years.

At the moment too many people across our society are facing hunger and that’s just not right. But it doesn’t have to be an inevitable part of Britain’s future. There are thousands of foodbank volunteers on the ground across the country, determined to ensure no one in their community goes hungry, and we’re privileged to be able to work alongside them to offer the best possible support to people whilst at the same time working towards a future where everyone is able to afford food. This funding will enable local communities to do this even more effectively.

We’re here to end hunger in the UK.

 

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Why does having a disability or health issue make you more likely to face hunger?

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“I was sanctioned because I missed an appointment at the Job Centre.  I was severely depressed, and sometimes when I am like that I can’t leave the flat.  My electric has almost run out so I can’t heat water and I am having a light on as little as possible. I know the cause of my depression and anxiety but I can’t get any free counselling or help.”

Mick’s* account of his struggle to keep his benefits in payment is typical of many of those we hear at Exeter Foodbank.  Disclosing personal details to strangers, filling out complex paperwork or navigating call centre phone systems can be daunting for anyone.  For those, like Mick, who suffer from chronic mental health conditions, or have limited literacy and digital skills, it can be a Herculean step too far.  Many arrive at our foodbank’s doors in desperate circumstances, with nowhere else to turn.

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We can’t end hunger without knowing its scale

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Until you understand the true magnitude of a problem, you cannot effectively solve it. That’s why this week, as part of End Hunger UK, a coalition of organisations trying to eliminate hunger, we released figures on the scale of hidden hunger in this country. The findings are shocking. Over 1 in 10 adults are skipping meals because of lack of money. When you look at parents with children aged 18 and under, that rises to 1 in 4.

To anyone who has spent any time in a foodbank, however, these findings will not be a surprise. What is happening up and down the country is mirrored in our network of over 400 foodbanks.

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Dave Magill, Area Manager for Northern Ireland reflects on the ‘reality of foodbanks’

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I’ve now worked for Trussell Trust for 7 months. I had another of what I think of as my ‘reality of foodbank’ moments today.

We were in a meeting with someone who wanted information about how a Trussell Trust foodbank works. As we explained the model that we use, causes of food poverty and talked through some statistics of foodbank use in Northern Ireland and the wider UK network, I was again experiencing the contrast of feeling that comes with this job.

Working with foodbanks is simultaneously saddening, infuriating, uplifting and inspiring. Working with people of such passion and commitment to serving and helping those in crisis in their community is humbling and challenging. Engaging with the causes and reality of food poverty in 21st century Northern Ireland is shocking and crushing.

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Foodbanks in 2017: Change is Possible

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Read the new report Emergency Use Only II 

Three years ago, CPAG and the Trussell Trust were among the organisations who published Emergency Use Only, one of the first pieces of research to shed light on the drivers of the enormous increases in food bank use that we have seen this decade. We found that the immediate trigger for food bank use was all-too-often caused by the benefit system – through delays, errors, and sanctions – that prompted an acute income crisis, leaving households with little or no income. Turning to a food bank was often an action of last resort, once people’s other avenues of support had been exhausted.

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We welcomed changes in the Budget but now is not a time for celebration

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“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.

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