As Universal Credit rolls out across the country, we have been checking in regularly with a foodbank in an area which is transitioning to UC to see if there has been any noticeable impact on the number of families with children using their services. In our final instalment of this series, Linda, who runs a food bank in a Northern city, reflects on the last six months and the future that lies ahead for children and families on UC.
This is the first time we’ve spoken to Linda since the Department for Work and Pensions took out a four-page “advertisement feature” in the Metro.
“They called it ‘Universal Credit Uncovered’”, Linda tells me. “It made me very cross because they said they were setting the record straight and dispelling the myths. But the fact is the 5 week wait is longer than 5 weeks.
“A woman visited us yesterday who has been waiting 8 weeks and still doesn’t have a date for the first payment. She’s in debt and can’t make a payment plan with creditors because she doesn’t know when she will have money coming in.”
This individual story illuminates some troubling statistics.
Nationally, Linda’s organisation has seen a 13% increase in foodbank use. On a local level, the city where Linda works where UC has been rolling out, has seen an increase of 30%.
Looking back over the last 6 months, Linda believes the increase in foodbank usage is due to UC.
“For every person who comes to us, we collect data on why they are here. And Universal Credit is the main reason. We are left dealing with this extra influx because people have nowhere else to go.”
“We’ve heard of people with disabilities who are disputing their claims waiting 50 weeks for an appeal date. We don’t want people to be dependent on us, but they have no choice.”
And there’s no doubt in Linda’s mind how UC is affecting children. In fact, single people with children are the most over represented cohort in her foodbank users.
But there’s also a hidden impact of UC beyond the waiting times.
“33% of people come in because their benefits don’t cover the basic costs of living. People are ticking ‘low income’ on their referral forms, but they are already on UC, so even when they do get on, it’s not enough.”
“This has become acceptable. But it shouldn’t be what’s going on.”
So looking ahead, what does Linda want to see happen?
“The most urgent thing is to stop the 5 week wait. The advance payment the DWP advertise is in fact a loan that you have to pay off across subsequent payments. So people are starting off in debt.”
“And stopping the benefit cap will take children out of poverty, there is no doubt about it.”
While the DWP is seeking to change public perceptions with its UC myth-busting adverts, over the last six months we have heard contradictory stories from the lived experiences of vulnerable families.
And Linda’s final thought?
“This is a job that we’d like there to be no need for. But children are going hungry. It’s not a myth – it’s a fact.”