POINT OF OR­DER

The Sentinel - - NEWS - Phil Cor­ri­gan – Po­lit­i­cal Re­porter

FOR many of us Christmas is a time when we stuff our­selves on tur­key, mince pies and choco­late to the point of bliss­ful in­sen­si­bil­ity.

But it will be a very dif­fer­ent story for hun­dreds of fam­i­lies in North Stafford­shire, who will need a trip to their near­est food­bank to en­sure there is any­thing to eat at all over the fes­tive pe­riod.

This year has seen a big in­crease in the num­ber of peo­ple ac­cess­ing help at Stoke-on-trent Food­bank – 5,683 re­ceived food parcels be­tween April and Septem­ber, up from 4,144 in the same six-month spell in 2017.

Un­til this year there had been a grad­ual de­cline in the food­bank use, with the num­ber of peo­ple re­ceiv­ing three-day food sup­plies fall­ing from 11,038 in 2015/16 to 9,532 in 2017/18. If the cur­rent surge in de­mand con­tin­ues, more than 13,000 parcels will have been dis­trib­uted by the end of March, mak­ing 2018/19 the char­ity’s busiest year ever.

Many peo­ple. in­clud­ing the Trus­sel Trust, which co-or­di­nates the na­tional food­bank net­work, say this in­crease has been caused by the roll-out of Uni­ver­sal Credit.

The con­tro­ver­sial ben­e­fit sys­tem has been as­so­ci­ated with five-week waits for pay­ments and other prob­lems, which crit­ics say is leav­ing thou­sands of claimants des­ti­tute and re­liant on hand­outs.

‘Full ser­vice’ of UC be­gan in Stoke-on-trent in June, and since then the num­ber of peo­ple claim­ing the ben­e­fit has al­most tripled from 1,575 to 4,553.

Cor­re­la­tion does not nec­es­sar­ily im­ply cau­sa­tion, and so the link be­tween UC and food­bank use should be treated with cau­tion.

But it does seem to be more than a co­in­ci­dence. Last year nearly half of those re­ceiv­ing food parcels in Stoke-on-trent cited ben­e­fit de­lays or prob­lems as the rea­son for their poverty.

The num­ber of peo­ple claim­ing UC in Stokeon-trent is in­creas­ing by hun­dreds ev­ery month, and from next Wed­nes­day, full ser­vice will be­gin in New­cas­tle and Kidsgrove as well. This means many peo­ple in North Stafford­shire will be getting their first ex­pe­ri­ence of UC in the days im­me­di­ately be­fore Christmas – which pre­sum­ably won’t be the most won­der­ful time of the year for them.

But the sad thing is, it need not be this way. There is noth­ing in­her­ently wrong with UC, or at least there’s noth­ing wrong with the gen­eral ap­proach UC takes.

UC com­bines six ex­ist­ing ben­e­fits into a sin­gle, monthly pay­ment, which is meant to ta­per off as claimants earn more.

The logic be­hind this is sound – the wel­fare sys­tem needed to be sim­pli­fied, and it should help claimants be­come less de­pen­dent, by en­sur­ing they will never be worse off in work than they would be on ben­e­fits.

The prob­lem is that the UC sys­tem that has been im­ple­mented is far too stingy, mean­ing it is clearly not work­ing as in­tended. Ris­ing food­bank use shows that de­pen­dence is not fall­ing, it’s just that poor peo­ple are de­pen­dent on char­ity rather than the state.

To be fair to the Gov­ern­ment, they have lis­tened to the com­plaints and changes have been made. Chan­cel­lor Philip Ham­mond, be­low, an­nounced £1 bil­lion of ex­tra sup­port for claimants in his re­cent Bud­get, although this will be too late to help those mov­ing onto the ben­e­fit this Christmas. Rather than re­spond­ing to the com­plaints about UC by tweak­ing the sys­tem ev­ery six months or so, it would have been far bet­ter to have en­sured that it was fit for pur­pose to be­gin with. That could have spared thou­sands of peo­ple un­nec­es­sary hard­ship.

Our wel­fare sys­tem needed re­form­ing, there can be lit­tle doubt about that. But push­ing through changes need­lessly quickly for nakedly ide­o­log­i­cal rea­sons will only har­den op­po­si­tion, and make it more dif­fi­cult to cre­ate a sys­tem that ac­tu­ally works in fu­ture.

‘ The Uni­ver­sal Credit sys­tem that has been im­ple­mented is far too stingy, mean­ing it is not work­ing as in­tended ’

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