POINT OF ORDER
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 ’