Bishop calls for reform of under-fire Universal Credit

THE BISHOP of Dover is calling on the UK Government to ‘fix Universal Credit’.

He highlighted the latest figures by the Trussell Trust, an NGO that co-ordinates the only nationwide network of food banks in the country, which revealed that the number of people receiving emergency food in East Kent is up by 23 per cent since last year.

He is encouraging churches to collect signatures and sign a petition brought by the End Hunger UK campaign calling for increased flexibility for claimants.

“I have signed the End Hunger UK petition, calling on the Government to fix Universal Credit to prevent more people going hungry,” said Bishop Trevor Willmott, “and I would like to encourage parishes and churchgoers across the diocese to do the same.”

He explained that more and more people are finding that they have had to turn to food banks following the introduction of Universal Credit.

“They’re reporting unintended delays, lack of digital support, poor administration, and a lack of flexibility in the system. All of these problems can and must be resolved,” he said.

In his diocese of Canterbury alone, there are five Trussell Trust food banks, which last year distributed more than 9,000 emergency food parcels to people in crisis – more than 3,500 of those went to children.

“There are also at least 31 independent food banks, which are quietly making a huge difference to people, helping them to put food on their tables and avoid hunger for one more day.

“Our churches are doing remarkable work, helping to meet the need in their neighbourhoods – but this will only ever address the symptoms of the problem, not the cause,” said Bishop Willmott.

“We need urgent action to improve the flexibility and support for people on Universal Credit, and a long-term commitment that the social security system will provide enough income to afford good food on a regular basis. Without such action, we can expect to see more and more people turning to food banks and becoming trapped in poverty, as Universal Credit continues to roll out across our nation.”

The Trussell Trust reported a 52 per cent increase in food bank use in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out, as well as rising debt, destitution and hunger.

The petition will be delivered to the Prime Minister in the lead-up to the Budget in November.

The petition is calling for better training for staff and increased flexibility for claimants by July 2019. End Hunger UK maintain that debt advice should be included as part of Universal Support.

They are also demanding more flexibility in applications, with more scope for telephone applications. They also want increased awareness and implementation of Alternative Payment Arrangements and focused training for all staff including work coaches and call centre staff.

They say that in the medium term, ways to reduce the risk of debt and destitution should be found by reducing the level of loan repayments from 40 per cent to 10 per cent; reducing the wait time for payment from five weeks to two weeks; and introducing ‘true’ yellow cards for sanctions.

In the long term, the campaign is calling for the Government to restore essential benefits including disability benefits and bring their levels up to the real cost of living and increase Universal Credit levels to the real cost of living.

According to new data from The Trussell Trust, an increase in demand for emergency food for children drove increased foodbank need during the summer holidays last year.

The number of supplies given to adults decreased slightly in the summer months, whereas the level of support needed for children was markedly higher: during July and August 2017, The Trussell Trust’s network of over 420 foodbanks provided over 204,525 three day emergency supplies, 74,011 of which went to children.

In comparison, during May and June 2017 70,510 supplies went to children.

Over a third of all food distributed by the foodbank network throughout the year goes to children, but there is extra financial pressure to provide main meals during the school holidays for families who rely on free school meals during term time.

Last year’s report from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger estimated the loss of free school meals during the holidays adds between £30 and £40 a week to parents’ outgoings.

Samantha Stapley, director of operations at The Trussell Trust, said: “Foodbanks cannot, and must not, be a long term solution to hunger at any time of year. No one should face going hungry, and although our network will be doing all they can this summer to help families struggling to make the money they have stretch to cover the essentials, no charity can replace people having enough money for the basics.

“There are changes we can make as a nation to help during the holidays, but if we are to protect each other from hunger whatever the time of year, we have to go further than that. We know particular groups of people are most likely to need a foodbank, so let’s make sure no one is swept into destitution.

“Our benefits system can, and must, act as an anchor to protect people from being pulled into poverty,” she added.