Universal Credit – foodbank figures should shame the government

We look at how the unprecedented increase in foodbank use in the UK has been a direct consequence of the disastrous rollout of Universal Credit

The latest annual figures on foodbank use, published by the Trussell Trust in April, should shame the government. The last 12 months have been the busiest in the charity’s history with 1.6 million emergency three-day food parcels given out, over half a million of which went to children. This is a 19% increase on the previous year and a staggering 73% over the past five years.

For a country as wealthy as ours this is a national disgrace. At the heart of this disgraceful situation is the rolling back of the welfare state, culminating in a system that punishes people rather than helping them. Tinkering around the edges of our social security system isn’t the answer; we need radical reform.

For the most part, the unprecedented increase in foodbank use has been laid squarely at the door of the disastrous rollout of Universal Credit (UC). The in-built 5-week wait, the benefit freeze and the millions of pounds of cuts to work allowances have pushed claimants to the brink. In the first 12 months in areas where UC was introduced foodbank use rocketed by 52%; this is four times higher than in areas where UC is yet to be rolled out.

During Christmas last year, we were subjected to the grotesque spectacle of Conservative MPs posing for photos at foodbanks. Clutching packets of supermarket value pasta and tinned beans, grinning MPs had the cheek to praise the work done by foodbanks in feeding families who, thanks to brutal Tory cuts to social security, cannot afford to eat. The existence of even one foodbank in the sixth richest country on earth should keep the Tories awake at night but instead they use them for a PR opportunity.

Struggle to keep a home

Families are not only struggling to put food in their bellies but they’re also struggling to keep a roof over their heads. Three quarters of tenants on UC are in rent arrears, compared to one in three of all other tenants. Over the last 12 months, nearly a third of landlords have evicted UC tenants with 77% of those cases due to rent arrears, which in itself is a 64% increase on the previous year. Universal Credit has heaped unnecessary suffering onto millions and as a union we are calling on an incoming Labour government to scrap it alongside a radical programme of reform.

UC is just one facet of the nearly 40 year-long assault on the welfare state and the principles that underpin it. The right-wing rhetoric that has ravaged the welfare state for decades was first peddled by Thatcher’s government and to the disgust of many, New Labour willingly capitulated to that same destructive rhetoric.

There has been a pernicious strategy of divide and rule as those who are unable to work are pitted against those who are in work; the disabled are pitted against the able-bodied; migrant workers pitted against indigenous workers. This tactic of sowing deep divisions in society – often among those living on, below or just above the poverty line – has been hugely successful in cultivating support for benefit cuts. Since 2010 alone, £34 billion has been slashed with a further £22 billion by next year.

The effects of these cuts have been devastating: 14 million people are in poverty – including 4 million children and as we have recently learned, a record number of food parcels were given to starving families. Scandalously, it was revealed last month that MPs are to launch an inquiry in to what’s known as “survival sex” – destitute benefit claimants turning to prostitution to pay rent or feed their families.

PCS members are at the sharp end of delivering social security and are sometimes unfairly portrayed as the villain of the piece. They want to work in a system that best serves the people who use it just as much as anybody else but are hamstrung by government policies that are hell-bent on inflicting more and more misery onto claimants. Our members are dedicated and hardworking, they know what is best for claimants and the government should be doing so much more to utilise their knowledge and expertise.

Poverty wages are another way in which the vital work done by our members are seriously undermined. Chronically low pay has seen civil service workers treated worse in terms of pay than any other public sector area. Some of our members in the Department for Work and Pensions, who deal with vulnerable benefit claimants on a daily basis, are so poorly paid that they themselves are struggling to feed and house themselves.

In parliament in January we launched our new pamphlet: Social Security: the case for radical change, alongside shadow chancellor John McDonnell and benefit campaign organisations. We believe it is in our member’s and wider society’s best interests that a Corbyn-led government grasp the opportunity to radically transform our social security system.

The jaw-dropping statistics released by the Trussell Trust should serve as a reminder of the urgent need for bold and brave action. What is required is a Beveridge Report fit for the 21st century.

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