Foodbanks, Universal Credit, and the hostile environment for people who are poor

By Bernadette Meaden
April 24, 2018

In 2013 Theresa May said, “we can deport first and hear appeals later”.  It would appear that when the government embarked upon welfare reform, a similar approach was taken – one that could be characterised as ‘let them go hungry first and somebody will set up a foodbank later’.

By definition, welfare reform was always going to have the biggest impact on the most disadvantaged people. Anyone with any sense of responsibility would have proceeded with caution. We know that didn’t happen. Indeed, when disabled people reeling from multiple cuts petitioned for a cumulative impact assessment, the government ( wrongly )said it couldn’t be done.

But when unmistakable signs of harm and distress began to show, any government with a sense of decency would have investigated. Even if politicians were unwilling to publicly concede that their policies were starving people, in private surely they would want to know the truth? Apparently not.

Along with the rise in people sleeping and dying on our streets, the most visible sign of harm has been the proliferation of foodbanks. Several weeks ago I wrote about a remarkable interview with DWP Minister Kit Malthouse, in which he was asked about foodbank use in the North West. He displayed a sort of detached, insouciant curiosity, as he declared foodbanks "an interesting phenomenon."

This prompted Harry Lewis to submit a Freedom of Information request to the DWP, to determine what efforts it had made to understand the rise of foodbanks. Harry kindly shared the response with me.

The effort, it emerged, was minimal to non-existent. The DWP said, “The Department has not commissioned any research into the phenomenon of food banks in the last five years.” and “The Department has not completed any new in-house research into the phenomenon of food banks in the last five years…”.

Think about it. You undertake, ‘the biggest shake up of the welfare state in sixty years’. As this shake up gains pace, there are reports of people unable to eat, and foodbanks begin to proliferate across the country. Supermarkets set up collection points for donated food. And yet, with all the resources you have available, over five years you make no effort to investigate whether the policies you are implementing are in any way responsible for this. Never mind ‘deport first, hear the appeal later’, this is ‘let people go hungry first, let somebody else worry about it later’. This, from the department which is supposed to be providing social security.

The DWP did say it is aware of the work of Dr. Rachel Loopstra and Kayleigh Garthwaite, so why Mr Malthouse would have said that no serious work has been done, one can only wonder. And, at this very late stage, it will "consider requirements to add to its evidence base” although it has “no current tenders for research into food banks.”

Even if the DWP commissioned research today, it would be many months before any meaningful work was produced – but really, it is unnecessary. We have more than enough information to know that foodbank use is overwhelmingly driven by government policies, the toxic combination of welfare reform and austerity which has reduced the incomes of the poorest to below subsistence level.

Today, the Trussell Trust revealed that the number of emergency food parcels it distributed last year increased by 13 per cent on the previous year. But for Universal Credit (UC), the figures were much worse. "New analysis of foodbanks that have been in full UC rollout areas for a year or more shows that these projects experienced an average increase of 52 per cent in the twelve months after the full rollout date in their area. And let’s not forget, there are many hundreds of independent food aid providers outside the Trussell Trust network, so these figures are only a part of the picture.

The data released by the Trust places the responsibility for hunger and foodbank use squarely at the feet of the government, with a “growing proportion of foodbank referrals due to benefit levels not covering the costs of essentials”. Benefits are simply too low to live on.

Alongside the figures, the Trust also published, Left Behind: Is Universal Credit Truly Universal? This makes for harrowing reading. Drawing on the experience of Universal Credit claimants, the report reveals a system that is crushing many people with inappropriate and punitive conditionality, particularly those who are sick or disabled.

Universal Credit is not only driving up foodbank use, but increasing demands on the NHS.  "People specifically reported more visits to their GP as a result of coping with demands of claiming UC. One person explained, that they had 'gone under the doctor and been given antidepressants to help me cope' and another person reported 'going to the doctors in a constant worry which effects mental and physical health.’"  The Trust also found, "pre-existing health conditions were being exacerbated as they could not afford appropriate food, medication, or care. One respondent, who was currently waiting for their first payment, wrote:  ‘I am insulin dependent, not having money to purchase food affects my physical and mental  health'."

And did anybody ever imagine that, in the UK, we would see a person starting chemotherapy in need of emergency food aid, because they could not meet their Claimant Commitment?

Meanwhile, the DWP “will consider requirements to add to its evidence base” as this disaster unfolds.

For years the scapegoating of migrants and the ‘hostile environment’ was to some people a vote winner, and to others a matter which did not affect them and therefore of little concern. Then the Windrush fiasco was exposed, and people are asking, what kind of country have we become?  

How long will it be before people realise that government policy has left cancer patients without food, and ask how we ever let that happen?


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden



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