Universal Credit, foodbanks, and media management

By Bernadette Meaden
February 12, 2019

Imagine living in a country where an admission by the government that its own policies were causing hunger amongst the population was greeted as a positive development by social justice campaigners.

We don’t have to imagine it, that’s the position in the UK in 2019, and the admission may have been driven not so much by a pang of conscience but by careful political calculations.

Last month Amber Rudd managed to turn what should have been a bad news day for the DWP into a minor triumph. ( http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/27551 ) Yesterday she pulled off a similar trick.

Rudd clearly appreciates the tendency of the media (and hence most of the public) to assume that if a politician makes the right noises about an issue, then it is basically dealt with and we can all move on. She seems to be exploiting this weakness to craft her image as a reasonable, perhaps even compassionate Conservative. Meanwhile she drives forward the brutal policies she has inherited, making only the smallest changes necessary to keep the horror show on the road.

Yesterday was a prime example of this tactic. Questioned in Parliament about foodbank use, Rudd acknowledged, for the first time, a link to Universal Credit. This was weclomed with relief by many people, who understandably felt that such an admission (that the government’s own policy had made its citizens go hungry) must surely lead to decisive action and a resolution of the problem.

But if we look at what Amber Rudd actually said, rather than the headlines her words generated, there is little cause for celebration.

Rudd said, "It is absolutely clear that there were challenges with the initial roll-out of universal credit” Note, this is in the past tense. This was an issue with the initial rollout.

She continued, “The main issue which led to an increase in food bank use could have been the fact that people had difficulty accessing their money early enough.” Again the use of the distancing past tense, suggesting this is not an urgent problem in the present. Also a vague and rather misleading way of referring to an intrinsic design feature of Universal Credit, which deliberately makes peple wait five weeks, plus shambolic administration which often extends that wait to several months. "People had difficulty accessing their money early"? No, the DWP made it difficult.

Anyone who thought that this shameful admission would lead to urgent and radical action would have their hopes dashed by what Rudd said next: "We have made changes to accessing universal credit so that people can have advances, so that there is a legacy run-on after two weeks of housing benefit, and we believe that will help with food insecurity."

Pressed further she said, "I have acknowledged that people having difficulty accessing the money on time as one of the causes of the growth in food banks, but we have tried to address that."

So there we have it. Universal Credit is driving people to foodbanks, but the DWP has ‘tried’ to address it – as if Universal Credit is some force of nature which the DWP struggles to control, rather than a policy which could be changed overnight, if the government chose.

And the device by which they have ‘tried’ to address it is advance payments – a loan which means a claimant starts out on Universal Credit in debt to the DWP, which will then deduct repayments from their benefit, significantly reducing a payment which is calculated as the minimum amount they need to live on. This is no way to address food insecurity.

But, just like three weeks ago, Amber Rudd’s words served to distract from another DWP story which should have been news, but which was yet again drowned out by her ability to grab a headline.

The Work and Pensions Committee issued a searing condemnation of the government’s response to its report on benefit sanctions. It deplored the "inhumanity" of a system which leaves people “bewildered and driven to despair at becoming, often with their children, the victims of a sanctions regime that is at times so counter-productive it just seems pointlessly cruel”.

Any Secretary of State who was thoughtful and compassionate would have nightmares about the documented suffering deliberately caused by their own department, and not sleep until they had done something to stop it. But the DWP’s response to this catalogue of cruelty was chilling in its lack of compassion and, as usual, obsessed with starving people into employment.

As Frank Field said, the government, “might want to take a look at the concept of not pushing disabled people and single parents – not to mention their children – into grinding poverty and hardship.”

But, Amber Rudd has done it again. Managed the media to make herself look reasonable, whilst pushing ahead with inhumane policies. She is doing very little for the victims of her department, but she might be doing just what it takes to become leader of her party.


© 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


Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.