Show Hide image

Inside the pilot Universal Credit town doubling the size of its foodbank

Warrington opened new premises on an industrial estate this week to meet surging demand.

The foodbank in the northwest England town of Warrington opened in 2012. Its first lot of donations, three tonnes of food from Tesco shoppers, were enough to last a year of provision. Now three tonnes last a week.

Foodbank use in Warrington is up 14 per cent on last year. The most recent figures show that 35 per cent of those receiving its 46,000 meals annually are children.

“When we started, we said ‘after five years, it’ll be sorted’,” says Hilda Whitfield, chair of trustees for the foodbank who has been here from the start. “It’s become busier and busier in the last 18 months.”

Having grown up in a small village on a farm nearby, and managed a residential home after starting out as a cleaner, she never thought she’d see this level of poverty in her hometown. Now 74, she’s been volunteering here for seven years – her name is stitched into her official green Warrington foodbank sweatshirt.

Starting out in a small Methodist church called Friars Green in the town centre, the original foodbank had five tables for visitors, who volunteers call “guests” to maintain their dignity. It became so packed and cramped with people cramming into rows of chairs borrowed from the church that it had to expand to meet the rocketing demand.

This week, staff opened new premises on an industrial estate, with double the number of tables for visitors that were available on its previous site. On Monday, the first day it opened, they hosted 19 people with foodbank vouchers in the space of one and a half hours.

They’ve had 28 people in two days by the time I arrive on Wednesday morning. They expect around 90-100 a week – and that’s just vouchers; one voucher can represent a family of multiple children. Overall, 128 people volunteer at the foodbank, and 50 sort the food in the warehouse.

Now there are ten brand new tables, each with four grey and green dining chairs. Herbs in silver plant pots decorate each table, and with the freshly painted white walls, the interior looks more like a modern café than a last resort for people in crisis.

“At first, we thought it was just while the country was in an austerity situation, and once that had passed there’d be no need for us,” says David McDonald, project manager of the foodbank, who has also volunteered since it began. He wears a smart suit with a poppy pin on its lapel and a tie printed with white roses; it’s the annual general meeting tonight, around a boardroom table and chairs donated by local businesses.

Out the back is the packing area, a high-ceilinged, breeze-blocked warren of metal blue pallet racks filled with tins, bottles of squash, bags of pasta. This is new, too – a whole other storage block on top of an entire warehouse of food across the industrial estate.

The council provides the premises for a peppercorn rent, and most furnishings are donated. Anything new is also from donors – online gifts paid for by individuals, churches, schools, local businesses, even a nearby car dealership.

“We certainly don’t celebrate the fact that we’ve had to expand,” McDonald tells me. “It’s an absolute disgrace that we have had to do this.”

So why do they?

“The Universal Credit pilot here in Warrington really made a mess of things,” McDonald says.

Much of Warrington’s rising foodbank use, say volunteers here, is down to the new welfare system arriving early in the town for a small number of claimants in 2013. It was fully rolled out here in February 2017.

This benefits overhaul has a built-in five-week wait for the initial payment, which can leave people stuck for at least a month without money for food. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) can grant upfront loans (known as “advance payments”) in urgent cases, but as debt is increasingly a reason for foodbank use it is hardly an appropriate deterrent.

“When they go onto Universal Credit, it can take six to eight weeks to come through,” says Whitfield. “Most of their old benefits are stopped. Where do families go in the meantime?”

Five thousand people need to “migrate” over to the new system in Warrington, McDonald calculates, which means “we’re looking at five more years minimum” of rising foodbank use. “This is the way of the country now.”

***

“They’re failing a person who needs help,” says Craig*, a 58-year-old scaffolder who has been out of work due to depression and OCD for two and a half years. His disability benefit, called Personal Independent Payment (PIP), was cut by an assessor who deemed him “fit for work” in April, so he has been relying on inadequate payments of Universal Credit ever since.

“I’m only living on £170 a month,” he tells me. He has just £23 left, and £10 needs to go on electricity. At home, he has “nothing in the cupboards” – just some coffee, loo roll and one packet of crumpets. He wears a puffer jacket, red T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms; his only clothes other than an old pair of jeans.

“Two and a half years ago, I’d never been on benefits before,” he tells me. “I was working. Depression just hits you, and it’s hit me.”

Craig was born and bred in Warrington, and has a love of its green spaces. “I like nature,” he smiles. “I like to sit and listen to the trees rustling. It makes me feel really good.”

He has only been to a foodbank once before, two years ago, and refuses to take his whole entitlement – “Somebody else could use that spaghetti,” he insists to a volunteer. “I don’t want to take too much.”

“I go days without sleeping or eating,” he tells me. He sleeps on the sofa instead of his bed, traumatised by the panic attacks he’s had in bed in the past. He struggles to use his oven because he fears his OCD telling him he hasn’t switched it off when he goes out.

“It’s a terrible thing, what your mind tells you… There’s no way I’m fit for work – if I went on top of a scaffold now, I’d throw myself off.”

Even though Craig has attempted to take his own life three times, and been sectioned, he had his benefits reduced just as he was on the road to recovery. This led to a spell of drinking and self-destruction.

“It’s made my depression worse,” he says. “I want to get better, but the only way I can get better is with support; they need to understand it takes a long time and there are twists and turns along the way. People are being failed.”

***

Wage stagnation, inflation pushing up supermarket and energy prices, unpredictable work through zero-hour contracts, and benefit sanctions are also bringing more people here, the Warrington volunteers tell me. Another man who comes in has been sanctioned for six months because the sick note he needed for the Jobcentre from his doctor arrived late.

Yet the five-week wait for Universal Credit appears to have the most drastic impact on the number of people going hungry.

In areas like Warrington, where it has been rolled out for at least two years, there has been an average 48 per cent increase in food bank demand since the welfare reform’s arrival, according to new figures from the Trussell Trust, a national charity that has about two-thirds of the UK’s foodbanks in its network.

Where Universal Credit has been going at least a year, there’s been a 30 per cent increase in demand, and for 18 months it’s a rise of 40 per cent.

“Universal Credit should be there to anchor any of us against the tides of poverty. But the five-week wait fatally undermines this principle, pushing people into debt, homelessness and destitution,” said the Trussell Trust’s chief executive Emma Revie. “Universal Credit was designed to have a wait. Now it’s clear that wait is five weeks too long, and we must change that design.”

The DWP’s response is to question the charity’s figures. “This report uses unrepresentative data to reach an entirely unsubstantiated conclusion,” a spokesperson says. “It categorically does not prove that Universal Credit is the reason behind increased food bank usage.”

However, this ignores the experiences of people visiting foodbanks every day, and the Trussell Trust’s data from more than 60,000 agencies that refer people to foodbanks in its network. Amber Rudd, the former work and pensions secretary, even admitted in the House of Commons in February that delayed Universal Credit payments have been a factor in more people visiting foodbanks.

In the Chancellor Sajid Javid’s spending review at the beginning of this month, he declared “the end of austerity”. Yet the extra funding for public services did not include reducing the five-week wait for Universal Credit. While Warrington has to make more room to feed hungry people, can austerity really be over?

“We live in hope!” David McDonald replies, with a wry laugh. “Mr [Boris] Johnson says we’ve ended austerity. Time will tell. If he’s a man of his word, hopefully we’ll see change. But then we’re reminded he’s a politician!”

*Name changed on request of anonymity.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.