Universal Credit prepares you for work? Tell the starving child I met picking through bins

New MPs can receive their first pay cheque within a week. Universal Credit claimants wait six.

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Today, across the UK, tens of thousands of men, women and children are going hungry. It could be the family next door, the woman you pass on the street as you walk your dog, the child playing in the park with yours. 

I founded a London food bank which opened in 2010, and I can honestly say that I have met thousands of these strong, brave, anxious, and scared people – all of them hungry. Many of the stories I hear are heartbreaking – stories I am afraid to repeat in front of children when I speak at school assemblies. 

Like the one of the starving five-year-old who hadn’t eaten for three days, and was found picking through rubbish bins looking for food. Her mum was looking for work and so was put on to Universal Credit – but she was still waiting for their first payment.

As winter approaches, many people are also struggling to pay gas and electric bills – showering in cold water, or unable to heat the food they do have; they’re struggling to replace their child’s badly fitting school shoes or buy them a new winter coat; they can’t even begin to think about how they are going to get through Christmas.

According to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority website, all new MPs can receive their first pay cheque within one week of starting their new job; and can even get an immediate, interest-free loan worth up to £4,000 to cover expenses, including housing costs. And yet my clients, who generally don’t make enough to have savings and who may already be facing the challenges of living with disabilities, poor or temporary housing, chronic and long term illness, depression, anxiety and other mental health problems, must wait for six weeks to "prepare them for work".

Research from the University of Oxford found that people referred to foodbanks had, on average, £319 in income in the month preceding their referral. One in five people had no income at all, and half owed money to their family. So – no safety net, no one else to ask for help. Which is why people find themselves at the food bank.

Between 1 April and 30 September 2017, 4,601 men, women and children benefited from our emergency food parcels – each containing enough food for ten nutritionally balanced meals per person. That’s about 46,000 meals – in just one London borough. This is almost double the amount for the same period last year.

As we near the end of October, our statistics show that we are very close to benefiting as many people as we did during the whole of the 2016/17 financial year. There is no doubt in my mind that this increase is significantly due to the full rollout of Universal Credit, which happened in our area during Christmas 2016. 

A year ago, a family or individual might have needed to visit a food bank on a couple of occasions to see them through a crisis. With the advent of the long delay before the first Universal Credit payment is made, and with many of people in my food bank alone waiting up to 12 or 13 weeks, we have had to accept that more people will need to come to us more often. In my food bank, most of the people on Universal Credit are referred to us on a weekly basis, sometimes twice weekly, while waiting for the new benefit to start.

In the past, we would signpost the person to an agency or advice service which would help them try to solve the underlying source of their crisis. But the only help available for people on Universal Credit is an advance loan, and the repayment plans for this relatively small sum are so high that in many cases they can push people right back into the same crisis they are trying to get out of.

As well as hunger, which is bad enough, the delay in payments can also lead to debt, including rent arrears, a strain on relationships (I have heard of at least one family break-up), as well as serious mental health conditions.

For the last seven and a half years, like so many others, I have devoted myself to feeding people going hungry in London. I’ve attempted to remain focused on hunger and the ways that my organisation can help to alleviate it. But now I’m angry. Of all the charitable causes in this country, the need for food banks has to be one of the most shameful. 

To all of those who, from a distance, say that food banks are not necessary, that poverty does not exist on this Island, that people who need food banks are scroungers, free loaders, or feckless; my response is, well, unpublishable. However welcoming, non-judgemental, and important the local food bank may be, I’ve yet to meet someone who is happy to have to go to one. 

Daphine Aikens is the manager of the Hammersmith & Fulham Foodbank