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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.

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

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People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.