“I’m not a criminal, but I have to commit crimes to survive”: the reality of Universal Credit

Without foodbanks, clients admit they would be forced to steal or turn to prostitution as “benefits fail to cover living costs”.

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In deepest west London, tucked between a pharmacy and a fried chicken shop, is a discrete shopfront with frosted windows. Inside, tables are laid out with purple flower placemats, children’s drawings adorn the walls and boxes of food, clothes, and toiletries are stacked up along the walls. This is Hammersmith and Fulham foodbank.

The second the clock strikes 12:30, people begin flooding through the doors. Within a minute, it is packed with every sort of person imaginable. There’s a sense of organised urgency in the air. Volunteers are handing out food parcels, some greeting regulars – “tea with two sugars for you, Alice?” – while others sit helping the clients, as the visitors are known, tackle the endless admin involved with life on benefits.

Along the back wall, a man is sitting at one of the foodbank’s few computers (those visiting foodbanks often have no other internet access) scrolling through Facebook. His name is Harry*, and he’s a 45-year-old former barber shop owner, who had to stop working due to chronic back issues. Suddenly, he spots something in the corner of the room and leaves the computer to rush over. “For my girlfriend,” he says triumphantly afterwards, holding up a leather white bag and grinning.

“I’m unemployed, and I’m just suffering basically,” he says, sitting back down. He is entitled to £302 a month, but only receives £190 due to debt. “It’s disgusting. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

He gestures at the foodbank staff. “These guys aren’t working for the government,” he says. “These guys are volunteering. Why isn’t the government providing for us?

“I want to be independent. I’m 45-years-old. I shouldn’t be relying on people, but sometimes I have to because I haven't got any other choice.”

Hammersmith was one of the pilot areas for Universal Credit, the Conservative’s flagship welfare policy, which merged six benefits into one monthly payment. It was meant to be fully implemented well before the 2015 election, but six years after its inception, it is yet to be fully delivered. The project has been plagued with delays, administrative crises, and political scandals, but the government remains wedded to overhauling the benefits system. As of December last year, 6,158 households were on Universal Credit in Hammersmith and Fulham.

“I had to wait about nine weeks, 10 weeks, [to get on Universal Credit]. A hell of a long time,” says Harry. “I asked them for an advance payment, they gave me about £100, in that 10 weeks. What am I supposed to do with that, £10 a week? If I didn’t have good friends, I wouldn’t have survived at all… and you hear a lot of horror stories.”

Many people face difficulty from day one: according to a new report released today by the Trussell Trust, an anti-poverty charity, the minimum five-week wait before first payment left 70 per cent of respondents in debt. Some are still paying off those debts years later. Admin issues with repayment are common – one recipient said they had agreed to pay a total of £36 monthly, but when their first Universal Credit award came in, £109 had been taken out of their account.

Visits to foodbanks are often associated with a lack of benefits – such as when a claimant is sanctioned, or the victim of an administrative error. Disturbingly though, the latest figures point to the limitations of the welfare state, even when it is functioning as planned. The Trussell Trust, which runs 428 food banks across the country, found that the biggest and fastest growing reason for referral to a foodbank was benefit levels not covering the costs of essentials. Only eight per cent of respondents said their full Universal Credit award covered their cost of living. This was down to five per cent for disabled people or those with ill-health.

Daphine Aikens, who manages the foodbank, explains: “No amount of budgeting, no amount of cooking healthily, ‘cooking on a budget’ lessons, is actually going to help somebody who is just not getting enough to live on.” Aikens says she often sees people where, by the time rent is paid, the remainder of Universal Credit that is leftover for food, travel, clothes, and life in general, is £50 a month or £100 a month. “How do you budget when already there just isn’t enough to cover the cost of living?”

Harry says Universal Credit doesn’t give him enough money to live, forcing him to turn to crime to make ends meet. “Basically I’m having to use that [Universal Credit] money… which I don’t really want to say... in fact I’m not going to say what I do with it, but I’m using that money to buy something to turn it into something else,” he says. “I’m having to commit crimes, and doing all sorts of things that I don’t want to do,” he says, dissociating himself from his desperate actions. “Other than going out and robbing people or something like that, what am I supposed to do?,” he demands. “I’m not a criminal,” he says, almost to himself.

Asked if Universal Credit is affecting the crime rate, he is certain: “of course it is. It’s not even a question. People need to eat.” Aikens agrees. She says clients have told her that without the help of the foodbank they would have been forced to steal or turn to prostitution.

“Why should I have to rely on this? I’m a big man,” Harry says, welling up. “It’s not even the government that’s helping us to get this,” he says, gesturing at the porridge oats, toothpaste and toilet roll he’s packing into his rucksack. “The government’s not giving us this. It’s the kindness of strangers giving us this. Why can’t the government do this? They’re not doing their jobs,” he pauses to wipe the tears from his face.

Aikens says these tragic stories of mental health crises, relationship breakdowns, poor administration, and impossibly complex situations are all commonplace when helping those on Universal Credit. Almost two-thirds of people reported difficulties or barriers when claiming Universal Credit that related to a health condition.

The introduction of Universal Credit has accompanied an explosion of charity-run foodbanks like this one, offering food, housing advice, job finding clubs, budgeting sessions, and more. These volunteer-led places are stepping up where the welfare state stops.

“We’re hearing tragic stories, frustrating stories, things that just shouldn’t be happening,” says Aikens. “I have certainly been plagued with stories at night, you know I wake up in the middle of the night, or just can’t let things go.”

“I find myself having to fight back tears sometimes,” she pauses. “We’re here to provide food, to signpost, refer, that kind of thing. But sometimes you just know that there's very little you can do, you can do all the budgeting you want, but at the end of the day, even we cannot see a way out for them.”

*Name has been changed.