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A steady rise in food bank use is a stark reminder that universal credit has been an abject failure

The main reasons for people needing emergency food are benefits which consistently fail to cover the cost of living, and delays or changes to benefits being paid

Thursday 25 April 2019 00:11 BST
(Shutterstock )

Hunger stalks too many British families. There is plenty of statistical and anecdotal evidence for this, and it is something that has not been seen widely in society since before the Second World War. Not the least of the indicators of a persistent national scandal is the number of parcels doled out by food banks – British citizens being sustained in life and health by charity, in other words.

Indeed, the situation is deteriorating. The Trussell Trust, which runs one of the largest networks of food banks, says that the 12 months to March 2019 was the busiest for them since they opened in 1997. Some 1.6 million food packages were distributed last year, up about a fifth on the previous 12 months, and up 73 per cent over two years.

In a land of seemingly limitless employment opportunities and record low unemployment, how can this be? The answer, of course, is that many families still find themselves locked in poverty, and both working and non-working families are suffering real hardship because of the manifest failings of the universal credit system. Even ministers – including the present secretary of state for work and pensions, Amber Rudd, and the chancellor, Philip Hammond – have tacitly acknowledged that mistakes have been made and have reformed aspects of the system and increased its funding.

Only the stubborn and defiant Esther McVey shows a flinty disregard for the consequences of the government’s policies. It is, as an aside, quite an indictment of her and her party that she could still be considered leadership material on such a flimsy and literally mean base of political achievement, but it seems that a diet of gruel, for the poor, goes down well with the Tory grassroots.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies – respected and impartial – confirms the mess that universal credit is in, and its disproportionately damaging effects on those families least able to cope with delayed payments and rent arrears. For people with jobs and overdrafts, the notion that anyone can be plunged into a crisis for the sake of a few hundred pounds is, luckily for them, unimaginable.

The main reasons for people needing emergency food are benefits which consistently fail to cover the cost of living, and delays or changes to benefits being paid. The charity believes ending the five-week wait for a first universal credit payment should be the government’s first priority to help create a future without food banks. That is surely correct, and a simple change to make.

For now, going short because of the design of universal credit or errors in its calculation is a terrifying reality for too many, and the young are suffering most.

Under Tony Blair’s original plan, set out in 1999, child poverty was to be abolished around now. Much progress was made by the time Labour lost power in 2010. Since then the austerity programme, cuts in public spending, welfare reforms and the lingering effects of the great recession of the earlier part of this decade have all set that progress back. Part of that may have been inevitable, in the circumstances of a crisis in the public finances. What is now disturbing is the lack of any plan, or even aspiration, to fight poverty at all.

The generation of large numbers of insecure and relatively poorly paid jobs may be welcome, as an alternative to mass unemployment on the sort of scale we saw in the 1930s or the 1980s, or a “dependency culture”; but it has had a disappointingly limited impact in ameliorating poverty.

The long-term project for raising wage rates through improving productivity and boosting investment in Britain has hardly got off the ground. Britain’s poor productivity record is the fundamental cause of the sluggish growth and, it has to be said, Brexit has made investment in new plant, machinery and techniques even lower than it otherwise would be.

Yet there remains this huge problem of universal credit. It was, in some respects, an admirable notion, to simplify and make welfare work better both for those who received it and for the taxpayers who funded it (often the same individuals, of course). In reality, during George Osborne’s tenure at the Treasury it was seen as a method of reducing the cost of social security, and creating some unnecessary additional spur to the poor to get a job, by raising the “incentive” to do so. Even under the more pragmatic Mr Hammond not enough has been done.

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Some, such as the National Audit Office, believe that universal credit would be more expensive to scrap than to persevere with. That is not, though, a financially or politically sustainable position.

And so groups such as the Trussell Trust try to plug the holes in the system. That task, for all their excellent effort, is quite beyond them. Caring for those in need in society is beyond the scope of charity; it is matter of national policy. Had that policy not been so badly bungled, we would not need so many food banks. The first step on the way to fixing the system is for ministers to admit that they got universal credit wrong.

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