I cannot remember when a statement was so welcome, so infuriating and so inadequate all at the same time. Before Monday the Government’s stock answer on foodbanks was that the reasons for foodbank use were “complex” so it was unfair to blame Universal Credit. The new answer appears to be that Universal Credit “could” be to blame.
“It is clear that there were challenges with the initial roll-out of universal credit, and the main issue that led to an increase in food bank usage could have been the fact that people had difficulty accessing their money early enough.” The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Amber Rudd). 11/02/2019
I could get annoyed at the phrasing “could have caused” when the evidence points conclusively that Universal Credit has caused people to go hungry and need foodbanks. This is particularly galling when very dodgy evidence and deeply uncertain predictions that flatter Universal Credit are routinely spoken of as if they were hard fact.
However since before 2013 the Department for Work and Pensions has repeatedly denied that Universal Credit (or Welfare Reform more generally) causes hunger and foodbank use. Government attacked organisations that said UC caused hunger and called journalists who reported the link “reckless” because they were needlessly frightening claimants. It seems likely that this will now stop and that can only be a good thing.
What strikes me is how inadequate both the statement and the policy response are.
The Government has admitted that the poor design of its policy has caused families – including thousands of children – to go to bed hungry and worry where their next meal is coming from. The knock on consequences including anxiety, bad decisions, and poor health are likely to be substantial.
That is serious admission requiring serious thought. How could such a bad design have emerged in the first place and then allowed to continue for 6 years – despite the many warnings, and the constant reassurances that Universal Credit was developed using a “test and learn” approach? Publicly at least, there is no sign of such self-reflection happening.
But is all fixed now?
The next part of the Minister’s statement is much more familiar.
“We have made changes to accessing Universal Credit, so that people can have advances and so that there is a legacy run on after two weeks of housing benefit, and we believe that that will help with food insecurity.” The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Amber Rudd). 11/02/2019
For the past 5 years a theme running through Universal Credit announcements has been the claim that changes announced some time before have already fixed the problems. As before there is no evidence given to demonstrate that the changes are working – and indeed the latest statistics from Trussell Trust on foodbank use, which were published after these changes were made, were not encouraging.
The 5-week wait for Universal Credit remains and sanctions are being intensified
On the same day as this statement, the Department of Work and Pensions published its response to a select committee report on benefit sanctions. These are punishments that are given to people who have not fulfilled the detailed requirements set out by jobcentres (most commonly by missing an appointment).
Sanctions are a major reason why families need foodbanks and, under Universal Credit, the reach and severity of sanctions is being increased. There is mounting evidence that sanctions lead to hardship, hunger, foodbank use and harm long-term job prospects. The National Audit Office analysed DWP’s own data and concluded that sanctions applied to people who are sick or disabled cause hardship and reduce people’s earnings in both the short and the long term.
The DWP were asked by the committee to commit to look into both the impact of sanctions as well their effects on hunger, hardship and wellbeing. The Department refused – saying it would only look into employment and sanctions.
The DWP were asked to respect doctors’ fit notes. Under Universal Credit people signed off sick and waiting to be assessed for sickness and disability benefits are for the first time treated as being “fit for work” and can be sanctioned accordingly. The Department refused.
In short there was no substantial movement in policy nor any recognition that these punishments harmed families’ welfare or led them to foodbanks. The scales appear to be falling from the DWP’s eyes only one at a time.
An inadequate response
On Sunday I gave a talk about Universal Credit to a Church meeting in Irchester. Afterwards I met some fantastic people who set up and now run a local foodbank. They told me stories of the families they were helping, and how angry they were that people could be placed in this position. I could not help but be inspired and appalled in equal measure.
Admitting that one aspect of Universal Credit policy “could” have led to an increase in hunger is a start, but it is a hugely inadequate response to the multiple problems communities are facing because of Universal Credit.