Gareth Streeter is a councillor in Croydon, a former Parliamentary candidate and charity campaigner.
It almost seems a lifetime ago that Universal Credit was heralded as the great white hope of compassionate Conservatism.
Hailed as a progressive revelation which would simplify a laboriously complicated system and break a generational cycle of joblessness it even – at one stage – enjoyed cross-party support.
Since it’s roll-out began however, believers in the innovation have often failed to hold their nerve. Left-leaning media have lambasted the changes as pushing already poor people further into poverty and this narrative has been bolstered by regular figures from the Trussell Trust claiming that – since the roll-out began – food bank usage has reached a record high. It has been almost a year since the headline figure of a million Brits using food banks first hit the headlines.
While Universal Credit is now available in all areas, this year was due to mark the transfer of existing benefit claimants to the new system – a process that would be complete by 2023. The Government is best placed to know how equipped it is to make this transfer as seamless as possible. If they have serious concerns about the dangers of the roll out to the cash flow of low-income people, they are wise to delay it. Rome was not built in a day and it is eminently acceptable for the biggest welfare reform in generations to take a decade.
The Conservative Party has never been one to celebrate the victory of principle over practice. If Universal Credit fails in its objective of helping people into work, and simply pushes people into food banks in the process, we should withdraw our support for it. But if we do, we should base this decision on fact rather than misplaced fury.
In reality, the media reports linking the introduction of Universal Credit to an increase of food bank usage are questionable in fact and devoid of context. Before anyone judges Universal Credit too harshly based on these criteria, it is important to remember three essential points of context.
The UK has the second lowest level of food bank usage in the G7
If Universal Credit – or any other measure of welfare reform – is the main driver of food bank usage in the UK than it would be a uniquely British phenomenon. However, when compared to similarly wealthy countries, reliance on them is relatively low.
When Obama volunteered at a food bank late last year it was hailed as a noble gesture – which it surely was. But there was no commentary around the fact that far more Americans used food banks under his presidency than Brits ever have under a Conservative Government.
Even if we believe the figure that a million Brits used food banks in a single year (and it really is a big ‘if’) this equates to about 1.5 per cent of the population. In the USA, an epic 12 per cent of citizens have had the same experience.
While this may not be a major shock given America’s reputation as a minimal-safety-net nation, countries with a more socialist bent than Britain also fare worse. Research suggests that 1.8 per cent of people use food banks in Germany and a staggering 5.8 per cent do so in left-leaning France.
Japan (0.1 per cent) is the only G7 country to rank below the UK. While no robust research exists as to why these figures are so low, most commentary speculates that Japanese pride is likely to be a major factor in preventing people seeking help.
These figures alone should give us extreme caution in putting the blame for any increase in food bank usage on the shoulders of welfare reform.
The rise in food banks began under Labour and before welfare reforms
For a variety of different reasons, food banks are a relatively recent addition to the social offer in Britain, with the Trussell Trust (the main body behind them in the UK) launching their food bank network in 2004.
As a result, food bank usage increased 20-fold in the last years of Labour’s reign. Was this down to an increase in hunger following the recession? Or was it the result of churches and other community groups heroically mobilising themselves as a result of the increased awareness of poverty that always comes with economic instability?
It is very difficult to say. But if Labour has now decided that the food bank phenomena is a direct result of Government policy, they have some probing questions to ask about their own time in office.
The rise in food banks probably result in an increase in referrals rather than an increase in hunger
Universal Credit has been heavily lambasted for delays that have left people out of pocket. In truth, benefit delays have always been a problem.
As we have seen, the rise in food banks begun under the last Labour Government. However, they refused to allow these acts of charity to be part of the solution and banned Job Centres from referring claimants to these potential sources of help. This changed in 2010 when the coalition – with a belief in the big society – allowed Job Centres to sign-post to food banks, initially by giving vouchers. This is almost certainly the reason that food bank usage has continued to rise.
The use of a food bank may not be everyone’s preferred option to the problem of benefit delays. But it is surely better than the hopelessness offered under Labour. Without being directed toward a food bank, people not able to extract support from friends and family presumably went hungry.
These points do not mean that the roll-out has been free from problem, or that Government shouldn’t keep a watchful eye and be proactive in fixing errors. It must of course take the time it needs to iron out the kinks. The Trussell Trusts research suggesting that the increase in food bank usage was greater in areas where Univeral Credit had been fully rolled out for a year or more is worth taking seriously (although the sample size is small).
However, this research does not explore how much increased awareness of food banks in pilot areas was a factor and crucially, this research was conducted before the introduction of the full advance loan, which is a major game changer.
Having spent the time delving into this issue, I am confident that Universal Credit is not at the heart of the problem. But that is not to say that we do not have a problem. People in our country are struggling and it is essential that every aspect of society – including government – plays its part in understanding and fixing it.
What we need now is for Government, charities, faith and community groups and other agencies to come together to understand the underlying causes of food poverty and to work collaboratively to address them. I am committed to playing my small part in this – but I am concerned that if we continue to make a scapegoat of welfare reform, we will not only fail to judge Universal Credit on its merits, we will never gain the depth of understanding we need to truly make poverty history.