Natalie Williams
We'll give universal credit for a U-turn

This blog was originally posted by the New Statesman here.

I am a big fan of U-turns. Last summer I wasn’t paying attention to my SatNav so I ended up driving for 17 miles in the wrong direction. Once I realised, obviously a U-turn was the best course of action. It would’ve been foolish of me to just carry on, stubbornly ignoring the fact that I was clearly getting farther away from the destination I was aiming towards.

I’m a big fan of political U-turns for the same reasons. I’ve never really understood why political U-turns are met with such criticism, mockery, and derision. Surely, if a Government policy is missing the mark, causing harm, having unintended consequences, a U-turn is the best course of action. I for one want my leaders to have the humility and grace to change their minds – and their policies – especially when they are hurting the poorest and most vulnerable in our country.

That’s why I’m desperately hoping tomorrow will bring a U-turn on the six-week gap that’s built into Universal Credit. If it comes, as many of us in churches and the charity sector are eagerly anticipating when the budget announcements are made, my response will be to applaud the U-turn. I’ll be thankful for it. I have more respect for a leader who is prepared to look at the facts and change his or her mind, than I do for someone who doggedly sticks to their course of action no matter who is being harmed along the way.

I’ve written before about the massive increase in demand at my local foodbank that has happened since Universal Credit was rolled out here just before Christmas last year. We’ve now seen an 84% increase in referrals, compared to the previous year. I don’t think Universal Credit is the only reason, but it’s definitely a significant factor.

Some politicians continue to argue that dramatic increases in foodbank use over the last few years are because more people now know that foodbanks exist. The implication of this assessment is that people mainly go to foodbanks simply because they know they can. This view ignores three vital facts.

Firstly, it shows a lack of recognition of the statistics. Take my foodbank in Hastings for example. It opened in April 2012 and that year we received an average of 53 referrals per month. It is true that we saw a significant increase the next year – 159 referrals per month on average in 2013 – that could be attributed to more people hearing that we could help. But after that the stats simply don’t give us leeway to believe that ‘knowing foodbanks exist’ is what is driving the rise in demand. Our figures for four years (from the start of 2013 to the end of 2016) are fairly static, even dipping a little in 2015. But when we come to this year – the first year of Universal Credit hitting Hastings, our average monthly referrals have skyrocketed to 289. Since we opened five years and seven months ago, we have fulfilled 11,156 voucher referrals: 29% of these have been in the last 11 months.

Secondly, it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the way most foodbanks work – to receive food from a Trussell Trust foodbank (the largest network of foodbanks in the UK), for example, you have to be referred by a frontline organisation that deems you to be facing a crisis situation that will be alleviated by emergency food to sustain you for a few days until longer-term support kicks in.

Finally, it reveals a lack of appreciation of the shame and embarrassment many people who come to foodbanks feel. Volunteers at foodbanks all across the country spend a lot of time reassuring the people who come through our doors that it’s ok to ask for help when you’re facing a crisis, that we want to help, that it could happen to any one of us.

It’s not just foodbanks that have been affected by welfare reform, though. My local Christians Against Poverty (CAP) Debt Centre reports that its waiting time between initial enquiry and first debt advice appointment has doubled from the end of 2016, when Universal Credit was introduced here, to now. My local Citizens’ Advice office has experienced a 25% increase in the number of households seeking debt advice this year compared to last. My local council has seen a 13% increase in people being threatened with eviction due to rent arrears since Universal Credit arrived, compared to the same period the previous year.

This isn’t just happening in Hastings. I work for a national Christian charity called Jubilee+ that is hearing similar stories from across the country. It’s what the Trussell Trust, CAP, Citizens’ Advice and many others are seeing too. That’s why we’ve been calling on the Government to fix the inbuilt six-week delay from claiming Universal Credit to receiving your first payment.

Most people agree that streamlining the benefits system is a good idea and long overdue. Most people agree that reforming welfare provision so that work pays is a good idea. I’ve been on Job Seekers’ Allowance for two periods in the past. In both seasons I picked up bits of freelance journalism and found that everything I earned from working was deducted from my JSA. Every penny. Literally for every £1 I earned, £1 was taken away. It made it pointless to work. I’m glad that Universal Credit has changed that (though, truth be told, I still wish it would deduct less than it does).

There are currently 5,000 people on Universal Credit in my town, because so far only new claimants and those with a change in their circumstances have been transferred across. We’ve seen the incredible misery the six-week gap is causing for people, plunging the ‘just about managing’ in poverty, saddling people with debt it will take them months to repay, piling pressure, stress and anxiety onto some of the most vulnerable people in our communities.

But there are still a further 8,000 people here who will be transferred across to Universal Credit under the same circumstances unless there’s a change in policy. That’s why I’m hoping that ministers are listening. That’s why I’m hoping they have the humility to change their minds. That’s why I’m hoping tomorrow will bring news of a U-turn and the six-week gap will be removed, or at least reduced.

There’s no shame in a U-turn. The only shame would be in persisting with a flawed system that is causing untold misery for those affected by it.