Natalie Williams
Volunteer turns to own foodbank after UC error

One of the things I love telling people about foodbanks is that many of those we help come back to donate food or even to volunteer. But last week I met someone for whom the opposite was true – a woman who volunteers at her local foodbank who was forced to turn to it for help herself two weeks ago.

Jane* told me that she broke down at the start of a foodbank session recently after a mistake made to her Universal Credit meant she was told she wouldn’t have any money from them this month. “It’s demoralising and degrading needing help,” she said, “but at the end of the session when no one else was around, I built up the courage to ask the foodbank manager for help.”

The mistake was initially made to Jane’s claim a month earlier, when her employer failed to submit her salary information on time. Because Jane checks how much she has in her bank account almost every day and keeps informed when her UC payments are due, she spotted that she was about to be overpaid last month. When she notified the DWP, they adjusted the payment immediately back down to the £404 she was supposed to receive.

Yet two weeks ago, when checking her balance revealed that Jane was due to receive nothing at all this month, she was told that an adjustment could not be made so easily.

A single mum with one child, Jane has already been £250 per month worse off since going onto UC in January 2017, when she changed jobs. She works 22 hours per week in the public sector and picks up more hours when she can, even though the Universal Credit deductions mean that she only gets paid £2.50 per hour for any extra work she can get.

“I would rather work even for £2.50 per hour,” she says. “Then I’ve earned it. Work makes me feel like I’m providing.”

Even without this recent mistake in her Universal Credit claim, since moving onto the new system last year Jane has found it a struggle to keep food on the table towards the end of each month. She explains: “I always make sure my bills are paid first, because if I don’t it’ll escalate and then I’ll be trapped in debt, which I don’t want. I didn’t take the Universal Credit advance because I didn’t want to be in debt. When I waited six weeks for my first payment, my family and friends rallied round. I make sure I pay my bills first because it’s easier to raid the fridge at my mum’s than get out of debt once you’re in it.”

When Jane first noticed that her UC account was showing she was due nothing this month, she didn’t panic initially because of how easily the overpayment had been adjusted – with just one phone call – the previous month. But then the DWP told her the underpayment couldn’t be changed. They made an appointment for Jane at the JobCentre for the next day, but then at 9.30am that morning she received a notification saying the appointment had been moved to later in the day – to a time when Jane couldn’t go because she would be at work, as she had explained to them.

A few days later, the situation still hadn’t been resolved and Jane turned up for her regular shift volunteering at her local foodbank about to head into a weekend of uncertainty, not knowing how she would make ends meet without the monthly payment of £404 she was expecting. “I broke down at the start of the session as the reality hit that I needed the foodbank myself,” she said. “My job doesn’t pay enough to cover my bills, so I wouldn’t have been able to pay them. I wouldn’t have even been able to buy petrol to get to work, let alone food.”

When Jane got home with a food parcel from her foodbank later that day, her six-year-old was “so excited” to unpack the food and see what they’d been given. Though Jane doesn’t tell her child that they’re struggling, “he knows when the cupboards are empty”.

Jane’s Universal Credit payment has now been put right, but only after many phone calls and being told by the dispute team that they wouldn’t adjust it. “It was very stressful,” she said. “It was horrible having to ask for help. I know what I’ve got in my account every day and I’m very good at budgeting. I have to be.”

Sadly, stories such as Jane’s are increasingly common. That’s why Jubilee+ is calling on the Government to make changes to Universal Credit before it’s rolled out. It’s not right or just that when a mistake is made that is not the claimant’s fault, they should have to go through such anxiety. If an overpayment can be adjusted with one phone call, the same should be true of an underpayment.

Significant safeguards against such mistakes need to be put in place before the ‘managed migration’ phase of UC begins next year.

At Jubilee+ we’re hoping to see substantial changes announced in the Autumn Budget, because if the system cannot be made fair, the roll out should be stopped.

*Name has been changed.

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