“‘I’m scared to eat sometimes’: UN envoy meets UK food bank users”

“At Britain’s busiest food bank in Newcastle’s west end people loaded carrier bags with desperately needed groceries as unemployed Michael Hunter, 20, took his chance to spell out to one of the world’s leading experts in extreme poverty and human rights just how tight money can get in the UK today.

Previous destinations for Philip Alston, the United Nations rapporteur on the issue, have included Ghana, Saudi Arabia, China and Mauritania. But now his lens is trained on Britain, the fifth richest country in the world, and he listened as Hunter explained an absurdity of the government’s much-criticised universal credit welfare programme.

Users have to go online to keep their financial lifeline open, but computers need electricity – and with universal credit leaving a £465 monthly budget to stretch the three people in Michael’s family (about £5 each a day), they can barely afford it with the meter ticking.

I have to be quick doing my universal credit because I am that scared of losing the electric,” he said. Alston mentally logged the situation, ahead of a report ruling on whether Britain is meeting its international obligations not to increase inequality. But it was not just the computer that was too expensive to power.

“Universal credit has punched us in the face,” said his mother, Denise, 57. “Before much longer people will turn to crime. People will smash the windows to get what they want. This is going to cause riots.”

The Hunters’ story was just one of a long list of stark insights into life in poverty delivered by the people of Newcastle to Alston during his trip to uncover what austerity is doing to the people of the UK and “to investigate government efforts to eradicate poverty”.

Last year his no-holds-barred UN report into the impact of Trump-era policies on the US brought a stinging reaction from the White House. The odds are that Alston will say the UK is far from doing enough to meet its obligations. In 1976 the UK ratified the UN covenant on economic, social and cultural rights agreeing that policy changes in times of economic crisis must not be discriminatory, must mitigate, not increase, inequalities and that disadvantaged people must not be disproportionately affected.

But first he must gather evidence, and Newcastle is a good place to start. It was the first city to introduce the new all-in-one universal credit (UC ) welfare payment. The council says central government cuts and rising demand for services mean 60% is being wiped from its spending power between 2010 and 2020. …

Some people have to work five zero-hours jobs to make ends meet, said Phil McGrath, chief executive of the Cedarwood Trust community centre. The trust is encouraging residents to engage in local and national politics to have their voice heard. It is paying off with some people who have never voted turning out at the last general election, he said.

Mike Burgess, who runs the Phoenix Detached Youth Project, told Alston how 18 publicly funded youth workers in the area in 2011 had dwindled to zero today. He described how a young man he worked with was in hospital for months after having a kidney removed. The jobcentre said he had to get back to work or face being sanctioned (losing benefits). He went to work in pain, but his employer realised and said he was not fit.

“There’s no safety net for my lad or people with mental health problems,” he said.

And that is the hidden cost facing many at the sharpest end of austerity in Newcastle.

“In the last two or three weeks we have seen a massive increase in numbers of people with mental health issues and people with breakdown,” said McGrath, blaming benefit sanctions and a lack of social and mental health workers to catch people. “People are just being ground down.”


Universal Credit – the tide turns

Claimants could be up to £7,500 a year worse off:

For two days a week, I can’t afford to eat:

Benefits freeze could cost Tories next election:

Universal Credit: leading article in “The Times”

“Moral Debit

The botched and underfunded rollout of universal credit is starting to cause real hardship for many of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society.

The shocking deprivation revealed by our investigation today has many causes, but the proximate explanation for the misery being endured by the poorest members of society is the mismanaged and underfunded introduction of universal credit. Despite the extra resources announced in last week’s budget, and the welcome signs that the Department for Work and Pensions is listening to concerns about the impact of the scheme, additional finance and further reform is required.

For many years, universal credit was the holy grail of welfare reform. Rolling the six major benefits into one monthly payment would simplify an over-complex system and ease the transition of claimants into work. The former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith was passionate about universal credit. Her Majesty’s Treasury under George Osborne was less so. As soon as he was able to deliver a budget, in 2015, not dependent on Liberal Democrat votes, Mr Osborne cut £3.2 billion from the new super-benefit’s funds. Soon afterwards Mr Duncan Smith resigned. His big idea, however, limped on, dogged by IT disasters and an exchequer more interested in cuts than reform.

There was and is much to recommend a simplified system. Multiple benefits are so complex that not even some officials, let alone claimants, understand them. The benefit system has, by common consent, trapped generations of Britons in poverty and dependence. Tax credits failed sufficiently to incentivise work, and work is rightly seen as the best long-term solution to rebuilding self-esteem and helping deprived communities.

Yet whatever its faults, the complex system being phased out generally had the merit of keeping a roof over its beneficiaries’ heads and food on their tables. The introduction of universal credit has seen a distressing rise in debt and evictions, hunger and queues at food banks and diseases more normally associated with the 19th century than the 21st, such as rickets and scurvy. The former prime minister Sir John Major has warned of poll-tax style disorder if hardship is not alleviated. By 2023 seven million people will be receiving universal credit. Figures suggest that without reform, 3.2 million households will lose out while only 1.2 million will benefit. The hardest hit will be the self-employed, the disabled and those with more than two children.

The single most urgent reform required is that existing benefits should continue to be paid up until a claimant’s migration to the new system is complete. At present there is a five-week hiatus between the last old payment and the first new one. The government has agreed to shorten this period by 2020, but that is too far away. Poor people live a hand-to-mouth existence. They tend not to have savings or freezers full of food or relatives who can tide them over. They go broke instantly. Hence the phenomenon of teachers buying shoes for pupils and children wolfing down five bowls of cereal at school breakfast clubs.

It would be naive to imagine that all hardship is caused by lack of money. Poor parenting, substance abuse, and other addictions such as gambling play their part. However, a monthly payment can be challenging to people not in the habit of budgeting that far ahead. Domestic violence campaigners have criticised the fact that under universal credit, the household payment is made to the main earner rather than the main carer — a problem for women in abusive relationships or in families dealing with substance abuse.

With public sector pay unshackled and wages starting to rise, not only is welfare still frozen but now it emerges that the transition to a new system has plunged many of the country’s poorest inhabitants into destitution. As Sir John commented: “That is not something that a majority of the British people would think of as fair.” He’s right. It isn’t.”

Universal Credit – even “The Times” can’t stomach it now

Today’s “Times” has several stories about the iniquity of Universal Credit. The “benefit” that you can’t get until you have had at least 5 weeks with no benefits at all.

This follows on from the story Owl printed yesterday about the 9 year old girl from Devon trying to find a job to help her widowed father and two siblings:


The Times has a story about 150 children in a school who desperately need its breakfast club – some eating 5 bowls of cereal because they are so hungry.

A family with 2 children where the father works 12 hour days who can’t afford to pay for a new fridge freezer or even think about Christmas.

The Times notes:

“a Times investigation into poverty in Britain, which discovered that:

• More families stand to lose than gain under the new universal credit benefit, according to a new analysis.

• In-work poverty is higher than at any time in two decades and rising faster than the rate of employment.

• Malnutrition has tripled over the past decade.

• Mr Duncan Smith threatened to make a Treasury official “eat his balls for breakfast” during a row over universal credit.”

As an EDW reader notes:

“Where is the Tories’ moral compass? The article in yesterday’s EDW reduced me to tears… Fat cat bankers – not one went to jail …”

“Universal Credit forces Devon girl, 9, to beg for work after mum died and dad lost job”

“A nine-year-old girl begged for work to feed her family after delayed Universal Credit payments left her dad skint.

The girl made a heartbreaking plea on the phone to a charity, telling how her mum died and that her dad had recently lost his job as a lorry driver in Torbay.

And a five-week delay in her father’s first Universal Credit payment meant the family was left with barely and food.

She said: “I’ll do anything. I don’t mind cleaning floors, making beds,” The Mirror reports.

Ellie Waugh, who took the heartbreaking call yesterday, said the ­youngster was “really worried because her family didn’t have any money”.

She offered to do “any” job to help buy food and get her two younger siblings Christmas presents.

The little girl added: “I don’t want to let them down.”

Ellie said: “I can’t tell you how horrendous it was hearing a child beg for work in this day and age.

“She told me, ‘I don’t mind cleaning floors, making beds. My daddy has always worked and he says you have to work to get things. I’ll do anything I can so I can buy my brother and sister a Christmas present. I can cook and I don’t mind working on a Saturday and Sunday or after school.’ After the call I just cried. Hearing that is like we’ve gone back to Victorian times.”

The dad was raising the three children alone in Torbay after his wife died four years ago. The girl contacted Humanity Torbay, which provides food banks and support for the vulnerable.

CEO Ellie reassured the brave child she would not have to work. She called her dad, who wants to remain nameless, and promised food and support.

Ellie said: “He cried because he was embarrassed but because he is proud of her. Proud that she loved her brother and sister so much she wanted to help them. He said they were literally down to their last few bits in the freezer.”

Ellie and her volunteers visited the family with food parcels last night.

Offers of support also flooded in, with strangers donating Christmas turkeys and presents.

The dad said: “I’m very proud of my daughter and ­horrified I’ve been reduced to this. It’s humbling that people want to help us.”

Ellie has invited Theresa May and work and pensions secretary Esther McVey to visit her charity, but is yet to receive a response.

She said: “I want them to see the reality of what Universal Credit is doing, to see the look of ‘no hope’ in people’s eyes when they come asking for food.”

Lib Dem MP Christine Jardine said: “It is heartbreaking that a young girl was so worried about her family she begged a charity for work. Tory ­ministers cannot put their hands over their ears and pretend they can’t hear her.”