Universal Credit is making us hungry

If Universal Credit had ears they’d be burning. Barely a week goes by without a headline or news story detailing its roll out as it steadily sweeps across the country – one thing is clear, Universal Credit has well and truly arrived in Scotland.

In fact, it’s been here since 2013, when the first pilot in Inverness took place. But despite five years having passed since then, there are good reasons why Universal Credit has continued to remain in the public’s eye and was the focus of our most recent workshop: The impact of Universal Credit on Food Insecurity in Stirling: Challenges and Solutions.

The Stirling area has been Universal Credit full service since summer 2017. Full service, for those of you not in the know (which is many of us), means that if you try to apply for one of the following six benefits for the first time, including as a result of a change in circumstance, then you will be asked to apply for Universal Credit instead: Income-related ESA, Income-based JSA, Housing Benefit, Working Tax Credit, Income Support and Child Tax Credit. Alongside that, there a bunch of age restrictions so this only applies to working age claimants. And of course there are exceptions to all of the above.

Still with me? Universal Credit takes a while to get your head around.

The social security system is complex and this is the biggest reform that has been witnessed since its inception in the 1940s. In addition to this, Universal Credit does not function in the same way as older (now called legacy) benefits. And therein lies the rub.

Since its pilot and now roll out, communities, local authorities, advice and support services, job centres and food banks are reeling from the impact of getting to grips with a new system which, evidence suggests, is peppered with administrative and built-in issues.

The workshop in Stirling aimed at getting a better understanding of how this seismic change to welfare is effecting people’s access to adequate incomes and ability to meet their most basic of needs. We also wanted to build our understanding of how local services are responding to people’s needs and share their best practice.

This was particularly pertinent because on the day we met the Trussell Trust released new data showing in Universal Credit full service areas demand for emergency food aid had increased by a staggering 52%.

We anticipated a lot of interest in this workshop but we didn’t quite realise how universal an impact this roll out is having. At any given table, there were representatives from nursery schools, social work and education departments, local and national level policymakers, elected members, volunteers and frontline workers from food banks, advice and money services, community food initiatives, and statutory and third sector support services. This list is not exhaustive – our 70 attendees were from a diverse range of backgrounds. It is not often that you look around a room and see people from such different perspectives coming together to try and solve problems with a common issue.

And there is no escaping it: Universal Credit is an issue for many people. We heard from Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland that whilst there are some people who are better off on Universal Credit, there are many who are not and by their estimation it has the potential to push a further million children into poverty.

We also heard some initial findings from our own research that Universal Credit often means reduced and unpredictable incomes, increased reliance on family and friends, skipping meals and having no option but to visit a food bank; all of which was echoed by service providers and local people in Stirling.

The table discussions revealed that local people, frontline workers and services face multiple challenges. The impact on people’s mental and physical health, the sense of stigma and shame attached to having no money, social isolation, increase in rent arrears and ultimately more and more people experiencing acute food insecurity were a few of the difficult circumstances being exacerbated or created by Universal Credit in Stirling.

‘I don’t know about you but I feel depressed’ was how our panel discussion kicked off and it’s easy when faced with these shared experiences to understand why. Scottish and UK Government policy change is needed to fully remedy these issues.
But all is not lost. Alongside challenges, conversations also focused on many examples of good practice and opportunities to work together in both Stirling and beyond to mitigate the impact of Universal Credit.

The landscape of service provision is vast and varied, as demonstrated by the diversity of attendees. This in itself is an opportunity: good communication, partnership working and knowledge of existing services emerged as key to helping people left with no money for food as a result of Universal Credit.

One day was not enough to explore all the various ways in which organisations, agencies and groups are already working together to tackle something as complex as welfare reform – but learning from each other and sharing best practice is a step in the right direction.

There was a strong sense that despite everyone’s efforts to mitigate the impact of Universal Credit, there are fundamental problems with the policy. These need to be fixed before Universal Credit is rolled out any further.

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Author: Anna Baillie, Project Officer