When Alex Tiffin joined Twitter last month to air his grievances on the troubled Universal Credit roll-out, he could hardly have imagined that he would end up working with Hugh Grant to keep foodbanks stocked.
The wheelchair-bound Scot had just eight followers when he tweeted out how his finances will breakdown on the current benefits system, leaving him with just a paltry £10.50 to get through a fortnight after bills. Now, he has more than 3,200 and has started his own blog, Universal Credit Sufferer, to provide weekly updates on the stark realities of life with the blundering benefits system.
Day (1) update of a #UniversalCredit sufferer
Got my fortnightly £92 today
TV licence £12
Baby milk £9.50
Electric & Gas £30
Money left for 2 weeks = £10.50
— Alex (@RespectIsVital) May 4, 2018
His remarkable seven-week journey has taken him to BBC news reports as an expert commenting on the release of a damning report on the Universal Credit roll-out. And it has had him brushing shoulders with film stars.
Alex, who also has neurological problems and Crohn’s disease, and claims that he has lost 25 per cent of his body weight since switching to Universal Credit in November, has also made waves on social media with his #foodbankchallenge.
It’s a simple concept: donate to a foodbank, take a picture, share it online with the hashtag. And, crucially, it had the backing of actor Grant. The Love Actually star got in touch with Alex to learn more about Universal Credit after seeing his tweet go viral and donated to an under-threat foodbank in Airdrie to give them a much-needed boost. He has since followed that up with further donations and a visit to Hammersmith and Fulham foodbank near his London home.
And Grant’s not alone – he’s got BBC World Cup host Gary Lineker and A Very British Scandal co-star and former Inbetweener Blake Harrison involved too.
Thanks @HackedOffHugh for nominating me. Here’s my trolley full of food, now in the caring hands of @hffoodbank @TrussellTrust. I now nominate @RobbieSavage8 for the #FoodBankChallenge pic.twitter.com/DJPGlIxAil
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) May 12, 2018
Alex estimates around 8,000 people have taken part in the challenge – even spreading it to Canada – a timely boost given that national charity Trussell Trust is reporting a 52 per cent rise in demand in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out.
“It’s all happened so quickly. Hugh Grant had a lot of to do with it exploding. He wanted to learn about Universal Credit – he said he knew a bit about it and foodbanks but he didn’t know it was this bad,” said Alex. “He encouraged me to start the challenge – I never thought I’d be working with Hugh Grant on anything but he was so supportive and gave the challenge a bit of a boost.
“It just shows what social media can do. Hugh has stayed with it too – he hasn’t just sent a donation and moved on, he has followed through and not been a one-hit wonder, he genuinely cares.
Delighted to meet Hugh Grant earlier today to thank him personally for his gift, but more importantly to share the reality of the poverty trap experienced by so many people in the UK today. #FoodBankChallenge @TrussellTrust #StopUKHunger #foodbanks pic.twitter.com/p3xRoeXlDe
— H&F Foodbank (@hffoodbank) June 5, 2018
“When you speak to him, he’s just normal and is interested in what you have to say, it is not what I expected. In fact, looking at the day when he made the donation to the Airdrie foodbank, he arranged it on his wedding day with my help, which I didn’t realise at the time – that’s how committed he is, he takes it that seriously.”
There are currently around 1,450 Big Issue sellers working hard on the streets each week.
Alex’s blog posts paint a sombre picture of life on the breadline. And there are no signs of the government halting the roll-out of Universal Credit, despite a damning National Audit Office report released last week slamming its integration so far.
Following a series of setbacks and four revised full roll-out dates, that the government has spent £1.9bn on the project so ahead of the new March 2023 deadline. It’s a far cry from the £2.2bn forecasted spend that would see the system in place by the end of 2017, as announced by then-Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith in 2011.
And that is with only 10 per cent of the total caseload (815,000 claimants) currently on the system.
.@EstherMcVey1: “We are building an agile, adaptable system, fit for the 21st century. We want people to reach their potential, regardless of their circumstances or background – and we will make changes when required, in order to achieve this ambition.”
— DWP Press Office (@dwppressoffice) June 21, 2018
However, the NAO stopped short of calling for Universal Credit to be halted – and Alex accepts that the government is too far down the path to stop now.
“They might not be able to change it at this point but it is not going to get better overnight and we can’t have people starving while we wait for it to get better. We never had to wait before,” said Alex, who was forced to take an advance payment after a seven-and-a-half week wait for his first to arrive. “The idea behind Universal Credit is good but the policies that underpin it are cruel. It’s less about how they can support people and more about what they can cut. There is no well in welfare anymore. It is all about money and it has stopped being about people.”
The DWP has vowed to make Universal Credit a “benefit system fit for the 21stcentury, providing flexible, person-centred support”.
Ok #FoodBankChallenge is doing well. Hugh Grant visited @hffoodbank today and his co star from #AVeryEnglishScandal @blakeharrison23 took the challenge yesterday. Let's keep it going.#foodpoverty is a massive issue across the UK and needs our attention.#StopUKHunger pic.twitter.com/WEvu3leZKo
— Alex (@RespectIsVital) June 5, 2018
Whether they hit that target or not, Alex will be there to blog about, focusing not just on his personal experiences but also looking at the ripple effect on others.
“I’m just sharing my story. They don’t care, it doesn’t matter what I say to them,” said Alex. “But I feel sorry for the people in the job centre on the frontline. They are the face of it but they can only enforce the rules. But it is not just the people who are receiving Universal Credit, it is having a knock-on effect to everyone around it. Rent arrears are rising and landlords are refusing to take people on Universal Credit because they can’t pay.”
More superstars should be following in Grant’s illustrious footsteps to keep foodbanks stocked so we want you to keep an eye out for him or other stars helping out. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.