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“It's a hellish system”: the reality of life on Universal Credit

Foodbanks, arrears and psychiatric care – read the heartbreaking accounts of those surviving day-to-day as the government's new benefits system comes into force

Food bank Trussell Trust

More people in the UK used foodbanks to feed themselves over the Christmas period than ever before. Last December, demand for Trussell Trust supplies increases by almost 50 per cent, and the numbers through their doors last Christmas were expected to be 13 per cent higher than the previous year. But who are the people forced to depend on foodbanks?

Maria Amos (56), Wirral, Merseyside: “I had a seasonal job working at Chester Zoo towards the end of 2015, and after I finished that I was told I was going onto Universal Credit. I was told there would be a wait and there was no way of getting help in the meantime.

I was in the deepest, darkest place. No gas, no electric on. I was down to about six stone, I think. I was on the verge of ending it all

“I was on my own and I had no money at all. There was five weeks when I had absolutely nothing coming in. So I had no choice but to go to the Wirral Foodbank. They were lovely, smashing people but I was in such a bad way that after a while I couldn’t really even get out to the food bank. There was a local church group that helped then – they very were kind and came to see me and delivered the food.

“I was in the deepest, darkest place. No gas, no electric on. I was down to about six stone, I think. I was on the verge of ending it all. A neighbour knocked on my door to check on me, and I burst into tears, in such a terrible state. So they got an ambulance for me and I was in hospital for a while, in psychiatric care.

“After I began to recover I finally got the Universal Credit – it’s around £52 a week now. But I had built up council tax arrears and arrears with my landlord which I’m still trying to pay. So in terms of my health and mental health, it’s been difficult – I’m still constantly anxious about money. I’m getting Personal Independence Payment (PIP) benefit now, which helps.

“The thing is, I had always worked, I’ve had some good jobs, and that’s supposed to be what the government wants you to do. But going through all this with the welfare system, I can’t work now. I’m just trying to keep my head above water, and I’m hoping to find a new place to live when I have the debts paid off. It’s 2018 and people in Britain are going cap in hand for food. Awful.”

Peter* (45), London: “Unfortunately I got laid off at work about six months ago. I was working as a data analyst in London and for whatever reason it didn’t work out. After that the bills began to pile up and pile up. Since then I’ve been struggling to pay the rent, pay the bills, and put food on my table.

I’ve been relying on a food parcel to get a decent meal every day. Otherwise I wouldn’t be eating

“I’ve claimed unemployment benefit before, but claiming Universal Credit was different. There was a delay of nearly two months before I got my first payment. The paperwork was so confusing. Once it finally kicked in – I get about £315 a month – I’ve been using it to cover debts and nothing else, really – fuel bills, telephone bills, council tax arrears.

“I’ve been struggling so much I’ve been going to the Sufra NW London Foodbank in the Stonebridge Park area. They’ve been good. I’ve been relying on their food parcel to get a decent meal every day. Otherwise I wouldn’t be eating.

“Those are the circumstances I’m in now. You have to try to deal with. I’ve been homeless before, living in a shelter in central London. So I know how bad things can get. I’m been applying for jobs, trying to get around and find work, and I’m just hoping to get something to survive, financially.”

Tracey Culham (53), Newcastle: “I finished working with Gregg’s in April last year, and my problems with Universal Credit started then. I had 18p in my bank account. I was to go onto Universal Credit and the Job Centre told me it would take about six weeks to sort out. But I didn’t get my first Universal Credit payment until November. So it was actually about six months without money.

I still struggle to understand what’s happening with the Universal Credit and the arrears – this money I don’t see. Nobody can explain it to me. It’s a hellish system and I think they should scrap it altogether

“It was so difficult. I rent from a housing association in Newcastle, and I began building up rent arrears. I was on my own, had no money coming in, and had no way to get food. I went to the local food bank, which was a degrading thing to go through, even though I know the women there do good work.

“By the end of last year I finally got onto the amount I was actually due under Universal Credit – just over £300 a month. But last year my problem was the debt that’s built up. I’ve got almost £2,000 worth of rent arrears by now. The DWP hasn’t backdated the money I should have got last year.

“I recently got a part-time job working for the NHS as a domestic, and I’ve being doing a lot of overtime, so whatever small amount of housing benefit I get now through Universal Credit goes to the housing association for the arrears, I think.

“To be honest, I still struggle to understand what’s happening with the Universal Credit and the arrears – this money I don’t see. Nobody can explain it to me. It’s a hellish system and I think they should scrap it altogether. I actually hand in a couple of tins to the local food bank now, when I can manage it, because I’ve been there and I know what it’s like.”

Foodbanks and Universal Credit

The Trussell Trust – the organisation running hundreds of the UK’s foodbanks – has called for a pause on the Universal Credit roll-out. The charity has revealed Universal Credit roll-out areas have seen demand for foodbank parcels surge by 30%. “Our network is working hard to stop people going hungry but…we’re concerned that foodbanks could struggle to meet demand this winter,” said the Trust’s interim chief executive Mark Ward.

Responding to a deluge of criticism, the government says the long delay between a Universal Credit claim and first payment will be cut from six weeks to five weeks from this month. Housing benefit will continue for an extra two weeks after the start of a claim, and crisis loans can now be repaid over 12 months rather than six.

Citizens Advice – the charity that has now helped people with over 100,000 separate issues with Universal Credit – welcomed the changes but said more had to be done. “The next step will be to make changes to work incentives, so that no one is left worse off under Universal Credit than they would be under previous benefits,” said chief executive Gillian Guy.

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