Social Justice

Welfare system 'broken' for disabled people, say food banks

Charities including the Independent Food Aid Network and Feeding Britain are calling for long-term changes to stop a decade of food insecurity.

Anti-poverty charities have urged the government to enact root and branch reform to the UK’s social security system, after presenting new data that underscored how poverty stems far back before the pandemic.

As pressure ramps up on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to abandon September’s planned £20-a-week cut to universal credit (UC), which at least one in seven Tory MPs now oppose, charities have called for reform to go further to address pre-pandemic destitution.

The Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), Feeding Britain, researchers at the University of York and the Living Wage Foundation said that while the pandemic has exacerbated food insecurity – particularly for the self-employed and disabled – the underlying causes stretch back a decade.

Families with at least one disabled member and receiving welfare payments suffered a real terms annual cut of £624 between 2010 and 2020, according to the House of Commons Library, whereas families without a dsiabled member and not receiving welfare saw a real terms annual increase of £728.

“Food banks cannot continue to take responsibility for the impact of a broken disability benefits system and insecure and inadequately paid employment,” said Sabine Goodwin, coordinator of IFAN, which represents over 500 independent food aid organisations.

“As the upcoming cut to Universal Credit is set to push yet more people into poverty and food insecurity, it is more important than ever that the government makes fundamental changes to the social security system and ensures that wages and working hours match the cost of living,” she said.

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Food insecurity impacted 4.7 million adults – 9 per cent of UK households – in the six months to March 2021, according to the Food Foundation, rising from a pre-pandemic rate of 7.6 per cent of households.

In 2009 there were only 30 Trussell Trust food banks operating in the UK. A decade later, there are now over 2,100 in total – more food banks than branches of McDonald’s.

“While the pandemic has prompted the government to repair a number of holes in our country’s safety net, these findings shine a bright light on the many holes that still exist,” said Andrew Forsey, Feeding Britain’s national director. “If we are to abolish hunger and eliminate the need for food banks, every last one of those holes needs to be repaired.”

The charities, partnering with backbench MPs, are set to propose a series of “poverty-busting” private members bills when parliament resits this autumn.

“The bills being presented to parliament on the back of these findings will offer the Prime Minister the tools he needs,” Forsey added.

A government spokesperson told The Big Issue: “Universal credit has provided a vital safety net for six million people during the pandemic, and we announced the temporary uplift as part of a £400 billion package of measures put in place that will last well beyond the end of the roadmap.”

The spokesperson added that National Living Wage is now 33 per cent higher than the minimum wage in 2015, and said the annual earnings of a full-time worker on the National Living Wage has increased by around £4,000.

But anti-poverty charities say the story of the last ten years has been one of cuts and growing food insecurity.

The number of self-employed people losing work and forced to use food banks rocketed to five times its previous level, according to Feeding Britain analysis of Institute for Fiscal Studies data.

“Listening to people with direct experience of poverty and food insecurity and to food banks it is clear the devastation that government cuts over the past decade have caused for disabled people and those in low paid, insecure work,” said Maddy Power, research fellow at the University of York and IFAN co-char.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, it is vital that we learn from people with direct experience of poverty in order to rectify a broken social security system and ensure financial security for all.”

Labour’s shadow DWP secretary, Jonathan Reynolds, echoed calls to scrap UC and remake the benefit system.

“Labour will do everything possible to fight this cut and replace universal credit with a fairer social security system,” Reynolds told The Big Issue.

In the short term, Reynolds urged the Prime Minister to rethink September’s cut.

“Taking £1,000 a year from millions of struggling families, inflicting the biggest overnight cut to social security in modern times, is economically and morally the wrong decision. Yet again this government have shown they aren’t on the side of working people,” Reynolds said.

He added: “The Prime Minister must see sense, back struggling families and cancel this devastating cut.”

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