Opinion

Next government must increase universal credit so people have enough money to survive

Cass Francis of the Trussell Trust's Southend Foodbank writes about why it's so important that the next government implements an essentials guarantee into universal credit – so that benefit claimants have the money they need to survive

food bank/ universal credit

The inadequacies of the current universal credit system means people are having to turn to food banks because they cannot afford the essentials. Image: The Trussell Trust

We’re already more than week into this election campaign, and the silence around poverty has been deafening. No party has even mentioned the issue, let alone put forward policies to support the ever-increasing number of people who are struggling to get by.

I can’t understand this. We know that 79% of the UK public agree that poverty in the UK is a big problem, with almost three in four believing it’s the government’s responsibility to change this.

In my day-to-day life, I couldn’t agree more. I see people coming through the doors of the food bank because they are living in a state of deprivation. They haven’t got enough money (because their income is too low) to afford even the essentials, like food, heating and toiletries. Luxuries like having a holiday are a million miles away from their reality.

Unfortunately, the palpable apathy that political candidates and the main parties are showing at the levels of poverty in the UK, suggest that they consider concerns around the cost of living to be temporary.

The cost of living payments, while gratefully received, were not enough to cover the rising costs of food, fuel and rent over the past few years, and our food bank numbers prove it. And without even these payments in the coming year, I fear life will get even harder for the people we support.

In Southend, we’ve seen food bank need increase at a rapid rate, especially in the last few years. In 2019/20 we distributed 6,525 emergency food parcels, and this rose to 20,491 over the last year – that’s a 214% increase in the past four years, with no sign things are ever going to improve.

The tide needs to turn quickly before more people are pulled into poverty, and that’s why the next government needs to prioritise urgently reforming the social security system so it provides better protection from having to go without the essentials.

In the longer term, we need to be working towards an essentials guarantee in universal credit, ensuring that universal credit at least covers the costs of essentials. That is the best shot we have as a nation at ensuring that people on the lowest incomes have a chance of coping with the core costs of life.

Reforming social security so universal credit goes further to cover the cost of essentials would mean people would have the dignity of being able to purchase their own food. They would be able to afford the bus to a medical appointment, and a school uniform that fits their kid.

And they would no longer be burdened with the relentless stress of an unexpected bill plunging them deeper into debt. It would also mean that we would likely see a reduction in the number of people we are supporting because if people can afford food, they won’t need to be referred to a food bank, and they can move towards the financial security that they deserve.

No one wants to visit a food bank but for many people it is their only option. If you are in a job that doesn’t pay enough, or have caring responsibilities that prevent you from working, or you don’t have family or friends who can support you, food banks like mine are the last resort.

We, and food banks across the country, welcomed the uprating of benefits in the last fiscal statement but this was only a temporary reprieve from the pain. The uplift didn’t come in immediately and, in the time that it took to implement, inflation continued to rise. That meant that even with an increase in the rate of universal credit, by the time it came in prices had already skyrocketed.



The people I meet at the food bank aren’t being given the opportunity to lift themselves out of the situation they’ve found themselves in. Every person in our society has the right to a basic standard of living. We are all part of society: children, pensioners, people with disabilities that prohibit them from working. All are as much a part of society as a working age person with a well-paid job.

Every single penny in the pockets of the people I meet is accounted for long before it even comes into their bank account, and that is why our team at Southend Foodbank are there. We provide emergency food, we provide advice to help people access the financial support they’re eligible for, we provide so much all in one place so that people know they’ve got somewhere they can turn to and trust. However, charitable food aid is not the answer in the long term – the change needed to end the need for food banks has to come from the government.

We need our next government, and the opposition, to take urgent action to turn back this tide. Reform universal credit so it gives better protection from going without the essentials. Improve support for disabled people and speed up access to disability benefits. Strengthen workers’ rights so a job really means someone doesn’t need a food bank. Build more social homes so people don’t end up at a food bank because their rent is unaffordable or they’ve been made homeless. We need MPs to shout loudly from back benches about the changes needed to better support their constituents.

If they don’t prioritise addressing poverty and commit to long-term solutions rather than short-term sticking plasters, my fear is that food banks will begin to be seen as the new normal. And there is nothing normal about people not being able to afford something as essential as food.

The generational trauma I have witnessed of seeing a grandma, a mum and her daughter from the same family, sitting in a food bank together, waiting for food they didn’t get to choose for themselves to be given to them, is horrifying.

Our next government needs to give us hope. We know what needs to change but we need the decision makers to take action. And only when that happens will I be able to close the door of our food bank for good.

Cass Francis is communications and campaigns coordinator at Southend Foodbank.

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