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Universal Credit changes sees foodbank queues in Islington

“The government’s policy is one of deliberate destitution and it needs to end,” says councillor

02 November, 2018 — By Emily Finch

Savvas Pans of the Pilion Trust 


A FOODBANK has seen a huge surge in demand because of the new universal credit benefits system, raising fears that families are struggling to make ends meet.

Savvas Panas, who runs a foodbank in Caledonian Road, said requests for food and hygiene products had tripled compared with the same time last year.

“Around 60 per cent of the people coming here are now on universal credit,” he said. “What we’ve also found is that when families come to collect food they are picking salad and fruit, things that don’t need cooking. It’s leading us to believe they can’t afford electricity or gas to cook.”

Claimants have told the Tribune their payments have been “slashed” because of mistakes made during the introduction of the scheme that can take weeks to resolve.

Mr Panas, who works for the Pilion Trust foodbank and runs a homeless shelter for young people over the winter months, said there was an average five-week wait before people received benefits under the new system.

“They have to come here while they wait or they won’t be able to eat,” he said.

Around 4,000 people are already on universal credit in Islington, with the system to be fully rolled out in April next year.

The system brings six “legacy” benefits – including unemployment benefits, tax credits and housing benefits – together in a single

monthly payment to claimants. While it has been designed to make things easier for claimants and encourage them into work, Islington Council estimates 44 per cent of households will be worse off.

Many are facing rent arrears averaging around £1,060 – eight times more than those not on the new system. New benefits applicants must apply for universal credit.

Mr Panas is helping someone every two days with a universal credit application, which can take four hours to complete.

A 50-year old woman, who did not wish to be named but was being assisted by Mr Panas on Wednesday, told the Tribune she and her disabled husband were given just over £200 for this month under universal credit to cover household spending. Her husband cannot work because of chronic pain.

She asked: “How am I meant to survive on this? They’ve also made a mistake with my income amount, which means I am getting even less money this month.”

Mr Panas said: “The majority of people who come here are not computer literate. The older people are less tech savvy. We’re lucky if they have a brick phone.

“There is no way they can go through that application alone. It’s meant to be easier but it’s not.”

He added that claimants faced “significant delays” during credit checks, especially if they previously lived in a homeless hostel or on the streets.

Another foodbank user, Jonathan, who did not wish to give his surname, said he was unable to apply for universal credit because his ID was out of date.

“But I don’t have money to get a new ID so I have to go to the foodbank,” he said.

The Trussell Trust, which runs a network of foodbanks throughout the country, has said it has seen an increase of 52 per cent in people coming to it in areas where universal credit has been rolled out.

Councillor Andy Hull, Islington’s executive member for finance, performance and community safety, said: “Even when a claimant does everything right, and even when their local authority goes the extra mile to support them, universal credit is driving people into poverty. Both locally and nationally, more people lose money as a result of moving to universal credit than gain.

“The government’s policy is one of deliberate destitution and it needs to end.”

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “We’re incentivising work and restoring fairness to the system, while supporting people from all backgrounds. That’s why we continue to spend over £90bn a year on support for those who need it, including those who are bringing up a family or on a low income.

“The reasons why people use foodbanks are complex, so it’s wrong to link a rise to any one cause.”

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