Universal Credit is forcing families into debt as they struggle to feed their children and cover the costs of childcare, MPs this week were told.
In a parliamentary hearing on holiday poverty on Wednesday (July 3), desperate parents explained how Universal Credit – the Tory government’s flagship welfare reform that combines six benefits into one – has created a perverse system where they must choose between going to work or be slammed with extortionate childcare fees plunging them into debt.
Of the countless design flaws in Universal Credit is the requirement that families pay for childcare upfront, and then claim the cost back afterwards.
Nicola Salvato, a mother and Universal Credit claimant, explained how outside of term time, her childcare costs skyrocket.
“I’m working, so my child is being looked after during the summer holidays,” she said. “I’ve had to reduce my working hours to manage the upfront costs for childcare. But I’ve still got to come up with, for August, about £750 on top of my rent, food, travel costs and all of that.”
Another parent giving evidence, Karen Rotheram, said of Universal Credit, ‘the whole thing is a nightmare’.
As she struggled to cover the cost of childcare, she told of how the Job Centre questioned why she didn’t simply allow her 12-year-old child to look after her nine-year-old child.
“I think [it’s] absolutely ridiculous because he’s still a child himself,” she said. “We all want to work, but I don’t think we get the help. They don’t explain things to you. They just say: ‘Look for work, there’s your job, bye.’”
Mother Dawn Taplin of Birkenhead told MPs how she was forced onto Universal Credit after her circumstances changed. As the system works now, even the slightest change such as a new address or mobile number, means they must move from legacy benefits onto Universal Credit.
And that’s when the ‘nightmare’ only just begins, Dawn explained.
“They told me to wait six weeks for the money,” she said. “While I was waiting they told me to go to the food bank because I have a nine-year-old son to feed and I just started work so I had to wait a month for my wages.”
Practically destitute, she went to her local ‘One Stop Shop’ where people access council services to get a voucher for a foodbank – only to be told she needed to provide bank statements evidencing her need.
She was also told by the Job Centre that she could get a £900 loan to bridge the gap as she waited six weeks for her first Universal Credit payment – but because it was only a loan, she would have to pay back £100 each month afterwards.
“Straightaway you’re in debt,” she explained.
“There’s always cereal”
All parents who gave evidence at this week’s joint Work and Pensions and Education committee hearing told of how they struggled to feed their children, and in the process how they themselves often had to go without.
When Work and Pensions committee chair Frank Field asked whether over the holidays they had enough feed themselves after they fed their children, one mother said, “There’s always cereal isn’t there?”
The panel of parents likewise said they depended heavily on community centres over the summer for food and other forms of support.
“We wouldn’t survive without them,” Dawn told MPs. “They are our backbone.”
‘Solidarity not charity’
A Unite Community branch in Norfolk has become part of this backbone in Norwich, where for the second year running it will provide free packed lunches for children in one of the most deprived wards in the country.
Last summer, the project provided more than 400 lunches on a first-come, first-serve basis – no questions asked as long as children were accompanied by an adult (pictured). And this year, explains Unite Community Norfolk branch secretary Brian Green, they plan to double this figure.
So far, the project which also operates over other school holidays such as Christmas and Easter, has given out nearly 1200 meals.
“Universal Credit, which was introduced in the area last October, has really hit the area hard,” Brian explained. “In concert with our lunch clubs, our Unite Community branch has recognised that we must also lobby politically to change the system that creates the need for these lunches in the first place. That’s why our slogan is ‘solidarity not charity’ – it means helping our communities while we try to change the conditions politically.”
Now, the branch is campaigning for two key demands to tackle holiday hunger – for government funding to be provided so that free school meals continue over the school holidays, or alternatively for benefits payments to be raised to compensate parents for the loss of free school meals.
Commenting on Tuesday’s Parliamentary hearing, Brian pointed out that every single one of the parents giving evidence were all in employment.
“Universal Credit is not only an attack on the unemployed but also increasingly an attack on workers in receipt of tax credits or in-work credits — with a view to reducing these benefits by forcing claimants to work additional hours,” Brian told UniteLive. “Either way the ultimate aim of Universal Credit is to reduce the benefit bill no matter the consequences. Any talk of ending austerity is a mirage.”
Stop and scrap call
Nationally, Unite Community will hold a day of action on August 1 with the call to stop and scrap Universal Credit. The theme of this year’s annual day of action against Universal Credit is holiday hunger, an issue so poignantly highlighted by parents at this week’s parliamentary hearing.
Commenting, Unite Community national co-ordinator Liane Groves said, “Heart-breaking testimony from struggling families on the frontline of the Universal Credit shambles illuminates just how cruel and dysfunctional the system is.”
“Particularly during the holidays, hunger is foisted onto innocent children whose parents are being plunged into debt, rent arrears and forced to turn to food banks. The flaws in the system are simply too huge to rectify. That’s why we at Unite Community are campaigning for Universal Credit to be scrapped entirely and replaced with a social security system that provides enough for people to live on and that treats people fairly and with dignity. We ask everyone to join our national day of action in August to send the message loud and clear.”
Find out more about Unite Community’s national campaign against Universal Credit, and how you can take part here.