First Piloted in 2013, Universal Credit sought to replace the 6 traditional benefits present in the UK. See Figure 1:
(Figure 1: Introducing Universal Credit)
As a past receiver of Universal Credit, I have experienced first hand the effects of the 6 week initial payment waiting period. During this 6 week period (which can take longer) applicants are expected to fund and feed themselves. This self-financed period has been attributed with a sharp increase in demand for Food Banks in areas covered under the new Universal Credit scheme. The Trussell Trust has detailed within these areas to have seen a 16.85% average increase in referrals for emergency food, more than double the national average of 6.64%. Within a recent report, the Trussell Trust outlined that for the financial year 2015/16 42% of food bank referrals needed a food bank due to an issue with their benefits. See Figure 2:
(Figure 2: Food Bank Referrals)
Such statistics have become an alarming truth, and ultimately highlight key weaknesses within Universal Credit. Kuth & Vidar (2011) identify that whilst the right to food exists as a individual right or as part of a broader human right in 54 countries globally, the UK is not one of them. This calls into question issues surrounding food security and whether it is the responsibility of the government or the individual to feed oneself?
The ultimate aim of Universal Credit was to increase employment, whilst cutting benefit expenditure. full implementation costs stand at a staggering £15.8bn. When identifying that according to the Trussell Trust report, only 5.03% of its food bank referrals were from long term unemployed, compared to 42% with benefit issues, it surely raises the issue that it isn’t increased unemployment, but the new Universal Credit shortcomings which are increasing food poverty and promoting an over reliance on food banks.
Universal Credit economically prohibits people from accessing food, a key food security principle outlined by Van Braun (1992). Whilst emergency loans are available for applicants, repayments rates are as high as 40% of a claimants monthly amount, increasing the cycle of debt, and increasing the reliance on food banks for claimants towards the long term.
The role of the individual vs the role of the government
With no specific ‘right to food’ present in policy, who does it ultimately fall to when tackling food poverty and ensuring food security?
The conservative government has been (since 2010 as a coalition), and still is the majority government in power in the UK. If Bradshaw’s (2006) theories of poverty are to be deemed correct, then the conservative’s are merely conforming to their ideological roots, reducing expenditure on welfare and increasing the role on the private sector (Poverty as a result of the individual). Two thirds of the UK’s 2000+ food banks currently do not receive any government or council funding, however the government has come to rely increasingly on the presence of food banks due to welfare cuts. Jawad (2016) views this as the resurgence of a two-tier system of employment-based social security and an officially sanctioned system of social safety nets populated in large part by charities (In terms of food poverty referring to food banks). This way the government feels less of a responsibility to tackle food poverty, further enforcing the classical conservative view of blaming the individual.
Are food banks the answer?
Can food banks really be the answer to improving food security in the UK, countering the effects cause by Universal Credit to food security? Jawad (2016) suggests not. She puts forward the notion that food banks are no more than glorified food aid. Her data suggests there has been a 50% increase in the meals provided between 2013 and 2015 by 3 of the largest food providers (The Trussell Trust, Fareshare and Food Cycle). Often people are using food banks for extended periods, sometimes for 12 weeks or more. Increased use has led to many food banks suffering food shortages. The Trussell Trust shows first hand the scale of this increase in Figure 3:
(Figure 3: Trussell Trust Food Given)
A major factor also criticising the increased use of food banks as an alternative to state welfare relates to the the nutritional value of food given. Pritchard et al (2016) view that as food banks have increased, access to fresh, health food for those reliant has become a concern. As the majority of food banks do not access central (government) funding, they rely heavily on public donations. These donations in turn include little fresh produce (The average food parcel contains long life, non perishable tinned and dried foods such as Pasta, Beans and Cereal). Whilst the Trussell Trust claim that their parcels are nutritionally balanced, evidence has highlighted dependent families becoming deficient in fibre, calcium, iron and a variety of vitamins (Oxfam 2014).
What’s the Solution?
This blog highlights two key issues related to food security; economics and nutrition.
Whilst I have criticised the long term effectiveness of food banks at tackling food security in the UK, their role in offering protection for vulnerable people is vital (Oxfam 2014). As explored, their rapid increase has been as a direct impact of the introduction of Universal Credit. Changes to the welfare system are clearly needed. See Figure 4:
Food is a necessity for life (Coveney 2013). Whilst poverty in the UK is considered relative, it costs the government £79bn per year . More however still needs to be done. Calls for reforms to Universal Credit have been echoed through ex conservative prime minister John Major and the action taken by the SNP in Scotland. Either Universal Credit needs to provide a stronger safety net e.g. immediate welfare support, or an alternative, longer term solution to food banks needs to explored, one which puts less pressure on the individual and increases government responsibility. An example of this includes state supported national kitchens, a historically tested nutritionally rich alternative.
Either way, until change occurs, echoes of Tony Blair’s (Tory scraped) 2020 vision for poverty reduction will not ring true, and food insecurity will remain, ushering in yet another Christmas of uncertainty for families in the in the UK: Figure 5:
(Figure 5: The Guardian- food insecurity)