BENEFIT CHANGES: '˜Lots of people using food banks are in work'

Families who are '˜just about managing' could find life even tougher now new benefits changes are coming in, according to an academic studying the system.

Monday, 10th April 2017, 2:21 pm
Updated Tuesday, 9th May 2017, 6:45 pm

“We are told that paid work is the route out of poverty but for many people that isn’t the case.”

That’s the gloomy assessment of Britain in 2017 by Dr Chris Grover, a senior lecturer at Lancaster University.

He is an expert in poverty and social security and he thinks that Government changes now being made to some families’ benefits could have dire consequences.

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Morecambe Bay Foodbank co-ordinator Annette Smith with volunteers Joe Fisher, Ruth Fisher, Roger Berridge, Tony Ledwidge, Bob Moran, Robin Moran and Jane Berridge in the Pick Room at the foodbank base in the GYM Church on Clarence Street, Morecambe.

The main losers could well be working couples with children rather than the unemployed. These couples and single parents are still in work and still struggling to make ends meet.

What this year’s benefits will mean is that some will have less spare cash, despite the minimum wage rising from £7.20 to £7.50.

From now on, most people will only get Child Tax Credit for up to two children.

That comes on top of a new benefits cap of £23,000 per household in London and £20,000 in the rest of the country.

Morecambe Bay Foodbank co-ordinator Annette Smith with volunteers Joe Fisher, Ruth Fisher, Roger Berridge, Tony Ledwidge, Bob Moran, Robin Moran and Jane Berridge in the Pick Room at the foodbank base in the GYM Church on Clarence Street, Morecambe.

Dr Grover said the actual benefits bill for Britain was surprisingly low compared to other countries but the benefits system was extremely complicated and the Government was trying to simplify procedures.

He said studies had found that 200,000 more children would be thrown into poverty by 2020 as a direct result of the two-children rule.

And the use of food banks across the country would continue as families could not get the support from the Government. Dr Grover said: “It does seem astonishing, but many people using food banks are in work.

“We are told that paid work is the route out of poverty, but for many people that isn’t the case. What about people on the minimum wage?

“What about people on zero hours contracts whose work may be withdrawn or reduced at any time? If that happens how you feed the people in your house?”

Although the minimum wage has now risen, there is evidence that employers that are unwilling or unable to pay their staff more simply cut their hours. And if a worker is on a zero hours contract, they may have to wait longer for the phone to ring offering a day’s work.

Dr Grover said the Left would claim benefits cuts were an attack by the Tories on the poor; other would say the Government was simply trying to balance the books.

But the reality was that many claimants in and out of work would suffer.

He added: “I think this will be a problem for the foreseeable future. It’s all conjecture - we have yet to see what the impact of a change of Government might actually be.”

Official figures obtained by BBC1’s Panorama show that at least 67,600 households lost benefits in England, Scotland and Wales following the introduction of the benefits cap in November 2016.

Of those, 11 per cent - or 7,585 families - saw their housing benefit cut to 50p a week.

The highest proportions of capped households who ended up with 50p a week to pay for their accommodation included Blackburn and Wigan, with 26 per cent affected.

Government response

The Government says its benefits changes will give many claimants the incentive to get back to work - leading to happier and better lives for their children.

Welfare Minister Caroline Nokes, pictured right, stressed that emergency funds were available in cases of hardship.

She told BBC1’s Panorama: “We’ve put in a significant amount of support including discretionary housing payments, to make sure people are able to adjust to the new level of the benefit cap.”

She said the benefit cap was introduced to “level up the playing field between families who are in work and those who are reliant on benefits.”

“What we sought to do was incentivise work because we know that the outcomes for children will be better if they are in families that are working.”

The Government has stressed that Child Tax Credit payments for all children born before before April 6 2017 will continue.

Parcels handouts almost double in Bay area

Food bank usage in the Lancaster district has reached record levels once again, according to volunteers.

In February, the number of food parcels being handed out to “desperate” people in the Lancaster and Morecambe area almost doubled.

Volunteers at the pioneering Morecambe Bay Foodbank, part of the Trussell Trust franchise, say that things are getting worse, and changes to the benefits system is mostly to blame.

Food bank manager Annette Smith said the initial plan in 2012 was to run the food bank for five years, but she is now looking at a 10-year plan in order to meet the growing need.

Roger Berridge, who has volunteered at the foodbank in Green Street for the last five years, said the transition to Universal Credit is forcing people into situations where they don’t receive any income.

Some go without any income at all for up to seven weeks.

He said: “Just lately it’s been crazy. Some people want to come in, get a bag, and go because they’re so embarassed, others are in great distress.

“I’ve dealt with several people crying because they’re so humiliated about coming here, but they’ve got family to feed.

“It’s distressing to see people like that. You think you’ll get used to it but you don’t.”

One of Roger’s roles is to listen to people when they attend the foodbank to collect food parcels.

“I greet clients when they come in, check their vouchers, and see what else they need,” he said.

“I’ll help them with the fresh produce that comes in, and just chat while the food is being prepared.”

Roger reckons a lot of the need is to do with the introduction of Universal Credit.

“There’s no income during the transition,” he said.

“There’s a lot of people that have lost jobs. I spoke to a girl who went in to work one morning and they said we don’t need you anymore. She has five children.

“I don’t think people can look long-term.

“Some of our clients have jobs, lots of them on zero-hours contracts.

“Their car breaks down, washing machine stops working - people are getting deeper and deeper into debt.”

Roger said he didn’t think Universal Credit would sort the foodbank issue out.

He said: “The only thing that will sort this is creating new jobs.

“People are still out of work, despite saying they’d literally do anything.

“Others are one pay check away from desperation.”

“We get mechanics, electricians, they just can’t find work. But most people who come in have serious problems.

“To say they’re sponging is just nonsense.

“We try and ease their situation, but things are getting worse, certainly since before Christmas, which I put down to Universal Credit.”

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