Mon, 03 Dec 2018
Richard Benyon - Conservative
NEWBURY MP Richard Benyon has claimed the impact of Universal Credit is not the “clear-cut” reason as to why the foodbank usage has soared across West Berkshire.
A year on since the welfare reform was rolled out across the district, Mr Benyon staunchly defended the controversial welfare benefit – brought in by his Conservative Government – which merges six tax credits into one lump payment.
Last week, West Berks Foodbank surpassed the number of people it fed during the whole of last year – in just 34 weeks.
West Berks Foodbank chairman Andrew Bruce believes Universal Credit – the largest welfare reform Britain has seen in a generation which was introduced in West Berkshire last December – has been a significant driving force behind the increase.
But pinpointing Universal Credit as the sole cause for the rise in the foodbank’s usage is inaccurate, Mr Benyon claimed.
Speaking about the rise across the district’s foodbanks, Mr Benyon said: “The reasons people use foodbanks are complex and I believe it is wrong to link rises or falls to any one cause.
“A couple of years ago, we had a significant decline in use of our local foodbank and I certainly never used that to say it was an indicator of anything significant in our welfare system or the economy at large.
“I do not think it is clear-cut to say that the increase is down to Universal Credit entirely.”
When asked whether he denied that Universal Credit had impacted on the rise in foodbank usage, Mr Benyon reiterated his trust in Mr Bruce and his team, stating: “I would certainly never dismiss their [the foodbank’s] claims.
“To be perfectly honest, I and my team were prepared for a deluge of case work when Universal Credit started to be rolled out.
“The truth is, we have haven’t had a lot of cases.”
But he added that the new flagship system was not without its challenges, saying: “The Government is spending more on benefits now than it has in the past.
“I am not the first to admit there are teething problems – there will always be problems with the new system.
“But for the vast majority of people, Universal Credit is a better system than tax credits.
“I’ve had people who have come up to me in the street to say it’s a better system.
“But for a small number of people it can mean a significant increase for agencies, like the foodbank.”
The Trussell Trust, which operates 428 of Britain’s food banks, including West Berkshire’s, reported in April that its facilities were four times busier in areas where the new credit had been in place for 12 months or more, compared with those where it had been introduced more recently.
West Berks Foodbank fed 2,791 clients over a 12-month period from April 1, 2017, to March 31, 2018.
Since April 1 this year, it has fed more than 2,890 people.
In light of the huge rise, it is predicted the charity will feed around 5,360 people by March 1, 2019 – which would mean an increase of 92 per cent on last year.
Universal Credit merges six benefits – income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit and working tax credit – into one.
The monthly sum, which is paid to millions of people across the country, is intended to make claiming benefits simpler.
But in many cases, new claimants have to wait up to five weeks before they receive their first payment.
In September, the Chancellor announced in his autumn Budget plans to inject £1bn over the next five years to help people who are being moved on to the new system, which Mr Benyon said helped “incentivise people to get into work”.
Speaking about foodbanks in general, the MP added: “I’m a great supporter of foodbanks, which make a huge difference to people’s lives all around the country and people’s lives who are in great chaos.
“It’s a fantastic safety net for them.”
The Trussell Trust does not specifically identify Universal Credit as one of is ‘crisis causes’ when people are referred to a foodbank.
But West Berks Foodbank has recorded significant increases in foodbank usage in certain crisis categories, including ‘other’, ‘benefit changes’ and ‘benefit delays’ – all three of which, Mr Bruce says, account for clients who are “somewhere in the system” when accessing or being moved on to Universal Credit.
Mr Bruce said: “The difficulty that we have is when Universal Credit claims start and when they finish.
“People can still be running into Universal Credit issues 12 months from now.
“If you have to wait five weeks for your salary, and you don’t have any other money, what are you going to do?
“You’re going to knock on the door and say, ‘Can I have some food please?’”
Earlier this week we released new figures about #foodbank use in Dec - it’s good to see MPs across the political spectrum acknowledge the issue, but to stop hunger we need policy change. As a first, urgent step, we want to see changes to #UniversalCredit > https://t.co/pEzaa1GoOU— The Trussell Trust (@TrussellTrust) December 2, 2018