Foodbank fears ‘awful’ no-deal Brexit amid huge rise in children relying on donations

Volunteers at Colchester Foodbank, pictured in 2014 Picture: PHIL MORLEY

Volunteers at Colchester Foodbank, pictured in 2014 Picture: PHIL MORLEY - Credit: Archant

Volunteers at an Essex foodbank fear a no-deal Brexit could spark a “tsunami” in demand – in the wake of a 40% increase in the number of children relying on food parcels.

Colchester Foodbank manager Michael Beckett Picture: GREGG BROWN

Colchester Foodbank manager Michael Beckett Picture: GREGG BROWN

The manager of Colchester Foodbank shared his concerns about the impact no-deal could have on the economy after number of children receiving donations rose by more than a third in the first six months of this year, compared with the same time frame in 2018.

A total of 1,580 youngsters were fed by the foodbank between January and June 2019, up from 1,126 in the first six months of 2018.

The charity believes the main reasons for referral are redundancy, benefit delays associated with the rollout of Universal Credit (UC), and unexpected bills received by people relying on a minimum low wage or zero-hours contract.

In its annual report for 2019, Colchester Foodbank reported an average of 650 clients per month, many of whom have "reached rock bottom, feel helpless, often angry with themselves and often don't know what to do next".

Will Quince, MP for Colchester and newly-appointed Minister for Welfare Delivery Picture: ARCHANT

Will Quince, MP for Colchester and newly-appointed Minister for Welfare Delivery Picture: ARCHANT - Credit: Archant

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The charity added that one in three of those relying on donations are children.

Michael Beckett, manager of the foodbank, said single-parent families are the charity's "biggest client group", if children are taken into account.

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"The problem with single parents is they only have one income," he said.

"If the washing machine goes or the car goes - whatever the crisis, they are less able to cope because they are clearly the most vulnerable."

He added: "Sometimes we do have whole families coming in. We try to be a relaxed, informal place, but that doesn't mean that people are not necessarily suffering.

"We do have seven or eight-year-olds carrying a bag for mum.

"We are a crisis service. We need people not to starve."

In the six months from January to June, Colchester Foodbank fed 4,106 people in 2019, compared with 3,144 in 2018, and 2,832 in 2017; and the demand is only expected to rise in the lead up to Christmas.

Mr Beckett encouraged anybody interested in volunteering at the foodback to get in touch - as it will need as much support as possible in the latter part of the year.

'We have to prepare for the worst'

Looking ahead to the next six months, Mr Beckett said he fears a no-deal Brexit could create a "tsunami" in demand for donations.

"If a no deal happens all in one go, that gives all the pain in one shot," he said.

"For the six months of churn after that we would have a tsunami of demand. That is the worst case scenario.

"Until the government can give us confidence, we have got to start with the premise that things might be awful.

"We hope for the best, equally we have to prepare for the worst."

Mr Beckett said the rise in demand so far this year is in part down to the rollout of UC, which hurts people in "transitional" jobs, including those with zero-hours contracts.

"If you have a 'messy' life with different amounts of money every week, Universal Credit is not responsive and doesn't meet that demand," he said.

Last year the charity successfully campaigned to get the six-week delay in the rollout of UC reduced to five weeks. It has now set a new target of four weeks, to reduce the waiting time for families in desperate circumstances.

Mr Beckett said he hoped this may be helped along by Will Quince, the MP for Colchester, who has recently been appointed Minister for Welfare Delivery at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

"Universal Credit is really good if you are a middle class person," Mr Beckett added.

"It is not working for people who are in very transitional jobs."

'Families in dire need'

Amanda Kirke, secretary of Colchester People's Assembly, said: "After nine years of cruel austerity cuts even a relatively wealthy town like Colchester is now feeling the devastating effects.

"It was important to have representation from the local foodbank who witness first hand the devastation caused by the combination of benefit cuts, rising rents, universal credit and precarious jobs that have left so many Colchester families in dire need.

"Whilst we welcome the invaluable support that the foodbank gives to our fellow Colcestrians, we cannot allow the need for foodbanks to become a normal part of our community.

"Central government austerity cuts have always been a political choice and not an economic necessity. We look forward to the day when this disastrous and cruel policy is consigned to the dustbin of history."

Emma Revie, CEO at the Trussell Trust, added: "Colchester Foodbank plays a vital role in supporting people in crisis in their local community, and I am extremely grateful to the hard-working and dedicated volunteers that make the foodbank the positive, dignified place that it is.

"Their focus on serving their community to the highest level by providing an organised, efficient, and welcoming space for those referred to them in times of need is admirable.

"I am particularly thankful to see the high happiness levels reported among volunteers at the foodbank, and their recent achievement of a Charities Against Fraud award - both are signs of a well-run and well-supported foodbank."

Government response

Will Quince, MP for Colchester and newly-appointed Minister for Welfare Delivery, said: "The reasons for people using food banks are complex and they cannot be attributed to a single cause. For those who need extra support, the UK government spends over £95billion a year, including those who are on a low income."

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