Foodbanks 'preparing for worst' with Brexit and Universal Credit in 2019 after busiest ever Christmas
Under-pressure foodbanks battled record demand and answered crisis calls around the clock this Christmas and New Year - as more people than ever before faced hardship in Suffolk and north Essex.
One family with young children went without food or presents on Christmas Day, with Ipswich foodbank FIND rushing to their aid.
The charity experienced its busiest ever festive season, with more than 1,000 Christmas hampers distributed in December.
Around 400 emergency food parcels were given out to those most in need.
Universal Credit has had a major impact on demand and challenges posed by it are showing no signs of slowing down, founder Maureen Reynel MBE warned.
“It has been extremely busy,” she said.
“On Christmas Eve my husband and I finished after 9pm.
“We had a call two days after Christmas to a family who hadn’t had any food, the children didn’t have toys for Christmas.
“This is how these people are living and it’s not acceptable, but it’s going on.
“Universal Credit is the big thing at the moment.
“It’s been like that for many, many months now and doesn’t look like it will stop anytime soon.
“It’s not just families who are struggling, it’s also single people, who are isolated and not coping.”
Before Christmas, Mrs Reynel received a call from a man who had no food, gas or electricity, and was living on around £10.
“This man was dying and the volunteer who helped us was quite shaken by it, we brought him food and vouchers for his electricity and I think that was a lifeline for him,” Mrs Reynel added.
“This is the reality of the situation, and the hardship people are going through.”
‘The system is cracked’, says manager as crisis parcels double
At one Suffolk foodbank, the number of crisis parcels sent out over this festive season leapt up by 55%.
The Stowmarket and area facility distributed 110 packages – up from around 70 in 2017.
Manager Mike Smith said they handed out four-and-a-half tons of food in December – they usually go through around a ton a month.
Manager Mike Smith also linked Universal Credit challenges to an increase in referrals.
“The system is cracked, and it’s detrimental to families,” he said.
“People are desperate but waiting for delayed payments that never arrive – it’s meant to be five weeks but they are waiting much longer in some cases.
“With all the changes announced this week it’s not going to be fully rolled out until 2023.
“That means we have to go through these challenges – and four more years of stress – until then.”
Reforms will make Universal Credit more compassionate and individual – Rudd
Work and Pensions secretary Amber Rudd announced a raft of changes to the benefits system in a speech on Friday.
These included delaying asking Parliament for permission to move three million people onto Universal Credit until next year.
She is also scrapping controversial plans to apply a two-child benefit cap to new recipients.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said the reasons for people using foodbanks are complex, adding that it would be wrong to link a rise to any one cause.
“With Universal Credit people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the old system,” they said.
“It provides additional, tailored support to help people move into work and stop claiming benefits altogether.
“No-one should have to face hardship with Universal Credit, and we have made 100% advances available from day one.”
2019 ‘already busy’ – Foodbank boss fears Brexit will bring ‘austerity 2.0’
We could be in for a difficult year ahead with Brexit on the horizon, warned Colchester Foodbank manager Michael Beckett.
Volunteers there gave out more than 200 parcels in the week before Christmas, during their busiest festive period ever – which also saw a record-breaking three days where a respective 41, 47 and 43 parcels were distributed.
And although the Trussell Trust owned foodbank is yet to calculate figures beyond December 20, manager Mike Beckett said the increase on 2017 already looks “huge”.
Job Centre Plus – which helps those on Universal Credit and other benefits – referred the most people to the foodbank this Christmas, he added.
“January is already busy, demand is up,” said Mr Beckett.
“This will be an interesting year.
“We’ve got Brexit to deal with, and all the impact that might bring.
“We’re hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.
“It’ll most likely be austerity 2.0.”
How you can help
For more details about changes to Universal Credit, visit the Government website.
To donate to your local foodbank, visit Suffolk County Council’s directory for a list of contacts.