Local Durham charities have raised concerns that food banks may face soaring demand this month after the end of the £20-a-week Universal Credit boost.
Up to 79,000 people in the North East expect that the payment reduction will force them to skip meals according to a study by the Trussell Trust, the main operator of food banks in Durham and the surrounding area.
Trussell Trust chief executive Emma Revie explained: “Cutting the £20 lifeline will be a devastating blow for families up and down the country who are already struggling to make ends meet, and could push more than a million people through the doors of food banks this winter.”
Jonathan Conlon, the food supply coordinator at Sunderland Foodbank, told Palatinate that the combination of rising gas and fuel prices; the cut in Universal Credit; and the end of the furlough scheme could create “a perfect storm as we approach Christmas.”
The study, carried out by YouGov on behalf of the Trussell Trust, also found that 56,000 people in the region believe the cut will lead them to depend on food banks, whilst a further 84,000 fear they will not be able to heat their homes this winter.
The £20 a week boost was introduced as a temporary pandemic measure in 2020. Boris Johnson confirmed the end of the scheme earlier this year, stating that as Covid-19 restrictions ease, the “emphasis has to be on getting people into work”. But many MPs and charities wanted the increase to become permanent, and are now warning that the cut will have serious consequences.
The Trust has described the Universal Credit reduction as “the biggest overnight cut to social security since the Second World War”.
Concerns were also raised by Ruth Fox, CEO of Footprints in the Community, which runs Redcar Area Foodbank. She stated that her team could not see how people who were already struggling to feed themselves would be able to cope with the payment reduction.
According to Fox, for many “taking away the £20 a week could be the difference between having a hot meal one day or not”.
County Durham Community Foundation’s Chief Executive, Michelle Cooper, stated: “We are entering a tough winter where people will face many issues, including the end of the uplift in Universal Credit.
“The cost of living is rising, fuel bills are rising, the pandemic continues – in combination this is disastrous and the charities that we fund will play a crucial role in getting people through it.”
The foundation has recently launched its Poverty Hurts Appeal to support those living in poverty in County Durham and Tees Valley through this predicted “tough winter”.
The reduction in Universal Credit comes at a time when food bank usage is already rising dramatically. In 2012 there were 200 Trussell Trust foodbanks in the UK; now there are over 2000 centres.
On the topic of foodbank reliance in the North East, Cooper added: “Food banks are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Which is both admirable and very sad.
“On a more positive note, we are seeing more and more of the food bank teams we help fund working to help people with the root problems that are forcing them to use food banks.
“An intelligent network is forming across the region and trying to tackle systemic issues like unemployment and poor mental health that are inflaming and causing poverty, or that poverty is creating.”
Beyond Food, a Durham student-led project, which organises food donation points across campus and in colleges, said: “The cut to Universal Credit will have a significantly negative impact on people’s lives, particularly in the North East which has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the country.
“This will put pressure on people already really struggling. Not only will people need to use food banks to a greater extent, but this will push families into debt, homelessness and further instability.”
Mary Foy, the Labour MP for the City of Durham, has also condemned the payment reduction. She stated: “the cost of living is set to rise sharply, yet the Government are choosing to enforce the largest cut to social security in the history of the modern welfare state. The £20 a week uplift in Universal Credit has been a lifeline.”
“I’ve heard concerning stories from parents worried about having to choose between heating or eating this winter. This shouldn’t happen in the fifth richest country in the world.”
Meanwhile, Peter Gibson, the Conservative MP for Darlington has defended the reduction, saying: “It isn’t a cut, but an ending of support that was extended until the end of the furlough scheme. Nobody can say the Government haven’t supported people.”
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