The sight of people queuing for a foodbank in the snow recently has once again highlighted the crisis of poverty that exists in this country.
Even on parliamentary measurements 11 million people were in ‘relative low income’, that’s 17% of the population in 2019. That puts 2.8 million children, 20% of all children, in relative low income. Child Poverty Action Group put that figure at 4.2 million children.
Underneath these crude figures lie broken lives, children who will wake up hungry and underperform at school, people in multi occupier households which are being hit particularly hard by coronavirus, people who can’t heat their houses, increased levels of domestic violence, the list is endless.
Foodbank demand has increased every year and shows no sign of abating. In 2019/20, 1.9 million people used a foodbank compared to 26,000 in 2008/09. The Tories say this is simply because there are more foodbanks, as if people want to queue up for 3 days of basic food provision.
In the job centres we are used to ‘signposting’ people to the nearest foodbank. We used to refer people, but the government didn’t like the foodbanks counting how many people were turning to them because their benefit was insufficient, so now we merely ‘signpost’.
The decision to uplift Universal Credit payments by £20 per week was welcome. It marginally improved the lives of the people who are either unemployed, or are working but on such low incomes that they are entitled to UC.
But this increase, welcome as it was, needs to be seen in context. A survey in 2016 showed Britain has some of the worst unemployment benefits in Europe, in fact comparable to the USA, which is a terrible comparison to be able to make.
Astonishingly, after a huge leap in demand for UC as lockdown hit last year, and as we stand on the precipice of a significant increase in unemployment again this year, the government want to end the £20 uplift. One government minister, George Eustice, even suggested that ending the £20 uplift could “get people working again”. What a contemptuous view of people struggling to survive on benefits.
For Job Centre staff the 6 Point Plan is a central part of our training. The 6 Point Plan is the way that we respond to threats of self harm or suicide, and it is all too frequent. That we have to be prepared to respond to people who are contemplating such desperate actions is yet another reminder of the desperate circumstances that people in our class are driven to live in.
PCS has a proud history of standing alongside our claimants. We have worked with claimant organisations, we have policy opposing sanctions, our members go the extra mile every day to help vulnerable people.
We need to raise our voices in demanding that the £20 uplift is kept, for our sisters and brothers who are currently dependent on it, their families and our communities, and we need to keep up the fight for a society that puts people before profit.