Oban food charity braces for benefits crisis

Lorraine MacCormick.

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Oban’s only foodbank is bracing itself to be hit hard when the highly controversial Universal Credit is rolled out in Argyll and Bute next month.

New Hope Kitchen on Soroba Road feeds around 60 people a day, and relies on volunteers and food donations – but it is now preparing for the worst, after damning figures revealed Universal Credit has doubled foodbank use in parts of Scotland.

Argyll and Bute MP Brendan O’Hara warned that Universal Credit will have a
‘devastating impact’ in Argyll, after a report by Stirling Council showed foodbank use in its area had doubled to a record high of more than 400 people after the new benefit was introduced last year.

New Hope is concerned a similar situation could occur in Oban when Universal Credit arrives on September 19, potentially putting a massive strain on its resources.

‘We are planning ahead for it,’ said Hope service manager Lorraine MacCormick. ‘We are expecting demand to increase, maybe even double.

‘We are not stockpiling food as such, but we are keeping a close eye on our supplies. We may well need to increase our call for food donations, although we have great faith in our local community being very generous and kind to us.

‘We will all be here to meet the demand, whatever it is.’

Universal Credit replaces six means-tested benefits payments: Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income Support, Housing Benefit, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), Working Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit.

However, since its introduction in 2013 significant problems have been revealed, particularly the potential 42-day processing period for a claimant’s first payment, which left many people with no money for months.

The government’s spending watchdog, the National Audit Council, deemed it an ‘inefficient’ system that often caused claimants ‘difficulty and hardship’, with one in five applicants being paid late. It concluded: ‘The project is not value for money now, and its future value for money is unproven.’

Where Universal Credit has been introduced, councils are blaming it for spikes in rent arrears and foodbank use. Stirling Council reported rent arrears had quadrupled.

A Work and Pensions Committee inquiry highlighted the risks of sending the full payments to a single bank account, warning it increases the risk of domestic abusers holding financial power over their partners.

At New Hope Kitchen, Ms MacCormick agreed the risk to victims of domestic abuse will increase in September, adding: ‘We see people in lots of these situations and I would like to think that the government are doing everything they can to support them.

‘For people with addictions, too, if they will get paid all the money, there is a worry they may spend it on something else. There needs to be proper support in place.

‘Foodbanks are like a sticking plaster – not a permanent solution, but a help until situations improve.’

Argyll and Bute Council said it would provide advice and support on the change, closely monitor the impact, and recruit two new welfare rights assistants to help deal with ‘increased customer demand’. It is also offering free advice sessions to landlords on how to avoid rent arrears.

Mr O’Hara added: ‘Universal Credit is driving more people into poverty, causing severe hardship and stress and forcing people into relying upon foodbanks. It’s an unthinking, callous approach which victimises those
who simply need an extra bit of help.

‘The roll-out has been a failure, the human price has been too high and the time is long overdue for it to be halted.’

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: ‘The reasons why people use foodbanks are complex, so it’s wrong to link a rise to any one cause.

‘Universal Credit is rolling out successfully across the country with people getting into work quicker and staying in work longer than under the old system.’