I woke up on Friday morning with a strong sense that my MP, Amber Rudd, would become Work & Pensions Secretary by the end of the day. It was strange.
I mentioned it to a few friends who work for other poverty-fighting charities, and most thought it was very unlikely. Surely the Prime Minister wouldn’t give responsibility for the DWP – and therefore Universal Credit – to an MP in a constituency that’s fast becoming known for the devastating impact UC is having on the poorest?
In the last few weeks alone, the spotlight of HuffPost, BBC Sunday Politics, the Victoria Derbyshire programme, The Times and various other media has shone on Hastings, where our foodbank has seen a staggering 87% rise in referrals since Universal Credit came to the town.
We’re still reeling from that, and worse still our figures continue to rise. With 14,000 people in Hastings still to come onto UC, we’re worried about the future.
It’s not just food poverty that’s increased in Hastings over the last two years, but also personal debt and homelessness.
In the worst cases we’ve seen at Hastings Foodbank, there was one person who ended up in hospital because they couldn’t pay for the electricity they needed to keep their life-saving oxygen equipment working. Others have come to us wondering what to do to keep their diabetes insulin cold enough when they can’t afford to keep their refrigerator switched on.
We could tell you story after story of people who are working, but who have had to turn to the foodbank because their income is too low to cover even a mild crisis, or they picked up work and a mistake was made with their UC adjustment, leaving them worse off than if they hadn’t worked.
All across the country, churches like mine have been picking up the pieces of a flawed system that is failing not only the most vulnerable, but also those in work on low incomes or zero-hour contracts who are struggling to make ends meet.
That’s why the national charity I work for, Jubilee+, has been campaigning to see changes made to UC so that it can stop plunging people further into poverty, but instead become a vehicle that helps all people.
So when I heard that Amber Rudd has replaced Esther McVey as Work & Pensions Secretary, I thought maybe it’s exactly right that Theresa May should pick an MP who can see the impact of welfare reform up close in her own constituency. On the same day that the UN poverty envoy accused the British Government of outsourcing compassion, perhaps it’s entirely appropriate that an MP who cannot avoid the poverty on her doorstep has been given this job.
I have met with Amber several times over the last few years to urge her to consider how Government policies are making people poorer. We have been grateful for the opportunity to have these honest discussions. Last time I saw her at a public event in September, she said to me: “The thing about you and me, Natalie, is that we have the same shared values: we may come about it in a different way, but we both genuinely want to help people.”
Amber now has a massive opportunity to demonstrate this. My primary hope for her tenure as Work & Pensions Secretary is that she will infuse compassion back into a system that has pushed it to one side. With every decision she makes about Universal Credit, I would urge her to ask: Is it based on truth? Is it helpful? Is it necessary? And, above all, is it kind?
In my job in Hastings I get to see local poverty up close, and in my role at Jubilee+ I get to see the big picture of what’s happening nationally. Both, at the moment, seem bleak, but not beyond repair. If there is political will to inject compassion back into the welfare system, it can still be turned around from doing harm to doing good.
There are simple steps the Government can take to do this. For example, not making a claimant suffer when a mistake is made by their employer or the JobCentre. By preparing those coming on UC under managed migration by providing support months in advance, rather than at the point of transition. They could reduce the newly announced three-week wait down further still. And they can change the damaging rhetoric so often used about people in poverty to language that understands that the odds are stacked against thousands of people from the start.
Finally, but crucially, they could also start to measure the impact of UC not just on employment, but on hardship. This would demonstrate that they genuinely care about the negative impact it is having on some of the most vulnerable.
On her appointment to this new role, Amber reportedly said, “I have seen Universal Credit do some fantastic things. In my constituency in Hastings and Rye, it really has transformed lives.”
She is right that some aspects of UC are good, such as direct access to a work coach, keeping some of your benefits while you work, and stream-lining several benefits into one to simplify the process.
But for some people the way it has transformed their lives has been devastating for them and their families, and for many it’s made their lives harder. Amber now has the chance to change that, to make it “a force wholly for good”, as she says she wants to. I hope she is able to do this. It’s a huge job for anyone to undertake. We want to assist her in easing the hardship UC is causing and making it work.
I hope we’ll see a more compassionate approach from Amber. But only time will tell, and in the meantime churches like mine will be there to support the thousands of her constituents and people across the nation who continue to suffer.
Natalie Williams is Head of Communications & Policy at Jubilee+