The cruel reality of life on Universal Credit, and the campaign to stop it being cut

Thousands of Scottish families are facing a winter of hunger, cold, and deepening mental health problems if the UK government ploughs on with plans to cut Universal Credit, and the Scottish Government fails to increase the monthly child payment benefit.

Seona Galbally with her twin sons Ziggy and Zen.

Parents in receipt of social security – many of whom who have been forced onto benefits through the pandemic – are warning they will be unable to feed their children and themselves adequately, or be able to heat their homes, if both governments refuse to act.

Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, four single mums who all had to apply to Save The Children for charitable emergency support in the last year, have laid bare the truth of life on the breadline in modern Scotland and are urging governments in Holyrood and Westminster to face up to the impact cuts to benefits will have.

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One mum told how she was unable to eat properly for two months, another how she fears her child will be removed from her care if she cannot feed her properly, a third reveals that she had to survive on no benefit for six weeks, and her worries that the proposed benefit cut will further undermine the mental health of her and her twins.

Twenty pounds makes all the difference when shopping for food basics.

However the women are just a tiny fraction of the 1600 low income families Save The Children supported financially since last April, giving grants of up to £340 to those on low incomes with children under the age of six, enabling them to buy food, children’s clothes, or replace broken household items such as vacuum cleaners.

The charity, along with 120 others, has urged the UK government to retain the £20 Universal Credit (UC) uplift applied during the Covid pandemic and is campaigning to have the Scottish Government urgently double the new Scottish Child payment to £20 a week rather than wait until 2026.

In Scotland around 480,000 people are currently on Universal Credit – a rise of six per cent in the last year, down to a combination of pandemic job losses and the ongoing shift from legacy benefits. The 35-44 and over-54 age groups grew the most – by 10,000 and 9,000 respectively.

Across the UK there were five million UC claimants by February this year, double the number before the pandemic, with almost all benefiting from a £20 weekly “uplift” introduced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak to help families through the Covid crisis. On average that £20 represents 12 per cent of people’s benefit entitlements – but for a quarter of claimants, 1.2 million, it makes up at least 20 per cent of their income.

Save the Children

The uplift is due to expire at the end of September – as are furlough payments – and so far the UK government has pledged to stick to that timetable. In Scotland the biggest impact will be felt by women, as there are 15,000 more women on UC than men.

A UK Government spokesperson said: “Universal Credit has provided a vital safety net for six million people during the pandemic, and we announced the temporary uplift as part of a £400 billion package of measures put in place that will last well beyond the end of the roadmap.

“Our focus now is on our multi-billion pound Plan for Jobs, which will support people in the long-term by helping them learn new skills and increase their hours or find new work.

“The Scottish Government has significant welfare powers and can top-up existing benefits, pay discretionary payments and create entirely new benefits in areas of devolved responsibility.”

Meanwhile parents with children under the age of six also qualify for the new Scottish Child Payment (SCP), a monthly £40 introduced specifically to tackle child poverty. Statistics show a quarter, around 260,000, of Scottish children live in poverty, and it has been projected that could rise to 29 per cent by 2023, in part linked to expected rising unemployment and the reduction in UC.

So far the new scheme has paid out more than £3.6 million with an estimated 78,775 children benefiting. However, anti-poverty charities say it is now urgent the Scottish Government moves faster on its pledge to double the SCP.

Kate Martin agrees. The 32-year-old single mum from Edinburgh was training to be a gym instructor and working two jobs when she became pregnant. Having been told she would never have a child, she describes her daughter Kiera, now two, as her “miracle”.

"She has a condition which they’re still testing her for and which has meant I haven’t been able to put her in nursery yet, so I haven’t been able to work. It also means she has had to have very expensive formula milk which costs £14 a week."

Kate says she was told going on UC could take “ages” for money to be paid and so she saved before Kiera was born in an attempt to have some form of financial cushion. Living in temporary accommodation (she has since been allocated a council house) she found that even applying for benefits was difficult.

"It was a shock. There is no support and the online system is impenetrable. There was some mix up when I first got UC because I had been on maternity leave pay and so they only gave me £200 for the month. They said they would sort it but the same thing happened again and I do get anxious that it will happen in the future.

“Stepping Stones [a young parent families support organisation] was able to give me £30 to help me pay my electricity and gas and buy formula milk. For two months in the middle of the pandemic I did not eat properly because we had so little money, at one point I ate nothing for three weeks. My choice was either I ate, or I put money to gas and electric so my child could have a warm bath.

"The whole time trying to sort it out I kept getting brushed away, it makes you feel like you’re not a real person, that you’re a failure in some way.”

Through Stepping Stones she was able to received a Save the Children emergency grant “which meant I could go to the shops like a normal person and buy food, it was a godsend”, she says. “It made me feel like I was present, a real person.”

At times she admits feeling shame that she has had to ask her mum, an NHS worker, for help. “It is so embarrassing to be in your 30s and have to ask your mum for money. You lose who you are. But I had to do it because the whole system is so messed up.

“I had spent my whole life before that working and studying, I had no idea what it was like. It has been a shock. You feel like you’re failing as a parent. That you’re worthless, that you have no rights.”

She adds: “The £20 cut really scares me because I thought it was just £20, but it’s £20 a week. So that’s £80 less to survive on. I do get SCP and child benefit, but they don’t make up that shortfall. It’s a very scary feeling.

"The SCP is a lifeline because it comes in the last week of the month, but if that was increased then things might not feel so scary. This all just grinds you down.”

In Lanark, 35-year-old Amy Watson lives with her four-year-old son. She is reluctant to speak openly as she has fled a violent relationship, so her name has been changed. She has been on benefits since having her child, and aims to go back to work once he starts school.

The £20 uplift in UC, she says, meant a “huge difference”. “I was able to go to the supermarket and get a bigger shop in, get freezer food and buy things for the wean. If it goes back to what it was that’s more than £80 less a month for me, so that’s going back to daily shopping for food to see what we can afford, using food banks probably, and not being able to buy clothes or shoes for him.

"The SCP helps, it means I can get extra electricity. I don't buy anything for me, every penny is spent on him. Making sure he’s fed and healthy and well.”

Amy, who has lost her mum and grandmother in the last four years, says isolation has affected her mental health, and being able to “feel normal” going to the supermarket has helped her feel better. “That will be taken away,” she says.

Save the Children helped her with money last Christmas, “so I could at least buy him some toys otherwise he wouldn’t have had anything,” she says.

She also fears her son being taken from her. “There is a stigma in going to food banks, in being on benefits and it’s just me and my boy and it frightens me that if a health visitor or someone thinks I’m not feeding him properly then they’ll take him away. Having less money makes me really scared about that. I don’t think the people who make these decisions have any idea of the impact.”

Arriving in Edinburgh from Indonesia four years ago Nanda, who asked not to give her surname, has two children aged six and four. “It is hard,” she says. “I lost a lot of money moving here but there were reasons I had to leave my ex. We have tried to build a new life and the benefits have helped.

"I got my letter saying they would be £80 less from October and that is a lot of money to me. I have tried to talk to people but I’m getting nowhere. I don’t think they understand.

"I know people will think “well this is what you have chosen” and they are right, and I am grateful for Universal Credit and the SCP. But it is hard to live on that. If there was anyway to change the minds of government to stop the cut then I would raise my voice to say so.”

According to Save the Children, more than two thirds of the families they have helped with emergency grants in the last 16 months were one parent families, 96 per cent of whom were single mums, and two thirds of all families were in receipt of Universal Credit.

Nearly half of all families had at least one family member with a health condition or disability. Almost 6 out of 10 families had a child aged 3 or under, over a third of families had three or more children, while in one in six, the parent was under the age of 25. Around 20 per cent were, like Nanda, from a black or ethnic minority background.

The grant allowed families to meet their most immediate needs, and was designed so families had a wide choice on which to spend it. Almost 9 in 10 used the grant for food. Others bought a range of household items such as bunk beds, washing machines, prams and furniture to organise homes and clothes, school uniforms, chairs and tables to do activities or schoolwork on and highchairs. With every grant, families were also given age-appropriate early learning packs to support their children’s wellbeing, play, learning and development at home.

Over in Broughty Ferry, Seona Galbally and her twin boys, Ziggy and Zen, used their grant for food. Her current situation she admits “is not where I expected to be at this stage in life”.

The 46-year-old is a medical editor, and has worked in the publishing industry for years. She decided to become a single parent through IVF, a decision she knew would change her life radically, however the impact of the Covid pandemic through her life into further turmoil.

She had been on maternity leave, due to return to work and her boys had nursery places, when the first lockdown hit. With no childcare she had to fight with her employer, with whom she had worked for seven years, to be placed on furlough, initially having to take annual leave, then unpaid leave.

Her MP helped change her company’s position but by this time she had racked up debts with her energy company and in her council tax payments. She was then taken off furlough again and had to take unpaid parental leave, then given the option of an unpaid career break.

“It is hard to believe all that has happened,” she says. “I can barely handle each day at the moment because of the stress. It has been so protracted that it just this last week that I have officially now lost my job. Of course given all that was happening I had to apply for benefits because I just had no money.”

Living in private rented accommodation with her boisterous boys, tears come easily as she talks of the impact of being a new mum and the impact of Covid. “There was this window where I had absolutely nothing,” she says. "I had never applied for benefits before. Because I had been on maternity leave there was some kind of tax issue and for six weeks I got no money at all.

“I was in touch with HomeStart [an organisation which supports parents with young children when in challenging situations] and went to the food bank which was a lifeline. The food wasn’t always the healthiest, mostly bread and chicken which is not really what you want to give to one year olds, but when you have nothing it was a godsend. HomeStart also knew of another food organisation and they could give potatoes and carrots and other veg and fruit so that was amazing.

“Then they were able to get me supermarket vouchers, and to be honest without them I don’t know what I would have done. I also had amazingly kind friends who did help with food too. Six weeks with nothing is an incredibly long time to try and survive.”

Once on UC, and SCP since February, she said she was at least able to work out a payment plan with her energy company, though she still finds herself having to choose some months between paying rent, or paying council tax. “I’ve had a £100 crisis loan which helped pay council tax at one point, it is all a balancing act, but at the centre of it is my need to make sure my children are being fed and are well and they are the priority.

"I don’t buy convenience foods or snacks, or clothes. We live very simply. To be honest I don’t really look after myself much but the children are getting what they need. I still breastfeed as well because at least I know they’re getting extra nutrition.”

In May she said she was able to sign her boys up to a toddlers gymnastics class, and they also go to Forest Tribe class for two hours. “I can just about manage that as they are both very cheap,” she says. “They are loud, boisterous boys who need to run off energy. It’s good for them, physically and mentally. And good for me too. It gives me a break because with lockdowns we have been together 24-7 and it’s so hard.

"I am so exhausted. Taking them to these things helps me cope. But if the benefit is cut then that’s scary to be honest as I will probably have to stop taking them because I won’t afford it.

“At my stage of life… I’ve had a really good job, a good education, I can’t believe I am in this situation, it’s crazy. It’s crazy that the government would think of making things worse.”

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